“The Headless Hawk,” Truman Capote

Cover: The World WithinCapote, Truman. “The Headless Hawk” (1945)
In The World Within: Fiction Illuminating Neuroses of Our Time
Edited by Mary Louise Aswell
Notes and Introduction by Frederic Wertham, M.D.
New York: Whittlesey House, 1947

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This story first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in October 1945. It later appeared in the collection A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949) and in The Complete Stories of Truman Capote (2005).

In her introduction to the story, Mary Louise Aswell, literary editor of The World Within, wrote that Capote, then in his 20s, had “consistently explored a territory of the mind that our generation knows instinctively, but dimly.” She added that “we ourselves have visited it in the dark” and are moved to “the catharsis at least of terror” (p. 283). In an interview published in the spring-summer 1957 issue of The Paris Review, Capote acknowledged Mary Louise Aswell of Harper’s Bazaar as one of the editors who most encouraged him early in his career.

Truman Capote later became known for his innovative writing style in In Cold Blood, but in his early stories of the 1940s he was a master at using gothic elements to create psychological states. He is therefore often associated with the Southern gothic tradition of writers such as Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner.

In “The Headless Hawk,” Vincent, a 36-year-old art gallery employee in Manhattan, has an affair with a young girl, who remains mysteriously unnamed, who sells him a painting depicting a girl with a severed head and a large, headless hawk. Both the painting and the girl draw Vincent in in a way that first thrills, then repulses him.

The story opens with the following quotation from the biblical book of Job:

They are of those that rebel against the light; they know not the ways thereof, nor abide in the paths thereof. In the dark they dig through houses, which they had marked for themselves in the daytime: they know not the light. For the morning is to them as the shadow of death: if one know them, they are in the terrors of the shadow of death.

—Job 24:13, 16, 17

Capote uses imagery to create an atmosphere of darkness and death in keeping with this epigraph. We first meet Vincent when a “promise of rain had darkened the day since dawn” (p. 284). He lives in a dark basement apartment. Much of the story’s action takes place either under cloud-darkened skies or at night. Scenes, such as Vincent’s stumbling, rambling visit to a Broadway funhouse and penny arcade, become surreal night visions. Other macabre scenes come to Vincent in dreams.

Imagery of the sea, of submersion, also creates a picture of Vincent moving unnaturally through the world, encumbered in an alternate reality: “Vincent felt as though he moved below the sea” (p. 284). Buses “seemed like green-bellied fish, and faces loomed and rocked like wave-riding masks” (p. 284). Vincent sees himself in a dream “swimming through oceans of cheese-pale faces, neon, and darkness” (p. 293). Later, “The air seemed thick with gummy fluid” (p. 307).

Vincent is out of sync with the world, “never quite in contact, never sure whether a step would take him backward or forward, up or down” (p. 284). He had “substituted for a sense of a reality a knowledge of time, and place” (p. 287). Later, Vincent thinks of himself as “a man in the sea fifty miles from shore” (p. 291).

Narrative structure also contributes to the creation of a dark, foreboding, otherworldly atmosphere. In the opening section of the story, Vincent sees the girl and tries to elude her. But he watches where she goes and then approaches her. He stops to light a cigarette in front of her, and she steps out of the shadows and offers her lighter. This action sequence is disconcerting for the reader because it seems counterintuitive: Who is stalking whom? He walks away, and she wanders into traffic, causing a cab driver to yell. Vincent turns and sees her staring straight at him, “trance-eyed, undisturbed as a sleepwalker” (p. 286). He walks on but continues to hear “the soft insistent slap of [her] sandals” (p. 286).

Much of the rest of the story is an extended flashback about how Vincent and the girl met and how their relationship developed. Events jump back and forth in time as the flashback unfolds, and this disjointed time sequence contributes to the story’s sense of jumbled reality.

The focal point of the story is the girl’s painting, with its dominant image: “The wings of a hawk, headless, scarlet-breasted, copper-clawed, curtained the background like a nightfall sky” (p. 289). For Vincent, the painting, though lacking technical merit, “had that power often seen in something deeply felt, though primitively conveyed” (p. 289). He just knows that he must have the painting, which has “revealed to him a secret concerning himself” (p. 290). On nights when he can’t sleep, “he would pour a glass of whiskey and talk to the headless hawk, tell it the stuff of his life” (p. 291). At those times he sees himself as “someone … without direction, and quite headless” (p. 291).

