Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Scent of Rain and Lightning


Previous posts noted how Charles Dickens successfully combined popular appeal with literary value (see Apr. 17, 2011, and Dec. 17, 2012). I doubt that Nancy Pickard will ever achieve the status of Dickens, but her 2010 novel, The Scent of Rain and Lightning, is a good example of how popular fiction can provide aesthetic appeal as well as entertainment, address timeless themes, and offer social commentary.

Part family saga, part detective story, part revenge tragedy, part coming of age, part love story (a la Romeo and Juliet), part adultery narrative, part moral lesson, the novel combines all these genres in a compelling way and enhances the whole with interesting structural twists and a spectacular rendering of landscape on the Kansas plains.

The Linders are the socially prominent family of Rose, Kansas, and environs.  Their cattle ranch is prosperous, their reach is wide, and their three sons stand in line to sustain the family name, wealth, and power.  Their daughter establishes a successful history museum in an abandoned bank building and marries a lawyer, who lends his expertise to the family system.

One morning in 1986, after a furious thunderstorm, during which the family becomes separated, the Linders’ eldest son is found shot to death in his home, in Rose, and his wife’s bloodied sundress is found in an empty vehicle off a road out of town.  She is nowhere to be found.  Their three-year-old daughter is safe with her grandmother at the ranch, where she had spent the stormy night.  Suspicion immediately falls on Billy Crosby, who carries a grudge against the family, though there are some folks who claim he was too drunk that night to commit any crime.

Nevertheless, the LInders seek revenge against Billy, who had vandalized their ranch and killed one of their cows, and their influence, plus the inexperience and incompetence of the local sheriff, results in a successful prosecution and sentencing of Billy to many more than 23 years in in prison, but 23 years later his son, a lawyer, has his sentence commuted because of investigative and prosecutorial errors.

Upon his return to Rose more violence ensues as his wife is shot to death and Billy seeks revenge against the Linders.  Billy is sent back to prison, but life in Rose does not return to normal.  New evidence regarding the 23-year-old crime comes to light and the true culprit is revealed, once again destroying the stability of the Linder family.

Parallel to the detective story and revenge tragedy is an initiation plot.  Jody Linder, who lost her parents at the age of three, has grown up, gone to college and returned to teach high school in Rose.  Her coming of age has unfolded in the wake of early trauma.  As the opening line of the novel states, “Until she was twenty-six, Jody Linder felt suspicious of happiness.”

How will she come to terms with the violence done to her family in 1986; the release of the man she always held responsible for the loss of her parents; her discovery of the role of her family in the injustice done to Billy; the violence that erupts after Billy’s return; and the shocking revelation of the truth of what happened to her parents?  Will she emerge from all the trauma, pain, deception, and suffering as a mature woman able to trust in happiness?  Or, will she forever remain suspicious and bitter, unable to escape the legacy of her past and her family?

The love story here intersects with Jody’s initiation into the dark side of life, for the person for whom she has harbored a long-standing attraction is none other than the son of Billy Crosby.  They had avoided each other as children, but were always drawn to each other by a common bond.  Who else could understand the childhood trauma they had both experienced?  Yet, as in Romeo and Juliet, their families are enemies.  After Billy’s murder of a Linder ranch hand, following his return from prison, and his second attempt to vandalize the Linder ranch by starting a grass fire, Jody despairs of ever seeing Collin again.

Just a few months later, however, after Billy’s innocence in the loss of Jody’s parents has become known, she is able to confide to her family that she and Collin have been secretly seeing each other.  At the end of the novel it appears that a family reconciliation is possible without the sacrifice of the young lovers, as is the case in Shakespeare’s tragedy.  Indeed, as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (see previous post of Feb. 2012), it seems the two young people have it within them to redeem their parents.

But why would Jody’s parents need redemption?

At this point the love story intersects with the adultery plot, for Jody’s mother, on that fateful night, thinking her husband was on business in Colorado, had sent her daughter to spend the night with grandmother Linder and arranged an adulterous tryst at her home.  When Jody’s father comes home unexpectedly, violence erupts.  Her father is killed and her mother disappears. As with most adultery narratives, the cheating wife is punished, and we do eventually find out the fate of Jody’s mother.  Her partner in deception is also found out and punished.

By the time all is revealed Jody has learned that her mother was immature, shallow, flirtatious, and even guilty of petty theft from her in-laws.  Having been raised by her grandparents, Jody turns out more like her more honorable father.

Thus, as Collin, having been raised by his more honorable mother, redeems his father, Jody redeems her mother.

The adultery plot obviously delivers a moral lesson, but that’s not the only one.  There is a message about the wages of deception, class bias, abuse of power, and revenge. 

As revenge tragedies typically demonstrate, one act of revenge leads to another, unleashing a cycle of violence.  In this case, revenge also short circuits the legal system, obscuring the truth, reinforcing deception, and postponing the achievement of justice.

The cycle of revenge can only be redirected by an act of forgiveness.  And in this case that comes from the younger generation, when Collin forgives the Linders for helping to falsely imprison his father, and when Jody (and we trust her whole family) forgives Collin for being Billy Crosby’s son.  Perhaps more importantly, Jody forgives her family for the injustice they perpetrated against Billy Crosby, an act which leads to the burden of hate and fear she feels toward the Crosbys and of ignorance about the fate of her mother and the truth behind her father’s death.

 It is forgiveness and love that ultimately breaks the cycle of revenge, violence, and deception.  Similarly, the romance between Jody and Collin overcomes the class conflict that leads to abuse of power on one side, resentment on the other, and social prejudice on both sides.

In addition to the moral lessons embedded in it, the detective story ultimately explores the complex relationship between order and disorder.  The seeds of the crime are usually found beneath the surface of apparent order, and out of the disorder of the crime emerges the order of truth and justice.  Psychologically, the detective story allows us to process our own fear of the consequences of hidden disorder and reassures us that order can ultimately be restored.  In The Scent of Rain and Lightning it takes 23 years for these complexities to play out.

But the novel is more than a morality tale, a psychological thriller, an initiation narrative, a love story, and a revenge tragedy redeemed by love and forgiveness, though it is all those things.  It is also an ingeniously structured narrative with two flashbacks to 1986 embedded in the 2009 drama of Jody confronting her past, discovering the truth, and finding her future.  The night of the powerful storm, the adulterous tryst, the death of Jody's father, and the disappearance her mother occurs at the textual center of the novel.  But the Kansas landscape with its unpredictable weather provides a symbolic backdrop to the entire narrative.  And the powerful image of Testament Rocks rising from the plains serves as a reminder of the timeless human story, of which that of the Linders and Crosbys is but one more iteration.

