Posts Tagged ‘crime’

I hope I don’t have to tell you how much I love this book. Love is so hard to quantify, and a look through my posting history ought to tell you that this is precisely the sort of book that I value highly. I know that some people see it primarily as a book about adultery, but that’s hardly the point. There’s an incident before the book begins, but there are no sexual acts performed by the characters during the course of the book. This is a book about justice and rehabilitation, not crime.

We begin with Hester Prynne. Back in early seventeenth-century England, she grew up in the country and was married to an old scholar. He decided to relocate to Boston, so he sent her on ahead. After two years without seeing or hearing from him, she started to give him up for dead. And then she becomes pregnant, and her troubles really begin. She has some jail time, and some public shaming on the scaffold where the stocks are kept. Then, for the rest of her life, she has to wear a red A on her chest as a constant reminder of her sin and shame. Well. We call it a red A, and Hawthorne calls it the scarlet letter, but the background fabric is red and the letter itself is in gold thread. It’s so beautiful that strangers sometimes mistake it for a badge of honor, and Hester’s artistic skill with the needle is so intense that no one can recreate what she’s done, not even by backing the thread out and tracing backwards. She takes her daughter to live in an abandoned house on the edge of town, and unleashes her artistic revolutionary soul in solitude. Hester has an acute awareness of the injustices of society against women, and dreams of being a prophet of the new age, proclaiming the equality and rights of women. Which leads to what I find to be one of the creepiest lines in the book:

The scarlet letter had not done its office.

From our position in the twenty-first century, it’s expected that we’ll admire Hester’s rebellious spirit – because she’s right. But Hawthorne is writing in the nineteenth century, when women were valued for their inactivity and endurance, and his story is set farther back still, two hundred years before his own time, when according to Virginia Woolf women were beaten and flung about the room with impunity. Besides, Hester’s rebellion drove her to break the law, and sending the attitude underground is no guarantee that she won’t break the law again. Outwardly she is a model citizen while inwardly she longs to burn the world down and start over. The town elders even begin to discuss allowing her to remove the scarlet letter, but she won’t let them take it from her. I don’t blame her – if I had a free pass out of social obligations, I would hang on to it too. The scarlet letter holds her outside of society, which helps her to have such a different perspective. She doesn’t want to be just like everybody else.

The letter represents human justice and all its inadequacies. The idea behind it is that forced suffering will teach criminals to value society and its laws, a sort of Stockholm syndrome hope. Divine justice, based on the idea that love heals and unites us, gives Hester a daughter, Pearl. Pearl is a weird kid, in a city full of weird kids. She’s light and graceful and dances all over the place, imaginative and artistic like her mother. Seeing these qualities in children often upsets adults because society trains us to pour our imagination into prescribed channels, but kids don’t know the prescribed channels, so it’s more like a flood that pours over everything. Nothing is off limits, no thought too strange, no subject too holy. She has a natural irreverence that seems to come with youth and intelligence. Hester traces all her iconoclasm to the crime that conceived her, but that’s Puritan values. Does anyone really want Pearl to be like other kids, who say things like:

Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!

Kids are jerks. But the town leaders worry about this one, and discuss taking Pearl away from Hester for the sake of her soul. They think Pearl will grow up better without being raised by the town harlot. But Hester argues passionately for her right to keep her child, and they relent. As the book progresses, Pearl drifts closer and closer to revealing her father’s secret, which is after all a major part of the real justice Hawthorne is portraying. And through the love of Pearl, Hester really does calm down and rehabilitate. She still sees the injustice, but she gives up the idea of changing things by herself. For Hawthorne, criminals have no place in the revolution. Women’s rights have to be won by blameless women. I understand his point, that in order for changes to happen at the top of society they need to be championed by people that society’s leaders will listen to, and it’s hard to get people to listen to a single mom with a criminal record. But if no one breaks laws, no one will realize the laws are unfair. If no one breaks taboos, society doesn’t change.

Roger Chillingworth is Hester’s husband. He didn’t die on the crossing from Amsterdam; he had been living among the Native Americans, learning their systems of healing. At the time we meet him, he’s skilled in four-humors medicine, alchemy, and homeopathy, which is the highest we could say for a doctor in the seventeenth century. He sees Hester’s public shame and convinces her to conceal his identity so he can search for the man who cuckolded him and drive him to confession. When he finds his target, he psychologically tortures him while tending to his illnesses – Chillingworth’s alchemy leads the man’s body to produce a scarlet letter on his chest, red on pale skin, the visible sign pushed out from the adulterous heart. Chillingworth frames this to himself as a quest for justice, but he’s really only interested in punishment and revenge. It reminds me a bit of the television program Lucifer, where the title character is constantly pointing out that the devil doesn’t take pleasure in sin – it’s his job to punish it, that’s all. TV Lucifer likes joy and tries to convince people to have a good time, so long as it remains innocent and consensual. I don’t mean devoid of alcohol, drugs, and sex; by innocent, I mean there is no malice. But as Chillingworth dives deeper into his vengeance, he takes joy in his victim’s suffering. For Hawthorne, this is worse than the adultery. Chillingworth learns to love malice; it becomes the only important feature of his character. By focusing exclusively on one goal, and that goal being to cause pain, Chillingworth becomes an evil caricature of his former self, twisted psychologically as much as he has scoliosis physically.