Vincent sees himself in the headless hawk: “a victim, born to be murdered, either by himself or another; an actor unemployed. It was there, all of it, in the painting, everything disconnected and cockeyed, and who was she that she should know so much?” (p. 291). It is this question that piques his interest in the girl:

There are certain works of art which excite more interest in their creators than in what they have created, usually because in this kind of work one is able to identify something which has until that instant seemed a private inexpressible perception, and you wonder: who is this that knows me, and how? (p. 290)

The climax of the story comes in a dream in which a young and handsome Vincent recognizes an “old and horrid” (p. 302) Vincent. Of other guests in the room of his dream, “many are also saddled with malevolent semblances of themselves, outward embodiments of inner decay” (p. 302). In the dream a man approaches with “a massive headless hawk whose talons, latched to the wrist, draw blood” (p. 302).

After this dream, Vincent realizes that

he’d betrayed himself with talents unexploited, voyages never taken, promises unfulfilled … oh why in his lovers must he always find the broken image of himself? Now as he looked at her in the aging dawn his heart was cold with the death of love (p. 304).

He gathers the girl’s belongings and puts them and her out, marking the death of yet another love, just as all his other love affairs have ended. The phrase “the death of love” recalls the epigraph’s references to the shadow of death.

In his brief remarks after the story, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham focuses on the girl, whom he describes as a schizophrenic portrayed with “almost clinical accuracy” (p. 311). Wertham also touches on the story’s “surrealist tapestry” of “phosphorescent decadence” (p. 311), but about Vincent, the story’s protagonist, he has little to say.

The psychiatrist’s remarks don’t do the story justice and in fact demonstrate how we understand the human psyche as portrayed in literature. We don’t need a clinical diagnosis of a specific condition, complete with a catalog of symptoms. Rather, we more often experience psychological states in literature as a “private inexpressible perception,” a “territory of the mind that our generation knows instinctively, but dimly,” that we may not know how to articulate ourselves but recognize when we see represented by an artist of words.

In fact, this story well illustrates how that process works. Capote’s language creates more of an atmosphere than coherent symbolism. Even the headless hawk produces a general, though macabre, feeling of terror and unreality that cannot be mapped as a specific symbol (e.g., headless hawk = death, headless hawk = fear). This story well illustrates how a master of language such as Truman Capote can communicate psychological truth that feels more real to readers than a clinical description would.

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

Review: “Go Set a Watchman”

Cover: Go Set a Watchman
Cover: Go Set a Watchman

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman
New York: HarperCollins, 2015
ISBN 978–0–06–240985–0

You won’t envision Gregory Peck when you read what Atticus Finch has to say to his daughter late in this novel:

“You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you?” (p. 242)

“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” (p. 245)

“Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people… . They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet.” (pp. 246–247)

The hard work of reconciling this picture of Atticus Finch with the Atticus Finch that Peck portrays in the film of To Kill a Mockingbird raises an essential question about this newly released novel by Harper Lee: Is it possible to review Go Set a Watchman without reference to To Kill a Mockingbird?

Probably not, but let’s give it a try.

In Watchman, 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch returns to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City, where she has been living for five years. She comes home for two weeks every year to see her father, Atticus Finch, whom she adores, and her on-again-off-again boyfriend Henry Clinton, whom she has known since childhood. She usually travels by plane, but this year she takes the train. The view as she approaches her destination allows her to reconnect with the place where she grew up: “She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful” (p. 6).

Jean Louise rolls her eyes over the Southern propriety of her Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s sister, who never passes up an opportunity to explain that Jean Louise should stay home in Maycomb, get married and have children, and take care of her aging father. But she loses patience when her aunt invites some of the young women she grew up with over for coffee. After living in New York, Jean Louise cannot tolerate the narrow-mindedness of women who define themselves only in terms of their husbands and their children.

This scene crystallizes Jean Louise’s internal conflict: She loves and respects her father, but she no longer shares the beliefs and values that underlie the Southern way of life that he and Maycomb epitomize. Atticus, now 72, has always been her moral beacon. but she is shocked and disgusted when she sneaks into the courthouse and witnesses a political meeting at which both Atticus and Henry denounce Negroes and Jews. Jean Louise sneaks back out of the courthouse repulsed and sickened by the revelations of her father’s hypocrisy.

This pivotal scene of the coming-of-age story occurs very late in the novel. But it’s not just the novel’s pacing that’s off. The text doesn’t adequately prepare us for the depth of Jean Louise’s revulsion. We know that she has always loved and deeply respected her father for the values he taught her. So why is she so astonished now? How is it possible that she didn’t know her father held these views? She discusses her concerns with both her father and her Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, afterwards, but this backward attempt at explaining what should have come before her moment of realization falls flat. And the explanation is given in terms of political theorizing that doesn’t adequately address the emotional nature of her reaction.