My one criticism would be that some parts, especially those dramatizing Jody's emotional reactions, seem overwritten, but that is no worse than what you might find in a Dickens' novel.
 

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Christmas Carol


I’ve seen it so many times on stage, screen, and TV, but I just read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol  for the first time.  I was immediately struck by its combination of gothic tale, light comedy, and conversion narrative.

Originally published in 1843 A Christmas Carol is subtitled “Being a Ghost Story of Christmas,” thus introducing a contrast between the darkness of the gothic tradition and the coming of the light celebrated at Christmas and at the Winter Solstice.  If the Scrooge of the first part of the story represents the darkest time of year and the world before Christ, then the Scrooge of the last part represents the return of the sun and the birth of the Christian savior.

The humor is introduced early as Marley is pronounced “as dead as a doornail” and a full paragraph is devoted to light-hearted discussion of the somewhat irreverent simile.  Comic caricature combines with melodrama as the rest of the story unfolds, following the well-known patterns of gothic tale and conversion narrative.

The gothic plot typically begins in rational reality, proceeds to an encounter with the irrational, and concludes with either destruction or escape.  Thus does the materialistic, greedy, hard-hearted Scrooge, after encountering the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, and the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future, confront his doomed life of avarice, bitterness, and loneliness.  In this version of the gothic tale, the hero can choose his fate, and Scrooge chooses to reject his doom in favor of a redeemed life of generosity, open-heartedness, community, and love.

The secular ghost story thus converges with the religious story of conversion and redemption.  The traditional Christian narrative typically begins with a sinner, proceeds to a conversion experience, including confession and atonement, and concludes with salvation.  Although A Christmas Carol is more secular than religious, it parallels the traditional Christian story, which underlies Scrooge’s conversion to the Christmas spirit.

While observing the conventions of both traditions, Dickens lightens the melodrama with humorous exaggeration and jocularity, making it impossible to take either ghosts or religion too seriously.  The essence of the Christmas “spirit” in A Christmas Carol is human, not supernatural: human compassion, love, celebration, and merry-making.

A sub-plot is the story of the Cratchitt family, struggling in poverty but bound together in love.  Their story also loosely follows a familiar pattern, the success story, which begins in hard-working, virtuous poverty, proceeds to opportunity, and concludes with success.  In this case the opportunity is the windfall of Scrooge’s conversion, which leads to a raise in salary for Bob Cratchitt and life-saving care for Tiny Tim.

Part of the popularity of Dickens’ classic is its use of familiar, popular narratives; part of it is the sentimentalism; part of it is the humor; and part of it is the secularism.  As familiar and popular as is the Christmas story in the Gospel of Luke, it is the secular message that transcends any particular religion and speaks to the non-religious as well as the religious, for all can appreciate the human story of redemption.

There is a political message, as well.  As Republicans currently seek to protect the wealthy at the expense of the poor and speak cynically of freeloaders at the public trough when it is their own policies that have reduced opportunity and lowered wages, it is hard not to see Scrooge as a hard-hearted Republican hoarder of wealth greatly in need, not only of honoring Christmas in his heart and keeping it all year, but also of a political form of redemption. May it be so.  And may it be a Merry Christmas!

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Round House


Speaking of Coming of Age stories (see end of previous post), Louise Erdrich’s recent National Book Award-winning The Round House certainly qualifies.

Young Joe is the son of a tribal judge on the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota.  His mother is raped and sinks into a deep depression. The 13-year-old is determined to solve the crime and heal his mother.  At first his father allows Joe to participate in the review of case records, looking for clues as to anyone who might want revenge on the judge.  As Joe, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of his friends, begins to investigate on his own, however, the judge becomes more circumspect.  He does allow Joe to sit in on attempts to interview his mother, and, after a few false starts, Joe eventually puts enough pieces together to identify the rapist.  The problem is that because of legal complications over who has jurisdiction over the crime, it is unlikely the white perpetrator will ever be prosecuted.  With that, Joe takes justice into his own hands, in an act that might be considered more one of revenge than justice.

His quest for justice is accompanied by the usual adolescent adventures with alcohol, sex, and even religion.  It is often hard to separate comedy from tragedy as the deadly serious detective work intersects with and gets sidetracked by youthful escapades and a tangled web of native and non-native relationships, some  of which help in solving the crime and some of which hilariously distract from it.  In the end, though, comedy gives way to tragedy and death.  Similarly, mainstream American culture blends with Native beliefs and practices, and both cultures contribute to Joe’s initiation into adulthood.

As in the typical Coming of Age story, Joe encounters, not only the evil in the world, but also the evil in himself, and one wonders at the end what direction he will take.  Will he come to terms with his experience, make peace with it, and develop into a healthy maturity?  Or will he be eaten up with disillusionment, distrust, and guilt?  Though we are told that Joe goes on to marry and graduate from law school, we don’t really get a good answer about his psychological health, although he is able to narrate the events of that traumatic summer with painful honesty (and perhaps we are to believe that in the fictional world the writing is therapeutic). 

At the end of the novel, Joe returns home with his parents, who “knew everything.” There were no tears, no anger, not even a word spoken “after the shock of that first moment when we all realized we were old.”  They pass the spot where on his “childhood trips” they had always stopped for ice cream.  This time they do not stop.  Childhood is over.  “We passed over in a sweep of sorrow that would persist into our small forever. We just kept going.”  This does not sound like redemption; it sounds like living on in the wake of injustice and tragedy.

In Louise Erdrich’s Afterword to the novel, she cites a 2009 report by Amnesty International called “Maze of Injustice,” which documents the shocking statistics on the rapes of Native American women, most of which are perpetrated by non-Natives and very few of which are ever prosecuted, partly because of neglect and partly because of legal confusion, not to mention the ones that are never reported.  The statistics on vigilante justice, if any exist, are not mentioned.

It is ironic that Joe goes on to follow in his father’s footsteps in the legal profession.  Are we to hold out hope that he can play a role in righting some of the wrongs against his people by legal means?  Could that be the redemption for his illegal method of “righting the wrong” against his mother? Or is it merely an ironic extension of his life as a Native person trapped in a “maze of injustice,” even while working in the “justice” system?

To what extent is the novel an instance, an image, and an allegory of the plight of Native people, whose contemporary lives are a constant reenactment of their history, a history of oppression by white society, of victimization by a white legal system, and of entanglement in an elusive, often tragic, search for “justice”?

 

 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Life of Pi


It has been years since I read this 2001 novel by Yann Martel, but the recent film seemed pretty close to my memory.  The movie left out the part about Pi, as a boy, reading manuals about how to train animals when his father owned a zoo, and I didn’t remember him being married (with children) in the book, but mostly the film fit with what I remembered.