The fourth principal character is Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister who fucked Hester, both literally because he loves her and figuratively because he’s too afraid of losing his position to stand with her. Because of his fear, she has to go through all of this alone. While Hester is on the path of healing and Chillingworth is on the path of vengeance, Dimmesdale shows us the effect of hidden sin, crimes unconfessed. This theme gets a much more careful representation in Crime and Punishment, where Dostoevsky demonstrates the extreme stress of feeling guilty and holding it inside. Dimmesdale’s poor mental health affects his physical health as well, and he wastes away from the constant stress of seeming the opposite of what he feels himself to be. In many ways he’s like a closeted gay man – being gay isn’t sinful, but staying in the closet involves the same type of duplicity and vigilance. He has a secret that no one must infer; he must hide the core of who he is from everyone he meets. There is no relaxation, only self-hatred and lies. Even when alone, he just punishes himself. It’s no wonder he goes crazy and dies. The relief of confessing the reality of his soul is so intense, and the required change in his lifestyle is so extreme, that he collapses on the spot. But his confession is necessary for the closure in all the other stories as well – Chillingworth’s vengeance, Hester’s rehabilitation, and Pearl’s socialization all require it. Dimmesdale’s refusal to confess doesn’t just hurt him; it retards everyone’s progress. Secrets are poisonous, and there are very few that I find myself willing or able to keep. Those few are related to situations that I didn’t create and are none of my business, and the people I keep them for are very special to me indeed.

It is hard to calculate the impact of this book. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela has been called the first British novel because it was the first piece of extended prose fiction that delved heavily into the psychology of its protagonist; The Scarlet Letter holds a similar position in American literary history. I don’t mean to imply a bad opinion of Irving or Cooper; it’s just that Hawthorne popularized the inward look in a way that they didn’t. Charlotte Temple and Hope Leslie aren’t quite as meditative either, but the critics who defined The First Great American Novel would never have ascribed that title to one written by a woman, even though Charlotte Temple was the first American bestseller and Hope Leslie has an exploding pirate ship.

It’s fairly well-known that The Scarlet Letter changed the course of Melville’s career – he seems to have had a bit of a crush on Hawthorne, from the extreme praise he printed of Mosses from an Old Manse and Hawthorne’s discomfort on meeting him in person. People hear that he read The Scarlet Letter while writing Moby-Dick and then blame Hawthorne for all the cetology, but have you ever looked at White-Jacket? It’s the book before Moby-Dick, and it’s all about describing the mundanities of life on a man-of-war and drawing parallels to life in general. Hawthorne didn’t teach Melville to do allegory; he showed him that it’s possible to combine allegory with a good story. There doesn’t have to be a separation between the two. And, of course, critics at the time hated Moby-Dick, so The Scarlet Letter led to the bitterness that flowers so uncomfortably in Pierre and the later works.

It also had a strong effect on George Eliot. Her first full-length novel, Adam Bede, is a retelling of The Scarlet Letter in a Hardy-esque Wessex. Arthur Dimmesdale becomes Arthur Donnithorne, Hester Prynne becomes Hester Sorrel, and Roger Chillingworth becomes Adam Bede. Eliot focuses on the suffering rather than the justice, because she’s writing a tragedy rather than a journey. When I think of Adam Bede, though, I tend to focus on Dinah Morris’s story, the young woman preacher who marries Adam in the end. She reminds us that Eliot’s previous fiction is the Scenes from Clerical Life. Dinah shows us graphically that a woman can be a prophet, though she is the type of ‘pure’ woman that Hawthorne imagines central to gaining respect for women’s issues. In her own life as mistress to an unhappily married man, Eliot must have had a lot of sympathy for Hester Prynne, more than I could muster for Hettie Sorrel back when I read Adam Bede for the first time. Hester is intelligent and artistic, two qualities I value, but Hettie’s just a pretty face masking a pile of discontent. I never understood what Adam Bede saw in her.

The biggest effect, though, is in the way Hawthorne taught us to think about the Puritans. By all accounts they were never as ugly, joyless, and strict as he represents them. But The Scarlet Letter is more often and less critically read than historical documents, so people assume Hawthorne knew what he was talking about. He was closer to us in time than to his subject. It’s like the whole Jonathan Edwards thing. In school, we read “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” and assume that he and all the other Puritans were obsessed with hell and believed in a God of hate, disappointed in our goodness because he longs to throw us into the fire like unwanted spiders. But if you read Edwards’s journals, you find that he was a mostly happy guy who loved nature, God, and the people around him. He was a lot closer to modern evangelicals than people think when they only read the one revival sermon. In fact, we’re so similar that a few years ago someone made a movie of Emma Stone as Hester Prynne in a modern California high school.

Of course, with me being who I am, I see it as a story of two people who fall in love in a society that tells them that they can’t. And despite all of the bullshit, Hester and Arthur really do love each other.

And, as if the gloom of the earth and sky had been but the effluence of these two mortal hearts, it vanished with their sorrow. All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the gray trunks of the solemn trees. The objects that had made a shadow hitherto, embodied the brightness now. The course of the little brook might be traced by its merry gleam afar into the wood’s heart of mystery, which had become a mystery of joy.