The writing in Watchman is adequate though uninspired. There are several flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood that are more interesting than the present time of the book but that also do not cohere thematically with the novel as a whole. The late climax and quick resolution that doesn’t effectively resolve matters leave the reader jarringly unsatisfied.

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Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdThat’s my review of Watchman without reference to Mockingbird. But it leaves out one question that cannot be ignored: How do we reconcile the Atticus Finch of Watchman with the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird?

Not to be flip, but there’s only one possible answer: We don’t. These novels are two separate works. Even if we accept that Watchman is an early draft of what later became Mockingbird, each novel should be read and evaluated separately, in its own right. Comparing them might say something about Harper Lee or about the two different time periods presented in the books, but the publication of Watchman does not change To Kill a Mockingbird at all.

On Novels and Novelists

7 Book Franchises We Really Need To Say Goodbye To

Claire Fallon writes in the Huffington Post:

Let’s be honest: Too many series and franchises are reworked and rebooted until there’s simply no life left in them. As much as fans may clamor to spend more money on another Dune book, for example, they’re more likely than not going to be disappointed by the lackluster result, which only serves to taint the otherwise acclaimed series. We need to learn to say goodbye before we’re entirely ready, instead of waiting until a brand has fully worn out its welcome.

Here are the seven series she lists:

  1. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  2. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  3. The James Bond series by Ian Fleming
  4. The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
  5. The Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson
  6. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  7. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

A quick reading of the comments suggests that many people misunderstood the point of this article. Several commenters list books and series that they say are awful. Some of the authors mentioned are Tom Clancy, Robert B. Parker, and Lee Child.

But I don’t think Fallon is writing about books that shouldn’t have been written in the first place. I think she’s concerned about books and series that have become so beloved by readers that it’s painful to watch someone else—some lesser writer—keep on writing inferior additions to the set. At least that’s how I feel about franchises such as Harry Potter, the Millennium trilogy, Little House, and Hitchhiker’s Guide.

How about you?

The Wachowskis’ Sense8 Is the Philip K. Dick Adaptation We Always Wanted

Here’s another long read, and I have to admit that much of it is way over my head for now. Bram E. Gieben looks at the Netflix Original series Sense8 in relation to the work of author Philip K. Dick and series creators the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski:

The ‘mind-melds’ (lets just call them that) which the characters experience begin to fracture their reality. This is in itself a Phildickian trope, but this ‘reality breakdown’—often the principle focus of a PKD novel—is not a key focus here. Rather, the series is full of scenes where characters listen to each other, and share their stories. This is the way in which the show deals with empathy—and yet, this is where Sense8 is at its most Phildickian. This also accounts for the erratic pacing. The Wachowskis have chosen to show empathy at work, rather than just divesting the story of these ‘emotional’ tropes, and focusing on the game of cat-and-mouse the protagonists are forced to play with a shadowy, quasi-governmental agency (as they would in most flawed Dick movie adaptations, from Total Recall to Minority Report).

I include this piece because it prompted me to add Sense8 to my Netflix list. The next long weekend that comes up I hope to spend watching several episodes of the series to see if I can make sense of them.

Care to join me?

13 Children’s Book Authors Who Would Have Written Beautiful Fiction For Adults Too

Riffing on Judy Blume’s new novel for adults, In the Unlikely Event, Katherine Brooks lists 13 authors she thinks would have written good fiction for adults:

After all, according to a 2012 study conducted by Bowker Market Research, 55 percent of the people buying fiction geared toward young adults are, actually, just adults. And they’re, actually, reading the books for themselves.

See why Brooks wishes these 13 authors had written fiction for adults:

  1. Beverly Cleary
  2. Walter Dean Myers
  3. Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  4. Katherine Paterson
  5. Mary Pope Osborne
  6. Gail Carson Levine
  7. Maurice Sendak
  8. Madeleine L’Engle
  9. Ellen Raskin
  10. Chris Van Allsburg
  11. and 12. Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
  12. Lois Lowry

Brooks also lists as runners-up S. E. Hinton and E. L. Konigsburg.

How To Read A Bad Book By A Great Author

“What do we make of a bad book, written late-career, by an acclaimed author?” asks Colton Valentine, who moves on to discuss Milan Kundera’s recent novel, The Festival of Insignificance. According to Valentine, critics almost universally have described this novel as “out-of-touch, sexist, and, worst of all, banal.”