I’ve seen it categorized as magical realism, which certainly fits, but it could also be read as traditional romantic fiction, in which an unreliable narrator tells a fantastic story, which, however incredible, embodies a powerful truth.  Even the alternative, more believable, version of the story qualifies as romance rather than realism, since it is, however credible, an amazing, extra-ordinary, improbable story in its own right. 

What is untraditional is the presentation of both stories, two different versions of the same events, one fantastic, one possible (if not probable) and the choice given to the reader to choose the better version, not only which is the better story but which is more truthful.  From a post-modern perspective, the novel presents the truth as rhetorical, rather than a matter of objective fact.  From a traditional perspective, it presents a modern version of Pascal’s wager, namely, since it is impossible to know objective truth, then bet on the one that is more imaginative and beautiful, however fantastic.  In religious terms, a world with supernatural possibilities is far preferable to a world of bare natural facts.

Another way of reading the two stories is in terms of allegory vs. realism, or internal vs. external.  One story offers an allegorical version of the internal, subjective experience, while the second story offers a “realistic” version of the external, factual experience.  In this case, both stories are equally true, one from a psychological perspective, the other from an empirically observable perspective.

To reverse the order of the stories in the novel, let’s begin with the more believable story.  After a shipwreck, the teenage Pi is trapped on a life boat with his mother, a sailor with a broken leg, and the ship’s cook.  The cook kills the sailor to use for fishing bait. When Pi’s mother objects, he threatens her and Pi.  She gets Pi to safety on a raft and is then killed by the cook.  Pi then kills the cook and, alone on the lifeboat, manages to survive until he makes landfall in Mexico.

Keep in mind that, from childhood, Pi has been a religious seeker.  Raised as a Hindu, he also follows Christianity and Islam.  Like a good Hindu, he is a vegetarian.  His father, lost in the shipwreck, was a rational, scientific man, who taught Pi the value of fact and logic.  His mother, on the other hand, believed that science could only tell you about external truth, not the truth of the human heart.  She supported Pi in his religious quest.

At the mercy of the elements and the competition for survival, Pi’s mother holds to her values, berating the cook for killing the sailor and sacrificing herself to save Pi.  Pi, however, puts his own survival first, killing the cook and becoming a carnivorous fish-eater in order to save himself.  When he tells this version of the story, he tearfully acknowledges his guilt and the “evil” within himself that made his survival possible.

In the allegorical version of the story, Pi is trapped on a lifeboat with an orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger.  The hyena kills the zebra and orangutan, and the tiger kills the hyena, leaving Pi to match his wits with the tiger’s natural predatory nature in order to survive.  Confronted with the parallels between the two stories, Pi admits that in the second version he is the tiger.  Allegorically, then, in the second version (the fantastical version that takes up the main body of the novel), the tiger represents the predator, the carnivore, and the will to survive within Pi, the religious vegetarian, who seeks to hold the tiger at bay, feeds it, keeps it alive, finally tames it, controls it, and ultimately befriends it.

 In one episode Pi and the tiger land on a mysterious island populated by meerkats for the tiger, vegetation for Pi, and fresh water for both.  At night, however, the island itself becomes carnivorous.  Pi and the meerkats survive by climbing into the trees; the tiger retreats to the lifeboat.  When Pi realizes the underlying predatory nature of the island, he takes the tiger and the lifeboat back out to sea.  This is the part I liked the least when I read the novel.  It seemed extraneous to the rest of the story and a step too far into fantasy, beyond improbable, into impossible.  When I saw the film, though, I realized the allegorical point, namely the duality of nature, which gives life by day, and takes it by night. 

Similarly, the tiger, which threatens Pi’s life, also gives Pi a sense of purpose which aids in his survival.  And Pi himself, the religious vegetarian, harbors within himself the predatory carnivore.  Human nature itself, like the island, is capable of both life-giving power and death-dealing force. Like Pi and his mother, we are capable of moral values and of religious yearning for higher life, and, like Pi and the tiger, we are capable of feeding off of other lives for our own survival.  Pi is able to survive by taming and befriending the tiger, not by denying it.  He imagines the soul of the tiger, the spiritual power behind it.

When they make landfall in Mexico, Pi is deeply disappointed and hurt when the tiger disappears into the jungle without a backward look.  Once in civilization, he can return to his vegetarianism, his moral values, and his religious quest, but not without a sense of loss in the accompanying alienation from his natural self.

Which story do you prefer?  But why choose?  Together they tell the human story in greater depth, breadth, and nuance than either one alone, just as Pi’s father’s scientific world view and his mother’s religious sensibility together offer a more complete vision of truth than either one alone.

In the traditional “coming of age” story, a youth begins in innocence, comes to experience the evil in the world, including the evil within, and then must decide how to come to terms with that discovery.  One can make one’s peace with it and advance into healthy maturity, or one can become stuck in disillusionment, bitterness, and cynicism.  Life of Pi follows that pattern.  Pi can become stuck in the “realistic” version of his story, living out a life of guilt and self-loathing, or he can make peace with his own human nature through imaginative yearning and go on to live out his aspirations for higher life.

There is herein a lesson for all of us:  Know the “evil” within yourself; do not submit to it, but recognize it, respect its power, tame it, control it and befriend it.  Know that you could not survive without it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Scarlet Letter


Margaret Fuller achieved notoriety, not only for her writing career and political advocacy (see previous post), but also for her private life.  While in Italy, in 1848, she bore a son to Giovanni Ossoli, whom she may or may not have married the following year.  The three of them died in a shipwreck just off the coast of New York on their voyage to the U.S.  This tragedy might well have been seen by her contemporaries, and even her family and friends, as God’s punishment for sexual sin.

For Nathaniel Hawthorne Fuller seemed to evoke powerful feelings.  He called her a “great humbug…defective and evil in nature” in his journal and may have had her in mind when he created the character of Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance and Hester in his 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. 

Near the end of “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” Fuller invokes a kind of prophetess:  “And will she not soon appear?—the woman who shall vindicate their birthright for all women; who shall teach them what to claim, and how to use what they obtain?”  At the end of The Scarlet Letter, we are told that Hester had once imagined herself a “prophetess” of women’s future:  “Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess, but had long since recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a lifelong sorrow.”

Like Fuller, Hester bears a child out of wedlock.  If Fuller’s punishment came from God, however, Hester’s comes from the God-fearing humans of her Puritan community in Massachusetts Bay Colony.  In Hawthorne’s story Hester evolves from “scarlet woman” in the eyes of her community to well-respected, one might almost say revered, wise counselor of women.  Does Hawthorne hold out hope of redemption for the reputation of Margaret Fuller, or does he see her legacy forever tainted by the "scandal" of her private life?  If Hester does represent Margaret Fuller, then the answer, like a lot of those in Hawthorne’s work, would have to be ambiguous. 