Such was the sympathy of Nature – that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth – with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a death-like slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!

Love is love. Hester’s marriage to Chillingworth, which even he admits was a mistake, creates some legal troubles, but her love with Arthur is as real and intense as anyone else’s. Hidden, but real. It draws my attention back to my own situation, of being in an affair with a man who is still legally married to his wife. I’ll admit that I don’t completely understand why he lives as he does, especially when I see how little happiness it brings him. I guess Norman Bates is right, that some people get stuck in traps and can’t get out of them. I’m doing my best to motivate him, but he has to get out of this on his own. I can’t do it for him.

I read this book during my transition to a new house in a new town. I’ve been having to take a lot of self-care time these last few weeks, but hopefully I’ll be able to put more time and attention into being a student and less into being a ball of anxiety. Getting my financial aid check will help – food insecurity makes everything else seem unimportant.

Speaking of perceived unimportance, I want to put in a good word for “The Custom House.” A lot of people skip it, but I find it a delight. Hawthorne describes his time working for the government as a customs agent and a few of the incredibly aged people who work there with him. He stresses the importance of paying attention to daily life, which is a skill I don’t always have.

The fault was mine. The page of life that was spread out before me seemed dull and commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than I shall ever write was there; leaf after leaf presenting itself to me, just as it was written out by the reality of the flitting hour, and vanishing as fast as written, only because my brain wanted the insight and my hand the cunning to transcribe it. At some future day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered fragments and broken paragraphs, and write them down, and find the letters turn to gold upon the page.

It’s hard to understand what’s important as we’re going through the daily round. When do changes take place inside us? How do our desires and needs change? Why is literature so interested in moments of change rather than moments of stasis? When it comes to life, I’m better at the big picture, the broad strokes. Other people are good at the diurnal continuity. I think that a life well lived needs both; I value the part that I’m good at because I value myself, and people who are good at the everyday stuff should do the same.

I hesitate to make sweeping generalizations, like Everyone should read this book, but everyone should really read this book. It’s about justice, forgiveness, and living openly and honestly without fear. We all make mistakes, so it’s important to learn how to restore our sense of ourselves when we’ve violated our internal laws. None of us lives up to our own standards all the time, so we have to forgive ourselves and press forward. It’s a book about how to go on living when you start to hate yourself, as well as how to stop hating yourself once you start. It also stresses the importance of gender equality, and we’re still working on that nearly two hundred years later. The long sentences and advanced vocabulary can be a challenge, but I think it’s worth it.

Advertisements

I must confess, this is the first time I’ve read this book. I’m always a little behind the times. Some of my students are reading this with their regular English teacher, though, so I read it in case I need to field any additional questions. It’s very well written; I’m not really clear on how creative nonfiction developed as a genre, but this seems like it should be one of the monoliths of twentieth-century American nonfiction. (You know the monoliths; monoliths of British literature before 1750 are Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton, for example).

This is the story of how two paroled criminals broke into the Clutter family home and killed them all, followed by the longer story of how they were caught and eventually executed. Sorry to give away the ending, but these are historical events. It’s all on public record.

The first part, telling about the day before the killings, has a similar feel to it as Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain.” It’s almost like fate impelled these two groups of people to interact in predetermined ways. I say almost, because things could easily have happened differently. When I was teaching composition at a community college, I’d ask the students to write a short autobiography. They came from all over the country, and several from other countries, to end up in our rural Southern town, studying various things for various reasons, but the cumulative effect of reading all those stories was that I started thinking of the town as a black hole that sucked people in from all over the place and refused to let them leave. It’s not true, of that or any other town, but when we know the end of the story, all the steps before it seem preordained instead of governed by human choices. Capote focuses on the seemingly fatalistic nature of the story, perhaps as a way to exculpate the murderers:

But the confessions, though they answered questions of how and why, failed to satisfy his sense of meaningful design. The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning. Except for one thing: they had experienced prolonged terror, they had suffered. And Dewey could not forget their sufferings. Nonetheless, he found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger – with, rather, a measure of sympathy – for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another. Dewey’s sympathy, however, was not deep enough to accommodate either forgiveness or mercy. He hoped to see Perry and his partner hanged – hanged back to back.

And Perry in particular, as in this comment on his family:

Strong character, high courage, hard work – it seemed that none of these were determining factors in the fates of Tex John’s children. They shared a doom against which virtue was no defense.

If this book has a protagonist, it is Perry Smith. Capote lends him the most sympathy, perhaps because he needs it the most, being the man who pulled the trigger. Or maybe he just liked him the most; it could be a gay thing.

Homosexuality is, in my opinion, one of the most significant issues in the book. What can you say about it in print in 1965? How did people live that in 1959? Growing up in the rural South, I was taught to see the 1950s as an unspoiled Eden, where people were safe, prosperous, and happy. This apparent paradise came at a cost, though, and I only learned the price of conformity later. It seems to me that if he were alive today, Perry would be gay. Think of the evidence in the book: he claims that the queens just won’t leave him alone, yet the homosexuals I know would only continue bothering him if he liked it, or were really good at it. He was a sailor and a soldier, two male-only environments at the time, and later he got sent to prison, another opportunity to be with only men. He looks down on men whom he perceives as unable to control their sexual desires, which usually seems to mean they are up front about their interest in women. One of Perry’s most prized possessions is a scrapbook filled with pictures of bodybuilders that he’s taken from magazines. He and his former cellmate call each other romantic endearments, and while I’m not entirely up on the Bro Code of the 1950s, I know that straight men today don’t call each other those names. Perry’s most intense friendship is with someone he says is queer, and the idea of seeing him again makes Perry break his parole and return to Kansas.