But, Valentine argues, late-career novels such as this must be approached not in isolation, but in the context of everything the author has written before. In particular, Valentine makes sense of Festival of Insignificance by comparing it with what Kundera had to say in his best known novel, 1984’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

And this is the approach we should take to the upcoming publication of Harper Lee’s second novel:

In a few weeks, Harper Lee will release Go Set a Watchman, a book that will inevitably fail to live up to its predecessor but that need not be written off. Broadening our mindset – fitting the novel into a larger textual legacy – may not redeem it. But that mindset can, at least, provide a stimulating exercise, a more productive and respectful way to think about the late works of the greats.

The Classics Spin #9: “Cannery Row”

Back in March I won the opportunity to read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row for The Classics Spin #9. And I mistakenly thought the completion date was May 15. In fact, it was May 5. Not that it really matters, since I’m a bit late either way. But I did finally finish reading the book on the plane flight to Europe.

Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row
Original publication date: 1945
Rpt. New York: Penguin, 2002
ISBN 978–1–101–65979–3

Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chopped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,” and he would have meant the same thing.

This opening paragraph introduces readers to Cannery Row, where, when the “cannery whistles scream … men and women scramble into their clothes and come running down to the Row to go to work.” But at day’s end, after these workers “straggle out and droop their ways up the hill into the town … Cannery Row becomes itself again—quiet and magical. Its normal life returns.”

The book’s narrator asks, “How can the poem and the stink and the grating noise—the quality of light, the tone, the habit and the dream—be set down alive?” He decides that the way to write this book is “to open the page and to let the stories crawl in by themselves.”

And so, in the manner of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Cannery Row tells the story of this place through the intertwining stories of its inhabitants. Set during the Great Depression, the book portrays a time when work was hard and life was even harder.

The main characters include Doc, a marine biologist based on Steinbeck’s friend Ed Ricketts, to whom the book is dedicated; Lee Chong, a local Chinese grocer; Mack, the leader of a group of unemployed men; and Dora, owner of the local brothel. The book acknowledges the characters’ many faults—drunkenness, malingering, craftiness—while at the same time portraying their good qualities—kindness, charity, friendship. After all, “whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches” are the same as “saints and angels and martyrs and holy men.”

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

Why You Never Hear Stories about Wicked Stepfathers

You know the story of Cinderella. She’s a princess, dearly loved by her father, the king. When her mother dies, her father eventually marries a widow with daughters of her own. But nothing much changes for Cinderella as long as her father lives and continues to protect her and treat her like the princess she was born to be.

But then the king dies, and Cinderella’s stepmother, the new queen, gains control of the kingdom and the palace. She banishes Cinderella to a life of servitude in the kitchen and presents her own daughters as the princesses of the land.

Yes, we know how the story turns out: the fake princesses are unmasked, Cinderella shines like the true princess she is, and then marries the prince and lives happily ever after. But what I want to focus on here is the stepmother, the one who usurps power and raises her own daughters’ station above that of the true princess, whom she treats like a servant.

Fables and fairy tales supply many examples of the archetype of the wicked stepmother. Often she appears as a witch, such as the one who is jealous of Snow White’s beauty. But there is no male counterpart to this villainess. Why?

The reason arises from the medieval system of laws and customs that gave rise to many of our enduring literary tropes, such as the wicked stepmother archetype. At that time women had very few rights and were dependent on a man to protect them and provide for them. A widow left with children to support—particularly daughters who would need substantial dowries to obtain powerful husbands of their own—would need to remarry. The widow in the Cinderella story would have considered herself quite fortunate to marry a widowed king.

Once a woman was married, she and her children became her husband’s property. A man could treat his wife and children however he pleased. No matter how badly he treated them, he would not be thought of as wicked. He would simply be exercising his rights as a man to use his personal property in whatever way he wished.

No wonder women like Cinderella’s stepmother were so quick to seize power and use it to their own advantage if the opportunity, such as the death of the king, arose. The stories that develop from a particular culture not only describe that culture’s values and beliefs, they also prescribe how people should live their lives. Cinderella’s stepmother would probably have gladly accepted the epithet wicked to describe her actions, as long as she could get what she wanted for herself and her daughters. But she also would have learned, along with everyone who heard this fairy tale, what happens when someone tries to dethrone the rightful heir. She gets her comeuppance in the end, when the glass slipper will fit only the dainty little foot of Cinderella, the real princess. The king may be dead, but his interests prevail in the end.

We have patriarchy to thank for the lack of a wicked stepfather archetype. Those who hold the power control the kingdom, including the cultural narratives. The king is dead. Long live the king!