The Scarlet Letter, however, is much more than a reflection on Margaret Fuller or on sexual morality or on women’s rights.  It actually constitutes a contrast, even a debate of sorts, between two world views—the Puritan, Biblical world view of the 17th century setting of the novel and the Romantic, individualist, expressive world view of the early 19th century—both of which are still very much with us in the 21st century.

From the Puritan, Biblical perspective, the world is a drama, a cosmic conflict between God and Satan, good and evil, the saved and the damned, heaven and hell.  At the human level God’s “saints” (the saved) are responsible for representing God’s will, enforcing his laws as laid out in the Bible and punishing the sinners, for their own good of course, to elicit their confession, repentance, and salvation.

 Obedience to the Word of God, as interpreted by church leaders, is one’s ultimate responsibility.  Though lip service was given to the “priesthood of all believers” during the Protestant Reformation, those Puritans who sought to interpret the Bible for themselves (Anne Hutchinson) or who advocated for freedom of religion (Roger Williams) were banished. 

Socially one is expected to put one’s obligations to family, church, and community ahead of one’s own personal desires and wishes.  In this sense the Biblical world view upholds a communitarian, rather than an individualist, ethic, but the Puritan obligations were to the orthodox body of belief.  American Indians, Quakers, and any others who did not subscribe to the approved system of belief were considered outcasts, ripe for persecution.

The free individual is not to be trusted because “original sin” had left human nature essentially evil, able to be redeemed only by God’s grace, not by one’s own effort.  In such a world view social control is necessary to maintain order, and self-control, that is to say repression of one’s natural desires, is necessary for sainthood and salvation.

Conversely, from the Romantic, individualistic perspective the world is an organism.  God is a dynamic energy, power, and life force manifesting in nature, which is healthy, good, and trustworthy.  Nature is not just God’s creation; it is God’s body.  It is itself divine.  Human nature, then, participates in the beauty, goodness, and divinity of the natural world.

Ultimate authority is to be found within oneself.  Authenticity, integrity, and self-trust are the highest virtues.  The drama in this world view is not between God and Satan, but between the god-like individual guided by nature and the society which seeks to train, shape, and control the individual into conforming to a pre-determined standard of behavior and belief.

Social authority and power are to be resisted and natural feelings are to be expressed, not repressed.  Freedom of thought and expression are valued, as is the natural sympathy for others, which provides an organic, affective basis for social relations and community, as opposed to the artificial, legalistic basis of the Biblical world view.

The drama of The Scarlet Letter is played out between these two world views, a conflict which is left unresolved at the end, or, if there is any resolution in these terms, it is an affirmation that the truth lies in a middle ground somewhere between the two.

The Biblical world view is represented by the Puritan town that puts the mark of sin, the letter A, on Hester’s bosom and places her on the scaffold with her newborn child to be reviled by her townspeople.  The Romantic world view is represented by the forest, where Hester and Dimmesdale meet in secret, where Hester literally lets down her hair, and where little Pearl can wander freely, though under the watchful eye of her parents.

The three scaffold scenes mark three different aspects of the Biblical perspective: public punishment, private guilt, and public confession (but is it truly confession or merely another form of self-protection and hypocrisy?)  Some spectators claim to have seen a scarlet A on Dimmesdale’s bosom when he pulls back his shirt, heard him confess his long secret sin, and seen him acknowledge his long unrecognized family.  Others claim that he was merely speaking allegorically and that his bosom was as bare and white as the driven snow.  His words, indeed, are highly ambiguous and open to interpretation, making it possible for his fellow Puritans to hear what they want to hear and, for that matter, see what they want to see.  The whole Bible-based narrative of sin--repentance/confession--salvation is cast into doubt.

The forest scene dramatizes the triumph of the Romantic perspective, when Hester and Dimmesdale are reunited, along with their daughter, renew their vows of love, and plan their escape from Puritan oppression to a place where they can live and love openly as a family.  It is there that Hester unburdens Dimmesdale’s guilt-ridden conscience, assuring him of that their love is blessed and that his good works far outnumber his sins, and it is there that Hester removes the scarlet letter and tosses it away.  However, it is also there that little Pearl returns the scarlet letter to her mother, insisting that she wear it, and that the narrator questions the absolute innocence of nature: “Such was the sympathy of Nature—that wild, heathen Naure of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth—with the bliss of these two spirits.”

And the novel denies the two lovers their happy, Romantic ending, for Dimmesdale, unable to overcome his guilt, chooses to make his dramatic, final statement, however ambiguous, on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl before drawing his last breath.

From the Puritan, Biblical perspective Hester is a fallen woman, though capable of redemption.  Her story is a cautionary tale.  To the Romantic, she is a natural woman, whose free expression is thwarted by an oppressive and repressive society.  Her story is the age-old scapegoat narrative in which she unjustly bears the punishment for others’ secret sins.

Similarly, from the former view Pearl is an “imp,” tainted not only by original sin, but by that of her earthly parents, while from the latter she is an innocent child of nature, unjustly treated as an outcast.  The Puritans see Dimmesdale as either a sinful, but just, saint (assuming he confessed at the end) or as a spotless spiritual leader taking others’ sins on his own head (assuming he spoke allegorically), whereas the Romantics see him as a repressed, tormented soul, unable to break free from the bonds of his misguided religion.  Chillingworth, to the Puritans would be a just punisher, whereas to the Romantics he is a villain.

Neither world view is allowed to triumph in the novel.  The Biblical view is cruel, intolerant, and hypocritical, while the Romantic view is self-indulgent, permissive, and na├»ve in its unqualified trust in the goodness of human nature.  Both are self-righteous.  Wisdom is to be found in the middle ground of humility, self-discipline, forgiveness, and sympathy.  Communitarianism must respect individual rights and freedoms; individualism must temper itself and value the well-being of others, social cohesion, and the common good.  Tradition must bend to women’s rights, and women’s demands must be mediated by social reality.  Margaret Fuller deserves redemption but cannot escape the judgment of her peers.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Woman in the Nineteenth Century


Speaking of individualism, Emersonian Transcendentalism, and women’s rights (see previous post), Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845) should surely be noted.

When Emerson wrote “Self-Reliance” one senses he was writing for men.  Self-reliance is “manly” and dependence is “effeminate.”  Margaret Fuller, however, taking her inspiration from the Transcendental roots of Emerson’s essay, called on women to develop their independence and on men to treat women as equals.

However gendered the traditional concept of God, the Transcendental “Oversoul,” suggesting as it does the Hindu concept of Brahma, was more abstract and universal.  Emerson’s theory of two selves, the social self and the “aboriginal self,” made it possible to separate gender, a social category, from the Transcendental selfhood or “soul.” 