And what is the life of a gay man in the 1950s? One of constant evasion. He hides in periodic, short-lived relationships with women, but he hates himself for what he sees as an insuperable character flaw, an evil that cannot be eradicated. In liberal areas, large cities and artist colonies, for example, he might find some support and friends he can be out with, and some gay men even found necessarily secret communities and lifelong lovers. But for someone who’s poor and rural, like Perry, these comforts are permanently out of reach. As my friends like to say, it’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

Why is it that when I really like or identify with someone in fiction, that person always turns out to be either evil or crazy? Like in the new Point Break, which is full of bearded ecowarriors with foreign accents (aka, sexy as all get-out), but it makes them the bad guys, and they all die. Perry is diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic at the end of the book, which makes me have to remind myself that I’m a mental illness hypochondriac and not actually a paranoid schizophrenic. I spent most of the book thinking he was the good one, and even after I know he was the murderer I still have the most sympathy for him. Perry feels like the world is out to get him, which makes perfect sense when you consider his experience with the world, but I think his most important problem is that he doesn’t have an emotional response to the suffering of others. I don’t remember if this makes him a psychopath or a sociopath, but certainly it’s something pathological. And it’s something I clearly don’t have; I feel other people’s pain rather more than other people admit to.

Perry’s partner, Dick, is not much like him. He’s much more integrated into his family and has fewer homosexual tendencies. Capote implies that he’s using sex to manipulate Perry, and whether he’s using sex or not, Dick does see Perry as a tool instead of a person. After Perry is released on parole, Dick’s new cellmate tells him about the Clutter family. Dick hatches the plot of robbing and murdering the whole family, but he needs Perry to put it into action because he thinks Perry will be able to kill them if Dick can’t. Dick is a pedophile, so his real goal is to rape the sixteen-year-old daughter, but Perry stops him (another reason I like him – I am also opposed to raping teenage girls, or anyone else. Rape is bad). There are two versions of the story, so we don’t really know whether Perry killed all four Clutters or only the two male family members, so it is possible that Dick didn’t have what it takes to kill after all. I suppose an inability to kill is not really a negative trait, but if you’re going to make this type of plan, you should be willing to do it. Don’t ask someone else to do something that you’re not ready to do yourself.

I suppose the victims are sort of important too, but the book isn’t really about them (once they’re in the ground, they’re out of the story). The Clutters exemplify the Edenic sort of life I was brought up to assume was characteristic of the time. Hardworking, intelligent, and ambitious, they are also kind and helpful. Nancy Clutter is precisely the type of girl the culture tells us everyone should want to be, be with, or both. Her little brother is always building or inventing something, and her mentally ill mother keeps out of the way of the successes of the rest of the family. One of the things that Dick doesn’t understand about families like the Clutters is that not all of their prosperity is proven by actual cash on hand. On a farm, success is shown by the system’s ability to perpetuate itself, so wealth is recognized as goods that the farm can use, such as grain for the animals or preserved food for the humans. To make matters worse, Herb Clutter is famous for never using cash; he writes checks for everything. Yes, Dick is an expert at writing bad checks, but he doesn’t think through all of this. He doesn’t have enough information to get what he wants: to rape the girl, and then to commit the murders and robbery without getting caught.

I’m actually more interested in their community. People are more forgiving than I imagine people today to be, or maybe people are more forgiving individually than in a group. For example, Nancy’s best friend:

Anyway, I don’t much care who did it. Somehow it seems beside the point. My friend is gone. Knowing who killed her isn’t going to bring her back. What else matters?

A local pastor:

I have even heard on more than one occasion that the man, when found, should be hanged from the nearest tree. Let us not feel this way. The deed is done and taking another life cannot change it. Instead, let us forgive as God would have us do. It is not right that we should hold a grudge in our hearts. The doer of this act is going to find it difficult indeed to live with himself. His only peace of mind will be when he goes to God for forgiveness. Let us not stand in the way but instead give prayers that he may find his peace.

Their peer group:

The aristocracy of Finney County had snubbed the trial. “It doesn’t do,” announced the wife of one rich rancher, to seem curious about that sort of thing.”

And their governor:

The late George Docking, Governor of Kansas from 1957 through 1960, was responsible for this hiatus [in carrying out executions], for he was unreservedly opposed to the death penalty (“I just don’t like killing people”).

And yet, when confronted with the jury, Perry thinks

Those prairiebillys, they’ll vote to hang fast as pigs eat slop. Look at their eyes. I’ll be damned if I’m the only killer in the courtroom.