Review: “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson

winesburgAnderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio
Original publication date: 1919
Rpt. New York: Random House, 1947

Sherwood Anderson’s masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio, is a collection of 23 interrelated sketches—Anderson calls them “tales”—that portray life in a Midwestern town in the early years of the twentieth century. The unifying thread throughout is the coming-of-age story of George Willard, an 18-year-old news reporter who dreams of leaving the confines of his home town and making his way in the larger world as a writer.

The book is significant historically for its use of common speech to portray its characters, the common people of Winesburg. Stylistically, Anderson influenced Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

The book is also significant historically for its place in the development of American realism and naturalism. Realism, which developed in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, emphasized the influence of social environment on characters. As realism developed, it shifted into naturalism, with an emphasis on impersonal social, economic, and biological forces on individuals. With its focus on the psychological and biological impulses of its characters, Anderson’s book illustrates the beginning of this shift. Here, for example, is the narrator’s description of Kate Swift in “The Teacher”:

Day by day as she worked in the schoolroom or walked in the streets, grief, hope, and desire fought within her. Behind a cold exterior the most extraordinary events transpired in her mind. (p. 191)

Most of the tales recount characters who have internal hungers and desires—ranging from pedophilia and God’s approval to fame, wealth, and human companionship—that they struggle to submerge in the belief that no one else harbors such secrets. For example, in “Queer” Elmer Cowley, unable to make friends after moving to Winesburg, feels that he’s always strange or abnormal, somehow different from other people:

George Willard, he felt, belonged to the town, typified the town, represented in his person the spirit of thee town. Elmer Cowley could not have believed that George Willard had also his days of unhappiness, that vague hungers and secret unnamable desires visited also his mind. (p. 234)

Anderson’s use of such subject matter is more subdued than other authors of the same time period such as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris.

Winesburg, Ohio opens with “The Book of the Grotesque,” which defines the term grotesque. In the beginning, when the world was young, there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. “Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts” (p. 4). All these truths were beautiful. Then people came along and snatched up the truths. “It was the truths that made the people grotesques… . The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood” (p. 5).

In this tale an old writer contemplates “something inside him [that] was altogether young” (p. 2). “He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes… . They were all grotesques” (p. 3). The old writer wrote a book about the grotesques but never published it. “It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man” (p. 5).

“Sophistication,” the second-to-last story in the collection, describes George Willard’s coming of age in similar terms:

In youth there are always two forces fighting in people. The warm unthinking little animal struggles against the thing that reflects and remembers, and the older, the more sophisticated thing had possession of George Willard. (p. 294)

Earlier, in “The Teacher,” Kate Swift, who had once been George Willard’s teacher, tries to explain to George “the difficulties he would have to face as a writer”:

“If you are to become a writer you’ll have to stop fooling with words … You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say” (p. 192)

Like the old writer whose tale opens the book, George must grow up while at the same time keeping the young thing inside him alive. To become a writer, he must learn to look beneath the surface of what people say to understand their inner thoughts and desires.

The tales throughout this book tell stories of human desires thwarted and human connections unrealized. The last thing that George Willard must learn as he leaves Winesburg to embark on his life as a writer is how to exist in such a world. In “Sophistication” George meets up with Helen White, a young woman he feels attracted to:

George Willard sat beside Helen White and felt very keenly his own insignificance in the scheme of existence… . the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,” was the substance of the thing felt. (pp. 295–296)

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Rereading “Anne of Green Gables”

Cover: Anne of Green GablesMontgomery, Lucy Maud. Anne of Green Gables
Original publication date: 1908

Like most young girl characters who appear in books written for girls, Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables functions for readers as a model of how to be a successful girl. These books communicate and reinforce to children the beliefs and behaviors that society deems appropriate for them to emulate. These messages may be submerged within a colorful narrative, but they are nonetheless there for youngsters unconsciously learning how to fit in and succeed in their world.

I know that I read Anne of Green Gables as a child, and I’m sure that I saw Anne as someone I should emulate. Also, Anne’s acquisition of a loving family is a theme that intrigued me throughout my own unhappy childhood. (I was fascinated at how all the Mouseketters managed to live with Jimmy and Uncle Roy in such harmony in their house on The Mickey Mouse Club.) Yet I don’t remember at all how I felt at the time about Anne or how I reacted to her story.

But on recently rereading the book, I felt a much greater affinity for Marilla than for Anne. This isn’t unreasonable, since now I resemble Marilla, not the young Anne. I was pleasantly surprised to discover how Montgomery includes in the book the growth of Marilla as much as the growth of Anne.