Thus Margaret Fuller undergirds her call for women’s social and legal equality with an appeal for Woman’s need “as a nature to grow, as an intellect to discern, as a soul to live freely and unimpeded, to unfold such powers as were given her when we left our common home,” that “home” being our source in the Universal “One.”

At times, Fuller sounds like an essentialist, capitalizing “Woman” (and “Man”) , referring to “Femality,” and presenting “male and female” as a “radical dualism.” Yet, she argues that the “feminine element…is no more the order of nature that it should be incarnated pure in any form” and asserts that “There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman.” Even the ancients are invoked as recognizing the fluidity of gender identity:  “Man partakes of the feminine in the Apollo, Woman of the masculine as Minerva.” 

As transcendental souls, women are the equal of men and as capable of self-reliance (which Fuller also refers to as “self-dependence,” “self-respect,” and “self-help”) as any man.  As for relationships, she says, “Union is only possible to those who are units,” and she strikes a modern note when she calls for the wife to be an “equal partner” with her husband.

Fuller’s faith in transcendental individualism, however, while it gave her the confidence to pursue her own independence, did not prevent her from speaking out for social justice, not only for women, but also for slaves, Native Americans,  the poor, the sick, convicts, and immigrants.  Her own freedom was not to be enjoyed at the expense of her fellow Americans.  As the first American “foreign correspondent” she openly supported the revolutionary movements in Europe in the 1840’s.  Her life and writings, unlike those of Emerson and Ayn Rand (see previous post), offer strong testimony to the compatibility of individualism and communitarianism.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"Self-Reliance" and Anthem


I was thinking I should do a blog post on Ralph Waldo Emerson since I studied his work so much as both an undergraduate and graduate student in American literature, not to mention my affiliation with Unitarian Universalism since 1979.  “Self-Reliance” seemed like the best known essay to take another look at.  At the same time, Paul Ryan was being nominated as Mitt Romney’s running mate and I was hearing a lot about Ayn Rand, who I have never read.  I started wondering if there was any connection between Emerson and Rand besides being known for promoting individualism.  There seems to be some discussion of whether Ayn Rand misrepresented Emerson in one reference to him (http://www.noblesoul.com/orc/essays/emerson.html) and others have compared the two (noting perhaps more differences than similarities). 

Curious, I read an early example of Rand’s fiction, a dystopian novella called Anthem, which kind of reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984.  Others have also compared those two writers, again seeming to find more contrasts than similarities.  Both Rand and Orwell are critiquing totalitarianism, but Rand from a capitalist and Orwell from a democratic socialist stance. 

In Anthem, the narrator, like all members of his collectivist society, refers to himself as “We, “the first-person “I” having been expunged from the language.  When, upon escaping from this society, the narrator discovers manuscripts from an earlier age, he learns the word “I” and promptly rejects the use of “We”: “I am done with the monster of ‘We,’ the word of serfdom, of plunder, of misery, falsehood, and shame.”  In the end, the narrator chooses “the word that is to be my beacon and my banner…The sacred word: EGO.”

This radical individualism is strangely contradicted by the narrator’s need for a lover and life partner, who is pregnant with his child.  One wonders if the word “we” would apply to his family and what would happen to that unit if every member truly placed “ego” ahead of family relationships.  The narrator’s vision calls for him to invite his “friends” to “follow” and join him in building a new future:  “Here on this mountain, I and my sons and my chosen friends shall build our new land and our fort.”  Again, one wonders how one sustains friendship if ego rules, and how successful this venture will be without some degree of cooperation and communitarianism, not to mention governance. 

Perhaps Rand’s answer would be that so long as relationships, group affiliation, and communal “belonging” is chosen, then, of course, ego naturally adjusts to that choice, but if it is enforced by coercion, law, tradition, or obligation, then ego is bound to assert itself, for true freedom means that “each man will be free to exist for his own sake.”

 One passage in Anthem particularly reminded me of “Self-Reliance.”  The fictional narrator states:

 "I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them. The fortune of my spirit is not to be blown into coins of brass and flung to the winds as alms for the poor of the spirit. I guard my treasures: my thought, my will, my freedom. And the greatest of these is freedom."
 
In “Self-Reliance” Emerson similarly states:

"Then again, do not tell me as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. …your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots, and the thousand-fold Relief Societies; though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar, which by and by I shall have to manhood to withhold."

Self-reliance did not prevent Emerson from suing his first wife’s family for his inheritance and living with relatives after his resignation from the ministry and a tour of Europe, though he did go on to make his own living as a traveling lecturer and writer. Likewise, Ayn Rand, for all her anti-government views, collected Social Security and applied for Medicare.

Perhaps a more thorough study of Rand’s works would reveal more complexity, but Anthem offers a caricature of the choice between individualism and communitarianism.  The latter is reduced to complete tyranny of society over the individual and the former is elevated to the absolute pursuit of individual happiness, regardless of the expense to social cohesion and the common good.  One would think that a devotee of “rational egoism” would have some appreciation for a moderate middle ground, but, no, at least in Anthem, it seems to be either-or.

By comparison, ‘Self-Reliance” is a study in intricacy and nuance.  For one thing, Emerson distinguishes between the social self, formed by conformity to society and consistency to the past self, and the “aboriginal Self,” which, unlike Rand’s materialistic “Ego,” is part and parcel of the Universal Spirit or “Oversoul,” a concept the atheistic Rand would not be able to countenance.  Far from calling for the elevation of the material Ego, Emerson calls for the liberation of that “aboriginal” spiritual Self from the constraints of materialism and socialization.  And it seems that when one is in touch with that spiritual Self, one loses all individualism and participates in a shared universal truth.  Thus, whether you agree with it or not, Emerson at least has a theory that would provide the basis for communitarianism and social cohesion, a basis in human nature and shared understanding, not governmental power and social control.

In an Emersonian world, it seems, individuals would free themselves from coercion, law, tradition, and obligation, not to mention their own false selves, only to find common cause with each other in social relationships based in authenticity, integrity, mutuality, and spiritual bonds.

Neither Rand nor Emerson show evidence of having any understanding of systemic social injustices such as economic disparity, inherited wealth or poverty, racism, sexism, ableism, or, perish the thought, heterosexism.  They seem to assume that all individuals function on a level playing field with equal ability and resources to assert their individuality.  No doubt the message of individual empowerment is important to the economically disadvantaged and socially subordinated, but Rand fails to allow for the role that material and social inequality play in individual opportunity and achievement, and Emerson fails to recognize a relationship between material well-being and spiritual power.

Though Emerson eschewed collective action, for fear it might compromise his independence, he eventually became more active in the abolitionist movement, suggesting perhaps that he did come to realize that (1) the concept of self-reliance is pretty meaningless to a slave, and (2) in the case of such material conditions as slavery, collective social action may be necessary, not only to material but also to spiritual freedom.