Why? It could be the paranoia, I suppose. But I think that it’s because people are there for the show. The trial is entertainment, as the justice system has always been. Think of the broadsheet heroes that Foucault talks about in Discipline and Punish; they boast and swagger all the way to the gallows, with the crowd laughing, cheering, jeering, and hissing. Maybe they only care insofar as it affects them, and they’d feel personally betrayed if the murderers went free. If you start a mystery story, you want to know the end; you want closure – you want to feel that the world works in clearly understandable ways, and that every problem has a solution. But (circling back), in some ways, now that The People have replaced the monarch, that feeling of betrayal is justified. But I think this bit about the post office might be an accurate representation of their attitude in general:

The people of Holcomb speak of their post office as “the Federal Building,” which seems rather too substantial a title to confer on a drafty and dusty shed. The ceiling leaks, the floor boards wobble, the mailboxes won’t shut, the light bulbs are broken, the clock has stopped. “Yes, it’s a disgrace,” agrees the caustic, somewhat original, and entirely imposing lady who presides over this litter. “But the stamps work, don’t they? Anyhow, what do I care? Back here in my part is real cozy. I’ve got my rocker, and a nice wood stove, and a coffee pot, and plenty to read.”

And, there’s this bit from Perry’s friend Willie-Jay:

What could be more conventional than a housewife with three children, who is “dedicated” to her family???? What could be more natural than that she would resent an unconventional person.

In some ways, it feels like Capote is the unconventional person resented by the conventional masses; Perry has that in common with him, and I feel something similar about the ex, who defines herself as a stay-at-home mom who is not only dedicated but devoted to her children. She wasn’t that interested in being a housewife; before the kids were born, we were content to ignore conventional gender roles, but afterward, it was all skirts and submission and OccMan has to go get three jobs because manliness means voluntary misery.

One of Perry’s dreams, toward the end, seems just like an episode of The Twilight Zone; I’d love to see it onscreen.

His favorite old theatrical fantasy, the one in which he thought of himself as “Perry O’Parsons, The One-Man Symphony,” returned in the guise of a recurrent dream. The dream’s geographical center was a Las Vegas night club where, wearing a white top hat and a white tuxedo, he strutted about a spotlighted stage playing in turn a harmonica, a guitar, a banjo, drums, sang “You Are My Sunshine,” and tap-danced up a short flight of gold-painted prop steps; at the top, standing on a platform, he took a bow. There was no applause, none, and yet thousands of patrons packed the vast and gaudy room – a strange audience, mostly men and mostly Negroes. Staring at them, the perspiring entertainer at last understood their silence, for suddenly he knew that these were phantoms, the ghosts of the legally annihilated, the hanged, the gassed, the electrocuted – and in the same instant he realized that he was there to join them, that the gold-painted steps had led to a scaffold, that the platform on which he stood was opening beneath him. His top hat tumbled; urinating and defecating, Perry O’Parsons entered eternity.

It’s not a bad way to go. Singing, dancing, playing music . . . I’m still drawn to an audience, even after all these years away from a stage. I hope that in his last moments Perry found some peace, recovered some self-regard. I think that Capote’s nonfiction novel, though it came after his death, gives Perry the acclaim that he always wanted.

CAPOTE

I just rewatched the film about the writing of In Cold Blood, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote. I must say, the view we get from the film is completely different than the one in the book. [Apparently there was another Capote film called Infamous, with more star power but less adherence to historical fact.] First, Perry looks as white as they come instead of having the coloring of his full-blooded Native American mother. Then, there’s the way Capote is a self-promoting manipulator who will do anything to get his next novel written, even getting someone killed. In the book, he’s so self-effacing that you don’t notice the author/narrator’s personality at all. But there again, I may be projecting myself onto him. I took one of those facebook quizzes a month or two ago, How Evil Are You?, and I discovered that in most ways, I’m not very evil at all. However. Apparently I have a manipulative/Machiavellian side, and it’s not so much a side as it is two-thirds of my character. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t befriend and possibly encourage some amorous contact with someone just so that I could write a book about the worst thing he’s ever done, and then try to conceal the fact from him until he’s been executed for it. I’d also like to think that Truman Capote didn’t, but I can’t say for sure. I have no idea how much truth is in the film, though for that matter I don’t know how much truth is in Capote’s book. All I can say is, these two texts present the same period of time very differently. And it’s likely that something terrible happened either to or within Truman Capote, because he lived for another twenty years and didn’t finish another book. Yes, think of DeLillo’s Mao II, but also think of watching Perry get executed, knowing that it’s the perfect ending to your book and also knowing that you really care for this person and want him to live. A breakdown makes sense.

A year or so ago, I was doing a reading exercise with some students, and I learned that one of the best-selling poets of all time is this Lebanese guy who wrote partly in Arabic and partly in English. I thought it strange that someone so apparently well-known was completely unknown to me, so when I saw one of his books in a used shop in the US, I picked it up. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Kahlil Gibran was born in the part of the Ottoman Empire that is now Lebanon. He was a Levantine Christian, so Islam was also a big influence on his religious thinking. He wrote poetry in Arabic in the nineteen-aughts, then emigrated to the United States and switched to English. It’s the sort of genre-bending mystical . . . my inner optimist calls it meditation, but my pessimist calls it bullshit . . . that was popular in the 1920s, and then again in the 1960s, and is having a resurgence now. It has the same sort of vague spiritual guidance that appeals to the readers of Paulo Coelho, but with less pretense of story. I can understand why there are busts of this guy in public parks all over Brazil. The only people who have sold more poetry are William Shakespeare and Lao Tzu.