Early in Anne’s life at the Cuthbert farm (Chapter XI), Anne gives Marilla her opinion on the minister’s Sunday text and sermon:

It was a very long text. If I was a minister I’d pick the short, snappy ones. The sermon was awfully long, too. I suppose the minister had to match it to the text. I didn’t think he was a bit interesting. The trouble with him seems to be that he hasn’t enough imagination.

And here’s how Marilla reacts:

Marilla felt helplessly that all this should be sternly reproved, but she was hampered by the undeniable fact that some of the things Anne had said, especially about the minister’s sermons and Mr. Bell’s prayers, were what she herself had really thought deep down in her heart for years, but had never given expression to. It almost seemed to her that those secret, unuttered, critical thoughts had suddenly taken visible and accusing shape and form in the person of this outspoken morsel of neglected humanity.

Although Marilla secretly agrees with Anne, she has never had the gumption to say so. Marilla herself has been successfully socialized into what society considers proper behavior. However, Marilla at least can recognize the truth of what Anne says, even though she takes seriously her job of teaching Anne how to be polite.

Gradually Marilla softens toward Anne. When Anne hurts her ankle while playing at her friend Diana Barry’s house and Marilla sees Mr. Barry carrying Anne home (Chapter XXIII):

At that moment Marilla had a revelation. In the sudden stab of fear that pierced her very heart she realized what Anne had come to mean to her. She would have admitted that she liked Anne—nay, that she was very fond of Anne. But now she knew as she hurried wildly down the slope that Anne was dearer to her than anything else on earth.

Marilla begins to admit to herself her love for Anne, even though she doesn’t know how to express it:

The lesson of a love that should display itself easily in spoken word and open look was one Marilla could never learn. But she had learned to love this slim, gray-eyed girl with an affection all the deeper and stronger from its very undemonstrativeness. Her love made her afraid of being unduly indulgent, indeed. She had an uneasy feeling that it was rather sinful to set one’s heart so intensely on any human creature as she had set hers on Anne, and perhaps she performed a sort of unconscious penance for this by being stricter and more critical than if the girl had been less dear to her. Certainly Anne herself had no idea how Marilla loved her. (Chapter XXX)

When Anne grows taller and needs new clothes, Marilla laments her growing up:

Marilla felt a queer regret over Anne’s inches. The child she had learned to love had vanished somehow and here was this tall, serious-eyed girl of fifteen… Marilla loved the girl as much as she had loved the child, but she was conscious of a queer sorrowful sense of loss. (Chapter XXXI)

Later, Anne tells Marilla that she will always love her and Matthew:

Marilla would have given much just then to have possessed Anne’s power of putting her feelings into words; but nature and habit had willed it otherwise, and she could only put her arms close about her girl and hold her tenderly to her heart, wishing that she need never let her go. (Chapter XXXIV)

It isn’t until Matthew’s death near the end of the book that Marilla can finally tell Anne:

Oh, Anne, I know I’ve been kind of strict and harsh with you maybe—but you mustn’t think I didn’t love you as well as Matthew did, for all that. I want to tell you now when I can. It’s never been easy for me to say things out of my heart, but at times like this it’s easier. I love you as dear as if you were my own flesh and blood and you’ve been my joy and comfort ever since you came to Green Gables. (Chapter XXXVII)

By the end of the book, then, Marilla has learned not only how to love, but also how to express her love. Marilla and Anne both grow through their interaction with each other throughout the novel.

Review: “The Girl on the Train,” Paula Hawkins

Hawkins, Paula. The Girl on the Train
New York: Penguin Group, 2015
ISBN 978–1–59463–366–9

Cover: The Girl on the TrainRachel rides the same train every day on her commute to and from London, right past the street where she and her husband used to live. She’s still reeling with despair over the failure of her marriage two years earlier. Looking at their house, where her husband now lives with his new wife and their baby, is too painful, so Rachel concentrates on a house a bit down the street. Every day she observes the couple living there, a golden couple, as she thinks of them: happy and loving, comfortable with each other. Rachel fantasizes about the couple, whom she calls Jess and Jason, imagining their sophisticated careers and their perfect life together.

We learn early on that Rachel really is an emotional wreck. She’s still living in a college friend’s spare bedroom, where she crashed after the break-up of her marriage—just until she could find a place of her own. And she’s an alcoholic, a fall-down drunk subject to blackouts and lost memories. It’s no wonder she’s so obsessed with Jess and Jason’s perfect life. So when she sees something out of the ordinary going on in their back yard one day, she can’t keep herself from getting involved.