Although Emerson used gendered language in describing self-reliance as “manly,” he also supported the women’s rights movement, describing it as “no whim, but an organic impulse…a right and proper inquiry…honoring to the age.”  One wonders if Ayn Rand would acknowledge any debt to the collective women’s action that earned her the right to speak in public, vote, and participate in the political process, as she did when she worked on behalf of Wendell Wilkie’s presidential campaign in 1940.

Where does this leave us?  It seems both Emerson and Rand’s lives and works are rife with contradictions.  Sometimes they seem to be sounding a similar note, though overall their versions of individualism are quite different, Rand openly espousing individual action based on “the virtue of selfishness” and Emerson defining self-reliance as “self-trust,” more an affirmation of self-esteem and self-worth than a rationale for the active pursuit of self-interest without regard for the well-being of others. 

Despite Emerson’s renunciation of the ministry, his philosophy of individualism really has a religious and moral basis, whereas Rand’s philosophy seems to be based on secular materialism and individual self-interest.
 
Emerson seems to be asserting the value of one's individual self-interest as at least equal to that of others, whereas Rand seems to be asserting it as superior to that of others.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The God of Small Things II


In a Book Group discussion of this novel, I bemoaned how sad it is, how hopeless, how lacking in a redemptive message.  Some argued that the reunion of the twins and even their incestuous act, symbolically at least, offered hope for healing, but I was highly skeptical.  To me the incest could just as well be one more nail in the coffin of the Ipe family demise (see previous post).  Unable to find a sign of redemption in the novel, I was tempted to view it as a kind of modern gothic, offering a grotesque view of reality.

A friend who has traveled in India more than once suggested that from an Indian world view, the novel could be deemed realistic rather than gothic.  She said the Indian world view is very fatalistic, accepting the cycle of life and death, success and failure, joy and suffering, love and hate, and of the inevitable turn of events that is beyond human control.  As the narrator repeatedly states, “things can change in a day,” regardless of one’s intentions.  Yet, the narrator also states that a day can be traced back to ancient times, far beyond the control of humans in the present day:  “…it really began in the days when the Love Laws were made.”

All this begins to sound more mythological than historical.  The cycle of myth mimics the seasonal cycle, from the spring of creation and new life; through the summer of maturity, romance, and success; through the autumn of decline; to the winter of death.  In that cycle death, destruction, and apocalypse are followed by rebirth, resurrection, and renewal. From this perspective the last word of The God of Small Things –“Tomorrow”—offers a promise of redemption to follow.

However, though “Tomorrow” is the last word of the novel, it is not the last word of the chronological story.  It is uttered by Ammu and Velutha after their first night of lovemaking.  When we read that word, we have already read of the events that followed—the drowning of Sophie Mol, the false accusation of rape and kidnapping, the brutal beating of Velutha, Estha’s betrayal of his beloved friend, the beating of Ammu, the separation of the twins, the self-exile of Chacko, the death of Ammu, the closing of the pickle factory, and the deterioration of Mammachi and Baby Kochamma, not to mention the twins’ incestuous act.  In such a context “Tomorrow” sounds as much ironic and cynical as hopeful.   It takes a good deal of faith in the mythological cycle to find the redemptive message.

At the same time the final scene of the novel, the lovemaking between Ammu and Velutha, is perhaps the most beautiful in the entire narrative.  That the author chooses to end with that scene and with that word suggests, perhaps, her faith that if “things can change in a day” for ill, they can also change in a day for good.

In a sense the entire mythological cycle is covered in the novel—the young, innocent twins and their child-like perspective on the world represent the newness of creation.  The romance of Margaret and Chacko and later of Ammu and Velutha, the success of the pickle factory, even Baby’s ornamental garden represent the height of romance, maturity, and achievement.  Inevitably, however, the zenith is followed by divorce, failure, trauma, deterioration, and death.  Whether one reads the ending with mythological faith or modern despair may depend more on the reader than anything else.  The narrative seems to leave it open.

A mythic reading locates the novel outside of history, suggesting a universal human experience regardless of time and place.  Like incest, themes of twinship; kinship; coming of age; quest, trial, and ordeal; deities; the scapegoat; tragic loss, death, and destruction can be found cross-culturally in story, song, literature, and legend.

In The God of Small Things the twins themselves carry special symbolic significance.  They are fraternal, not identical, male and female, closely bonded from childhood, yet separated for most of their lives, silent and empty, the same but opposite.  They are but one example of countless dualities in the novel: small things vs. big things; Untouchables vs. Touchables;  Marxists vs. Capitalists; Christians vs. Hindus; Indians vs. Anglos; family unity vs. family discord; marriage vs. divorce; love vs. hate; loyalty vs. betrayal; parents vs. children; sisters vs. brothers; mortals vs. deities;  dreams vs. reality; good vs. evil; history vs. myth.  Like Estha and Rahel , these dualities are opposite and separate, yet closely bonded.

Big things overwhelm small things, as when history, religion, culture, and family “honor” all come crashing down on the private love affair of Ammu and Velutha.  Yet, it was that small thing, that small, private love affair between a Touchable and an Untouchable, a Christian and a Hindu, a member of the bourgeoisie and a Marxist that transgresses culture, religion, politics, and history; destroys a family, disrupts a community, brings down a factory, and leaves a wake of psychological trauma for more than one generation.  Human nature and human experience, it seems, are caught in an endless conflict between twin dualities.

As an example of how dualities pervade the narrative, consider that when Velutha is accused, pursued, beaten, and arrested, his fingernails are painted red because he had been playing with the children just before the catastrophic events unfold.  The Marxist leader and the police note this anomaly.  A minor detail, perhaps, but one more duality, that of male and female, one that links his beating with that of Ammu and his oppression with that of all women under patriarchy.  Further, the suggestion of androgyny lifts him above history and enscribes him in mythic terms.

Kinship as well as twinship is a major mythic theme of the novel, as both blood and social relations of family over generations create their own legacy, whether it take the form of blessing or curse.

The story of the twins is also a coming of age story, the transition from innocence to experience.  At an early age their childhood innocence is overshadowed by their parents’ divorce, Estha’s sexual molestation, their implication in the death of Sophie Mol, the beating and death of Velutha, Estha’s betrayal of Velutha, and their separation from each other.  The world goes from being a place of goodness and light to one of suffering, evil, and darkness.  The psychic trauma leaves one of them mute and the other, it seems, perpetually depressed.  Their reunion holds out hope for healing and recovery, but their act of incest leaves their future in doubt.  While their plight may not be universal, all of us must make the transition from childhood to adulthood.  Some of us arrive at a healthy maturity, coming to terms with the evil and suffering in the world without losing touch with goodness and joy.  Some of us, like Estha and Rahel, get stuck in pain and guilt.