The Prophet is prose poetry, so it’s spaced to look like poetry with Whitmanian long lines, but no attempts at rhyme or meter, nor much in the way of obscure figurative language. The similes and metaphors are pretty obvious, and they’re meant to be. For example, this bit about marriage:

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

This is pretty close to the opposite of how the ex viewed marriage. For her, love was a bond, one that tied us together rather tightly. For someone who had been through twenty-three years of never having been in love, it was exciting. Someone actually wants me around all the time? Someone wanting me around at all was a novelty. After seven years, though, I just wanted to sit still in my own house with no one touching me for about half an hour a day. Too much. As for that moving sea, we were the perfect example of how the friction of plate tectonics creates continental drift. Two plates start out with a more or less complete joining, but as new stuff comes up between them they change shape and push each other away. With more space between us, we could have grown and changed without needing to drift apart. I’m not saying that the divorce was her fault, I’m the one who’s a homosexual, but there was a lot of unhealthy stuff going down that had nothing to do with my coming out.

Gibran’s meditations extend over much of what constitutes society and our lives in it, like this bit about justice:

And this also, though the word lie heavy upon your hearts:
The murdered is not unaccountable for his own murder,
And the robbed is not blameless in being robbed.
The righteous is not innocent of the deeds of the wicked,
And the white-handed is not clean in the doings of the felon.
Yea, the guilty is oftentimes the victim of the injured,
And still more often the condemned is the burden bearer for the guiltless and unblamed.
You cannot separate the just from the unjust and the good from the wicked;
For they stand together before the face of the sun even as the black thread and the white are woven together.
And when the black thread breaks, the weaver shall look into the whole cloth, and he shall examine the loom also.

In the West, we’ve been blaming the victim for far too long. I don’t think that is what Gibran is driving at here. I don’t think he’s blaming rape on short skirts, or victims of theft for leaving the skylight unlocked. He’s pointing out that crime is evidence of systemic problems, not one genetic mutation that has no bearing on the entire society. When a rape happens, yes, blame the rapist, but also examine the cultural ideas that led him to that action. The article is not in the current edition, but about fifteen years ago Rereading America had a piece that examined the attitude toward women on college campuses, and the authors discovered that one-third of male college students would rape a woman if they thought they could get away with it. And that’s based on the response on an anonymous questionnaire; the real number is probably higher. So we’ve been focusing on giving women rape whistles and that dreadful-looking device that women can wear inside them that works like a car boot but on a dick, but are we really creating a society where women are sufficiently respected? Does society give men power over their lives, so they don’t try to regain that sense of control through sexual violence? Do we train people in nonviolent conflict resolution, so they know how to manage their issues without hurting someone else? We focus on keeping them from getting away with it instead of teaching them not to rape. It’s like when Donne said that no man is an island; we’re all connected, so the crime of one person reflects the ideology of the entire society. We put all of the blame on either the victim or the perpetrator without thinking about how we who are not directly involved encourage crime. American movies and music have glorified crime for rather a long time, so now we have more people in prison than live in all of Latvia. Or about fifteen times the number of convicts that England sent to Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.
Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody.
But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements?

Gibran is speaking about the balance within a person, but I think that this extends to all of society. Our problems come about because we insist on this us-them attitude; we believe that some people have no place in our society. It seems that most criminals feel that society has a vendetta against them, and when you examine the facts of their lives, they can present some pretty compelling evidence. If we build a society where everyone has a place, where there is no outer darkness where we thrust the undesirables, if we stopped seeing our fellow human beings as undesirable, maybe we wouldn’t have so much crime. I’m drifting into a Foucault rant. Let’s stop.

Your daily life is your temple and your religion.
Whenever you enter into it take with you your all.
Take the plough and the forge and the mallet and the lute,
The things you have fashioned in necessity or for delight.
For in revery you cannot rise above your achievements nor fall lower than your failures.

One of the problems I have with the faith I was raised in is their idea of sacredness. Some objects and concepts are sacred, and others are not. Some places are sacred, some times are sacred, others are not. You should always take communion with your right hand because the right hand is more sacred than the left. I think it’s ridiculous. I took communion with my right hand because I’m right-handed; it’s the same hand I use to wipe my ass with. I also use it to shake strangers’ hands, strum the guitar, eat apples, handle my . . . hm, I do just about everything with it. Is there something about a church that suddenly sanctifies the hand I wank with? For me, the important religious concepts are awareness and love. Church buildings and services don’t necessarily help me with those. I feel my awareness expanding and heightening in the woods or gardens, seldom indoors; I feel closer to a perfect love when I’m having pizza and beer with friends than when I’m reading psalms in unison with a roomful of people I don’t know well. A grateful, loving awareness of the earth and people around me can make any time or space sacred. Which means that aesthetic appreciation is as close to godliness as I get.

Going along with this pantheistic theme, here’s a bit about the use of money:

And if there come the singers and the dancers and the flute players, – buy of their gifts also.
For they too are gatherers of fruit and frankincense, and that which they bring, though fashioned of dreams, is raiment and food for your soul.