Rachel is the book’s main narrator, but there are also two other women whose viewpoint we occasionally see. As with most cases of multiple perspectives, discovering the truth requires the reader to triangulate the three narratives. The novel’s main theme is love and marriage, but equally important is the theme of control, over both one’s self and one’s life.

This book is often touted as a good read for fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which is the reason why I picked it up. Like Flynn’s novel, The Girl on the Train is a twisted love story. But it’s not nearly as tightly written or as compellingly crafted as Gone Girl. Rachel is so overdrawn that it’s hard to believe some of her outrageous actions, even given the circumstances of her life. The use of drunken blackouts and memories that tantalize and then retreat just out of reach is a convenient and common literary technique. And anyone who reads the book even half carefully will most likely figure out the catch well before the big revelation at the end.


There’s an interesting article on Hawkins and The Girl on the Train here. Writer Alexandra Alter offers this insight into the runaway success of Hawkins’s novel:

American crime fiction travels easily abroad; the converse is less often true, unless the author happens to be a J. K. Rowling or a Lee Child. But “The Girl on the Train” may have benefited from a wave of popular and unconventional suspense novels that have eroded the already thin boundary between literary fiction and thrillers. Ms. Hawkins joins the ranks of a new generation of female suspense novelists — writers like Megan Abbott, Tana French, Harriet Lane and Gillian Flynn — who are redefining contemporary crime fiction with character-driven narratives that defy genre conventions. Their novels dig into social issues, feature complex women who aren’t purely victims or vixens, and create suspense with subtle psychological developments and shifts in relationships instead of procedural plot points and car chases.

Classics Club Spin #8: “Revolutionary Road”

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rev roadYates, Richard. Revolutionary Road
Original publication date: 1961
Rpt. Random House, 2008
eISBN 978–0–307–45627–4

This novel is most often described as an anti-suburban tract, a condemnation of the life of conformity and veiled unhappiness that flourished in the U.S. after World War II. And it is that. But it’s also much more, because that vision is too simplistic. The serpent in the paradise where Frank and April Wheeler buy a house on Revolutionary Road arises from the geography of the human heart as much as from its suburban Connecticut location, where a serpent of cars continually moves along nearby Route 12.

Frank and April met in New York City, where they enjoyed a carefree life together while planning their ideal future. “According to their plan, which called for an eventual family of four, her first pregnancy came seven years too soon” (p. 65). To accommodate their altered lives, they found a starter home in a western Connecticut suburb, but the serpent has already entered their lives: “The gathering disorder of their lives might still be sorted out and made to fit these rooms, among these trees; and what if it did take time? Who could be frightened in as wide and bright, as clean and quiet a house as this?” (p. 41).

The novel begins in 1955, two years after the Wheelers’ move to the house on Revolutionary Road. Frank and April are both about to turn 30. They have the requisite two children: Jennifer, age 6, and Michael, age 4. Frank has a corporate office job that he hates and, like most men in his neighborhood, takes the train into Manhattan every morning while April stays home and cares for the children and the house.

In the novel’s opening vignette, Frank attends a community theater group performance in which April, who attended “one of the leading dramatic schools of New York” (p. 9), stars. When one of the male players becomes so nervous that he can’t go on and the female stage manager has to stand in for him, the performance falls apart. Even April can’t save it. The incident becomes a source of humiliation for April and foreshadows the collapse of their lives.

This theatrical failure is significant because both Frank’s and April’s lives are based on acting. Frank in particular is always posing as someone, assuming a particular persona. He spent his early twenties “wearing the proud mantles of ‘veteran’ and ‘intellectual’ as bravely as he wore his carefully aged tweed jacket and washed-out khakis” (p. 27). His face has “an unusual mobility: it was able to suggest wholly different personalities with each flickering change of expression” (p. 15). He performs life according to his own mental projections of how he should speak and act, as if seeing himself on stage or in a movie. After an afternoon assignation with a woman from the office, he wonders if he should apologize to her: “the very last thing in God’s world he wanted to do was apologize Did the swan apologize to Leda? Did an eagle apologize? Did a lion apologize? Hell, no” (p. 138). And April vacillates between a vague desire for something more satisfying from like than the role of the sensible middle-class housewife that she simultaneously works at projecting.

The serpent eating away at the Wheelers’ suburban lives is unfulfilled desire, the inability to make their everyday lives conform to their grand yet vague dreams of themselves. In his twenties Frank

“hardly ever entertained a doubt of his own exceptional merit. Weren’t the biographies of all great men filled with this same kind of youthful groping, this same kind of rebellion against their fathers and their fathers’ ways? He could even be grateful in a sense that he had no particular area of interest: in avoiding specific goals he had avoided specific limitations. For the time being the world, life itself, could be his chosen field” (p. 29).