Like all of us, also, each character is on a quest—for identity, power, love, honor.  Each undergoes his or her trials and ordeals but enjoys only temporary successes.  In the end there are more failed quests than heroic triumphs in this novel.  Whether Estha and Rahel will eventually recover and achieve psychic health and wholeness is left to our imaginations.

While there are references to religion in the narrative the major “deity” referred to is “the God of small things, the God of Loss.”  Here is yet another major duality, for this deification is conferred on Velutha, the Untouchable, the smallest of mortals.  As a child Velutha had artfully made tiny paper objects to entertain Ammu, holding them out to her on the flat of his hand so she could take them without touching him.  Later he becomes a “proletarian” worker in the Ipe pickle factory, and the friend and playmate of Ammu’s small twins.  Ever associated with “small things” and ultimately with utter loss.  Velutha takes on mythic stature as a scapegoat, who carries the sin and bears the punishment for the Ipe family, though they, of course, do not escape their own punishment.  As a “god” he is associated with Osiris in Egyptian, Dionysius in Greek, Quetzacoatl in Aztec, Odin in Norse, and Jesus in Christian myth.

In traditional scapegoat and “dying god” myths, however, the sacrifice serves to “save” or redeem the hero’s people, whether it be a family, community, society, or the whole human race.  And the dying god is typically resurrected to symbolize the return of life, health, goodness, and prosperity.  Velutha’s sacrifice, on the other hand, is followed by no resurrection, rather by yet more punishment and pain.  From a mythic perspective the story seems truly apocaplyptic, as far as the Ipe family is concerned.

In the Christian apocalypse the end of the world is followed by the coming of the Kingdom of God.  In the world of the novel that Kingdom would raise the Untouchable, the proletarian workers, women, children, and the world’s oppressed to their rightful places in an egalitarian global society.  The Hindu apocalypse is merely the low point of the endless mythic cycle from birth to death, and from creation to destruction.  In either case, The God of Small Things ends before the wheel of fortune begins to turn and largely relies on the faith of the reader for any hope of redemption “Tomorrow.”

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The God of Small Things I


It has been noted frequently in this blog that there are two broad ways to read literature (and many sub-divisions of both): historical and universal.  Debates abound on their relative validity, but I prefer the both-and approach rather than the either-or dilemma.

Arundhati Roy’s 1997 novel offers an excellent opportunity to compare the two ways of reading and hopefully appreciate both.

The God of Small Things can be read as a post-colonial Indian novel that reflects the blending of cultures (Indian, British, American) and religions (Hinduism, Christianity), the corruption of India’s natural environment by capitalistic ventures, the historical conflict between capitalism and Marxism as it has played out in India and the persistence of ancient Indian traditions in a global environment.

None of these “big things” (culture, history, politics, religion) come off well in the novel, which portrays a world grown putrid with exploitation, oppression, dislocation, and corruption.  Even, especially, the family unit has deteriorated into a hotbed of physical and psychological trauma.  At best the novel can be read as a protest against patriarchy, class and caste,  divisions based on skin color, family “honor,” environmental destruction, the raw exercise of power through social structures, and the corruption even of those (Marxists) who would reverse the power structures and deliver the oppressed from suffering.

Above all, it interrogates the “Love Laws” that determine “Who should be loved.   And how.   And how much.”  The novel demonstrates the destructive effects of both violating the love laws (pedophilia) and of following them (religious restrictions).  In some cases it registers a silent protest against the love laws, as when class, caste, and color forbid the relationship between Ammu and Velutha and the breaking of the taboo leads to violence, deceit, and the exploitation of children in the name of family honor.  In other cases, as when Estha is molested, the love laws are affirmed.  Adultery and divorce seem to pass unjudged. 

The most ambiguous act is the incest between Rahel and Estha, shared not out of “happiness, but hideous grief.”  Whatever aftereffects they might experience are left to our imaginations.  They are not shown to suffer from the act, nor are they shown to benefit, though one can infer they experienced some short term comfort.

Anthropologists have identified incest as an almost universal taboo, though it has been practiced historically in some cultures and has been defined differently in different cultures.  While it occurs in nature, there is evidence that more highly evolved species prefer to mate outside their biological family.

To the close-knit twins the act might feel like an entirely natural coupling (though they had been separated from an early age).  Yet, one wonders to what extent their intimacy may result in yet more guilt and trauma.  Or, perhaps it is their shared childhood guilt and trauma that lead them to turn to each other for comfort.  What is ambiguous is whether that mutual comfort is part of their healing or part of their psychic damage.

For whatever reason, incest is a recurring literary theme, often associated with the tragic fall of a family, whether it be in Greek drama (Oedipus the King), Shakespearean tragedy (Hamlet), gothic fiction (“The Fall of the House of Usher”), or the modern novel (The Sound and the Fury).  In its prime the Ipe family was highly educated, well-respected, and accomplished.  When the patriarch of the family Pappachi fails to get credit for the discovery of a new species of moth, the decline begins, as the family loses its chance for lasting fame.  Pappachi’s bitterness leads him to abuse his family.  Mammachi bears the scars of Pappahi’s beatings and their daughter Ammu enters into a bad marriage to escape the harsh family environment.  Although the family pickle factory is successful, the marriages of both Ammu and her brother Chacko fail, and their aunt, called Baby, who never marries, becomes as bitter and spiteful as Pappachi, grieving over her unrequited love for a priest.

Ammu’s affair with the Untouchable Velutha; the accidental drowning of Chacko’s daughter, Sophie Mol; Baby’s false accusation of rape and kidnapping against Velutha; Estha’s near-coerced betrayal of his beloved Velutha and the latter’s death at the hands of the police; Chacko’s beating of Ammu; the separaton of the twins; and the subsequent failure of the pickle factory leave the family in shambles.  Chacko emigrates to Canada, Ammu dies at age 32, Estha becomes mute, Rahel becomes “empty,” and Baby neglects her ornamental garden as she and Mammachi live out their days watching American television and allowing the house, as well as themselves, to deteriorate.

 In such a context, Estha and Rahel’s act of incest suggests that the family has reached its nadir and that the only hope of a new generation is utterly blighted. 

 As long as we are examining the novel from a historical perspective, we must take note of the History House.  Chacko speaks of the family history as “a long line of Anglophiles,” who have become “trapped outside their own history” by the history of colonialism.  Their true history is found in a metaphorical “History House,” from which they have become alienated. 