I’ve heard people talk a lot about leaving a financial legacy for their children, securing property of lasting value, that sort of thing, but I think it’s a crock of shit. My parents only showed love by buying us stuff, but we were so poor that we only got stuff at Christmas or birthdays, and most of the year it was dried beans and the one kerosene heater that wasn’t really intended for indoor use. Looking back, I’d rather have had fewer toys at Christmas and a stronger conviction that I was loved and valued. Possessions are not the same thing as love. Let’s put money into having good experiences, going to a play or a concert; they may be fleeting, but the relationships we build around them endure longer than any piece of dross we can purchase. When I look at acquaintances who lose their parents, no one seems comforted by the size of their inheritance.

So yeah, Gibran encourages all of my most extreme hippie tendencies. If you don’t have any, or distrust the occasional temptation to wear headbands and tie-dyed shirts, handle this book with care. If, on the other hand, you kind of wish they had elected McGovern back in ‘72, get this book and keep it close to your heart.

No one questions the supremacy of Mr Dickens in the realm of the Victorian novel. Not only was he the most popular novelist, he made sure that ladies could read his stories without wandering outside the boundaries of respectability. Perhaps this is why I almost always mentally refer to him as Mr – there’s something about him that keeps me at a distance. No amount of biographical research has conquered this respectable lack of intimacy. Most of his contemporaries that we still read were not so cautious. Thackeray, for example, once tried to flirt with Charlotte Brontë by talking about the ‘naughty’ books they both wrote [She shut him down, of course, with absolutely no hesitation]. The lack of respectability doesn’t seem to have injured Brontë any, as she was second in popularity, and coming in at third was the fiercely antagonistic Wilkie Collins. He chafed at selling fewer books than a woman, but when all the reviews pan your books for their immorality (despite their commercial success), you have to face the consequences.

Collins’s career falls into three stages: before 1860, 1860-1870, and after 1870. The early novels were a bit shorter than we’re used to from the 1850s (think about the size of Bleak House, or Villette), and they rocked the boat a little. Collins likes to use characters who are traditionally excluded from society, as in Hide and Seek, where the heroine is deaf. That book also ends without a marriage; Collins creates a family without legal ties. The middle stage of his career is by far the most successful, and contains the two books that still get read in college courses. For Collins, 1860 means The Woman in White, the novel that launched his fame. He was so proud of it that he had it etched on his tombstone. Everyone’s favourite character from it, Marian Halcombe, received a number of marriage proposals, and I’ll admit to falling in love with her a little myself. Then there were No Name and Armadale, both fine novels. But everyone gets all het up over The Moonstone, which TSEliot once called the first, best, and longest British detective story. I tend to take issue with all of these superlatives, because there were clearly fictional detectives before 1868, some of them were longer (The Moonstone isn’t that long, compared to other books of its time), and I don’t find that it improves on rereading. Yes, I laugh at Miss Clack, yes, I identify with Ezra Jennings and Mr Murthwaite, but Gabriel Betteredge, Franklin Blake, and Rachel Verinder, the most prominent characters, fail to keep my attention. Once you know the secret, the book loses its interest. In 1870 Collins produced Man and Wife, which is like No Name and Armadale in being a perfectly fine Victorian novel overshadowed by the ones the academy pays more attention to. It marks the turning point in Collins’s career because the plot is obviously politically motivated. In the later part of his career Collins points out the absurdity of the complex marriage laws in the United Kingdom, by writing stories that illustrate the nonsensical points by which unethical men can contest their own marriages to unsuspecting ladies. They’re so painfully allegorical that they stop being believable. There are also some short stories that feel like truncated novels. The bright spot of the later career is The Law and the Lady, which features the first female detective. Valeria is out to clear her husband’s name, and deserves some attention for being a pregnant first-person narrator written in the 1870s. Seriously, sometimes fictional Victorian babies just pop out of nowhere.

Despite gendered comments on his rivalry with Brontë, Collins seems to have had a higher opinion of women than most people of his time.

You say I am driving you on to do what is beyond a woman’s courage. Am I? I might refer you to any collection of Trials, English or foreign, to show that you were utterly wrong. […] The woman was handsome, and the sailor was a good-natured man. He wanted, at first, if the lawyers would have allowed him, to let her off. He said to her, among other things, ‘You didn’t count on the drowned man coming back, alive and hearty, did you, ma’am?’ ‘It’s lucky for you,’ she said, ‘I didn’t count on it. You have escaped the sea, but you wouldn’t have escaped me.’ ‘Why, what would you have done, if you had known I was coming back?’ says the sailor. She looked him steadily in the face, and answered: ‘I would have killed you.’

Can you imagine such a passage in one of Mr Dickens’s? His female murderers, aside from being French, are generally not this chatty. They’ll do it, but they won’t go in front of a judge and affirm their willingness to commit a crime that they have not yet committed. To use a colloquial vulgarity, Collins’s women have balls. Big huge lady-balls. Most of them are in positions that no man of his time would have submitted to, but they survive and find ways to be happy. The efforts are often heroic, and sometimes almost superhuman.

But I don’t complain; I only mourn over the frailty of our common human nature. Let us expect as little of each other as possible, my dear; we are both women, and we can’t help it. I declare, when I reflect on the origin of our unfortunate sex – when I remember that we were all originally made of no better material than the rib of a man (and that rib of so little importance to its possessor that he never appears to have missed it afterwards), I am quite astonished at our virtues, and not in the least surprised at our faults.