After moving to the suburbs Frank continues to locate what’s wrong with the world in others, never in himself: “It’s all the idiots I ride with on the train every day. It’s a disease. Nobody thinks or feels or cares any more; nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity” (p. 81). He never loses the sense of his own superiority:

“Intelligent, thinking people could take things like this in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were” (p. 27).

It’s April who comes up with a new plan to allow Frank to discover the as yet unarticulated self he dreams of becoming. They will move to Paris. She will get a secretarial job to support them and leave Frank free to find himself. Ironically, April sees her getting a job as a way both to free herself from her housewifely existence and to allow Frank to escape the drudgery of his job. But, like their earlier grand plans, this one, too, proves impossible.

In the end, suburbia is not the cause of their unhappiness but rather the place where it unfolds. There’s a remarkable ambivalence here, for who of us has not had bigger plans that we’ve been unable to fulfill. Between the imagined vision and its achievement snakes reality. We understand the Wheelers’ dreams at the same time as we foresee the inevitability of their downfall.

“Before I Go to Sleep,” S.J. Watson: We Are What We Remember


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Before I Go to Sleep: A Novel
by S. J. Watson
HarperCollins, 2011
Kindle Edition

A woman awakens, wonders where she is, rolls over—and is shocked to see a middle-aged man wearing a wedding ring and with hairs on his back sleeping next to her. She stumbles into the bathroom, where the hand that grasps the soap doesn’t look like hers. When she looks into the mirror, a middle-aged woman she doesn’t recognize, 20 or 25 years too old to be herself, stares back at her in shock. Then the man from the bed comes into the bathroom. “I’m your husband, Ben,” he tells her, and explains that almost 20 years ago, at age 29, she had an accident that caused amnesia. Every morning he has to give her the same explanation, he says, because she loses each day’s memories when she goes to sleep at night.

The first-person narrator of these events is Christine Lucas, age 47. All she knows about her recent self is what Ben tells her before leaving for work; her own memories seem to end in her early 20s. Alone in the house and wondering what to do, she receives a phone call from a man who says that he is Dr. Nash, her doctor, and that they have been working on trying to improve her memory. She has no recollection of him but agrees to meet with him for coffee. Dr. Nash gives Christine a leather-bound book and tells her that she has been writing in as a possible way to stimulate her memory. Eager to learn something about herself, Christine opens the journal and finds three chilling words: DON’T TRUST BEN.

And so begins Christine’s journey to find out the truth about herself and her past. Each night, before going to sleep, she adds more information to the journal. Each morning Dr. Nash telephones to tell Christine to find the journal in her closet and read it. As she accumulates more information, she finds more questions than answers. And as vague snatches of memory start tantalizing her, her intuition not to trust Ben deepens.

Before I Go to Sleep is a mesmerizing page-turner, the kind that will keep the reader up all night. Who is Christine, really? What happened to cause her amnesia? And who is Ben, the man upon whom she is so dependent? Can she trust her intuition? And what will finally happen when her journal becomes too long for her to read anew every morning? The nature of the novel’s premise requires that the reader occasionally know more than Christine knows as she seeks answers to these questions, and Watson does a good job of inserting the necessary information while at the same time maintaining suspense.

Initially I read this novel on the level of the thriller that it is. But swirling just below the thriller’s surface are aspects of that most basic human question: Who am I? Christine’s drive to discover and reclaim her past is a quest for self-knowledge, for her own sense of identity: “All I want is to feel normal. To live like everybody else, with experience building on experience, each day shaping the next. I want to grow, to learn things, and from things” (p. 155). We need memories to give us a sense of the continuity of our existence. Without the knowledge of our own past, we cannot know who we are in the present. Christine realizes this as she stares at the journal containing the substance of her life: “But, I realized, these truths are all I have. They are my past. They are what makes me human. Without them, I am nothing. Nothing but an animal” (p. 160).

For Christine, finding out who she is involves rediscovering her past life experiences and the lessons she has learned from them. We all create a sense of our own identity by assembling memories of past events into a life narrative that demonstrates how we have become the person we are today. Only by reclaiming the story of her past life can Christine become a unique, independent individual. Christine realizes this near the end of the novel, when she has learned the truth about herself and her husband: “And I will tell him about this journal, that finally I am able to give myself a narrative, a life, and I will show it to him, if he asks to see it. And then I can continue to use it, to tell my story, my autobiography. To create myself from nothing” (p. 274).

This review originally appeared on Metapsychology Online Reviews.

© 2011 by Mary Daniels Brown