The young twins think Chacko is talking about the abandoned house across the river, said to have been the home of an Englishman who had “gone native,” speaking the local language and wearing Indian clothing. Explicit references to “the heart of darkness” refer to both Conrad’s novel (see blog post April, 2010) and the darkness to be found in colonialism.  Ironically, it is not only the colonized who become alienated from their own history and culture, but the colonizers as well.

And the literal History House across the river becomes the site for the secret meetings between Ammu and Velutha, the hiding place of the twins after Sophie Mol drowns, and for the brutal beating of Velutha by the local police.  “Darkness” takes on the meanings of forbidden love, secrecy, tragic loss, and savage violence.  The big things (culture, history, politics, religion, the Love Laws) and the small things of individuals, their private feelings, and their human experience all intersect in the History House, both Chacko’s metaphorical one and the twins’ literal one.  And that intersection takes place in “the heart of darkness.”

Is the Ipe family a microcosm of the Indian nation?  In its larger historical context the novel can perhaps be read as a lament for modern India, an indictment of the colonial legacy, or even as a grotesque warning about the coming global catastrophe. The prospect of globalism and a cross-cultural world community offers no solace.  It is difficult to find any promising or redemptive message unless the writing of the novel itself implies some hope that its dystopian vision might be reversed.

In the next post the case for a more optimistic conclusion will be considered in more depth, but a historical reading yields little to be hopeful about.






Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"Too Much Happiness"


Not only does Alice Munro write short stories as complicated as novels (see blog post May 18, 2012), she wrote a “short story” based on the actual biography of Sophia Kovalevsky, the first woman in Europe to receive a Ph.D. (in mathematics), the first woman to be “appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe” and “one of the first females to work for a scientific journal as an editor” (Wikipedia).  It would take considerable research to decide to what extent “Too Much Happiness” is really fiction and to what extent it might be classified as “creative non-fiction.” 

Regardless, Sophia Kovalevsky makes a fascinating study.  Not only was she a brilliant mathematician, she was also a novelist, and she co-wrote a play called The Struggle for Happiness, a title which better fits her life than does the title of Alice Munro’s story.  However, “Too much happiness” is said to have been the actual last words of Sophia Kovalevsky.

The phrase is cryptic.  Can there be too much happiness?  Is the tone sincere? Ironic? Is it part of her drug-induced, deathbed delirium?  The story (and the biography) seems to be more about a woman whose pursuit of happiness is repeatedly being derailed.  Denied a university education as a woman in her home country of Russia, she engaged in a marriage of convenience in order to get the required husband’s (or father’s) signature to study abroad.  Though she achieves academic success, as a woman, she is denied employment as a professor until later in life, when she receives a visiting professorship at Stockholm University in Sweden.

After she falls in love with her husband and bears their child, he later commits suicide.  After caring for their daughter for a year, she puts the child in the care of her sister in order to pursue her career in mathematics. 

In middle age she falls in love again, but the relationship is rocky, and though they vow to marry “in the spring” (of 1891), she contracts pneumonia on her train trip back to Stockholm and dies shortly thereafter. 

Her life represents the classic woman’s conflict between professional career and personal relationships.  From a Freudian perspective it is the conflict of ego and power vs. love and pleasure.  Only society seems to be set up so that men can reasonably expect to achieve both, whereas women are expected to choose.  Sophia tries to achieve both, only to be thwarted by social convention, circumstance, and time.

Based on the biographical accounts, it is fair to say that “Too Much Happiness” is factually accurate.  However, Munro gives the story her own shape.  Sophia’s last words have been documented, but the prediction of her own death, however playful, that occurs at the beginning of the story may be fictional.  Strolling through a Paris cemetery with her mid-life lover, Sophia recalls the superstition that visiting a cemetery on New Year’s Day presages one’s death before the end of that year.  “One of us will die this year,"Sophia pronounces, and the story ends with her death on February 10, 1891. 

During her train trip back to Stockholm, she visits her late sister’s husband and son and her academic mentor and his two sisters, all the while flashing back to her first discovery of trigonometry, her efforts to educate herself in mathematics, her marriage, her professional achievements, her family relationships, motherhood, the loss of her husband and sister, and her mid-life affair with Maksim.  Thus her life is presented as a retrospective as she travels from her long-distance lover back to her home and place of work.

The word “happiness” appears four times in the story, once at the end in her deathbed last words and  three times on one page when she writes her friend and former classmate of her impending marriage to Maksim: “…it is to be happiness after all.  Happiness after all.  Happiness.”

The word “happy” appears four times:  On an occasion when Maksim rejects her saying she “should make her way back to Sweden…she should be happy where her friends were waiting for her,” ending with a “jab” that her “little daughter” would have need of her.  On another when her teenage nephew expresses no more ambition in life than to “be an omnibus boy and call out the stations,” and Sophia replies, “Perhaps you would not always be happy calling out the stations.”  Again, when telling her former mentor of her upcoming marriage, she says, “Meine Liebe, I order you, order you to be happy for me.”  And finally, in a flashback to her first discovery of trigonometry when she recalls, “She was not surprised then, though intensely happy.”

Two of the four uses of “happy” refer to her personal life and two to the happiness found in work, as if true happiness is found in balancing both.  The repetition of “happiness” when writing to her friend about marrying Maksim seems to tip the scale in favor of the personal. Had she found “too much happiness” in her work to the detriment of her personal life?  Was the hope of finding happiness in both “too much” to wish for? We can speculate on the meaning of her last words, but the title of Munro’s story seems ironic, for, more often than not, Sophia seems to fall far short of “too much happiness.”

And there is always the possibility that the drug a doctor gives her on the train, a drug which “brought solace…when necessary, to him,” might have elevated her mood to a state of euphoria, such that, indeed, just before her death, it felt like “too much happiness.”

Her final delirium also included references to her “husband,” confused with Bothwell, who had been accused but acquitted of murdering the consort of Mary Queen of Scots before marrying her himself, possibly by force and subterfuge.  Is this an association of marriage with the deception, violence, and distrust that had accompanied her own actual and hoped for marriages?

She also talked about her novel and a “new story,” in which she hoped to “discover what went on” under the “pulse in life,” something “Invented, but not.”  She found herself “overflowing with ideas…of a whole new breadth and importance and yet so natural and self-evident that she couldn’t help laughing.”  The language suggests, not only the euphoria of literary creation, but also, perhaps, that “intense” happiness she associated with mathematical discovery.

Kovalevsky had made the connection between art and science in a quote which Alice Munro uses as a headnote to her story:  “Many persons who have not studied mathematics confuse it with arithmetic and consider it a dry and arid science.  Actually, however, this science requires great fantasy.”

Is there any wonder that the literary Alice Munro would find fodder for fiction in the actual biography of a mathematician who, not only linked fantasy and science, but was also a novelist and playwright? Thus does the real become unreal and the unreal become real, the truth become fiction and fiction become truth.