Collins just can’t stand conventional people. His disdain of them is rather apparent in most of his novels; they have so few characters because his protagonists have to hate the run-of-the-mill as much as he does.

What had Allan seen in him to take such a fancy to? Allan had seen in him – what he didn’t see in people in general. He wasn’t like all the other fellows in the neighbourhood. All the other fellows were cut out on the same pattern. Every man of them was equally healthy, muscular, loud, hard-headed, clean-skinned, and rough; every man of them drank the same draughts of beer, smoked the same short pipes all day long, rode the best horse, shot over the best dog, and put the best bottle of wine in England on his table at night; every man of them sponged himself every morning in the same sort of tub of cold water, and bragged about it in frosty weather in the same sort of way; every man of them thought getting into debt a capital joke, and betting on horse-races one of the most meritorious actions that a human being can perform. They were no doubt excellent fellows in their way; but the worst of them was, they were all exactly alike. It was a perfect godsend to meet with a man like Midwinter – a man who was not cut out on the regular local pattern, and whose way in the world had the one great merit (in those parts) of being a way of his own.

Of course, such a man must fall in love with an unusual woman. Instead of the customary beautiful teenager full of airs and graces, Allan takes to Miss Milroy:

She was pretty; she was not pretty – she charmed, she disappointed, she charmed again. Tried by recognized line and rule, she was too short, and too well-developed for her age. And yet few men’s eyes would have wished her figure other than it was. Her hands were so prettily plump and dimpled, that it was hard to see how red they were with the blessed exuberance of youth and health. Her feet apologized gracefully for her old and ill-fitting shoes; and her shoulders made ample amends for the misdemeanor in muslin which covered them in the shape of a dress. Her dark grey eyes were lovely in their clear softness of colour, in their spirit, tenderness, and sweet good humour of expression; and her hair (where a shabby old garden hat allowed it to be seen) was of just that lighter shade of brown which gave value by contrast to the darker beauty of her eyes. But these attractions passed, the little attendant blemishes and imperfections of this self-contradictory girl began again. Her nose was too short, her mouth was too large, her face was too round, and too rosy. The dreadful justice of photography would have had no mercy on her, and the sculptors of classical Greece would have bowed her regretfully out of their studios. Admitting all this, and more, the girdle round Miss Milroy’s waist was the girdle of Venus, nevertheless – and the pass-key that opens the general heart was the key she carried, if ever a girl possessed it yet.

After all, Marian Halcombe, of the numerous marriage proposals above, is first introduced like this:

The easy elegance of every movement of her limbs and body as soon as she began to advance from the far end of the room, set me in a flutter of expectation to see her face clearly. She left the window—and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps—and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer—and I said to myself (with a sense of surprise which words fail me to express), The lady is ugly!

But Marian is so completely badass that you forget her physical defects because Collins shows you the person she really is. Her beautiful sister is rather empty-headed, even before the amnesia. Miss Milroy is unfortunately no Marian Halcombe. She can’t even support the name Eleanor; everyone calls her Neelie.

All that female badassery is concentrated in Lydia Gwilt. The novel may be titled Armadale, but it’s about her. The critics called her

One of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened fiction

and she may deserve it.

There are five men in this novel named Allan Armadale. It works like this: AA1, a wealthy landowner with plantations in the Caribbean, had a son, AA2. AA2 was rather a disappointment, so he was disinherited in favor of a distant cousin, Allan Wrentmore. Wrentmore got everything, provided that he change his name to AA3. Of course he changed his name. He was really young, so when AA2 showed up under the name Fergus Ingleby, he gave him a position of trust despite all the warnings. Wrentmore’s mother wanted to separate them, so she wrote to one of her old admirers and proposed marrying her son to his daughter. Fergus used a nonlethal poison to keep Wrentmore out of the way long enough for him to take his place on the ship back to Europe and marry Miss Blanchard with his real name. Wrentmore figures out the identity theft and goes after them. He kills Fergus in the confusion of a shipwreck, but the guilt eats at him for the rest of his short life. The former Miss Blanchard gave birth to a son, AA4, and Wrentmore married a Creole woman who also gave birth to a son, AA5. As he’s dying, Wrentmore writes his son a letter warning him to stay clear of AA4 (Allan hereafter). AA5 has a terrible childhood with his stepfather, so he runs off and starts going by Ozias Midwinter. Midwinter knows the story, but Allan doesn’t. The secret of Midwinter’s real name is revealed only to Mr Brock, the clergyman who helped raise Allan, and Miss Gwilt.

Miss Gwilt seems to have been abandoned as a baby. She was picked up by a couple of con artists as an advertisement for their supposed hair tonics, but when the Blanchards showed some interest in her, the cons dumped her on their hands. When she was twelve, she was working as Miss Blanchard’s maid. There was some difficulty to be overcome when Miss B was marrying Fergus Ingleby/Allan Armadale, so the happy couple forced her to forge some letters for them. After the forgery and the marriage, they hid her in a French convent to keep her quiet. When she was seventeen, her music teacher committed suicide for love of her, so she was moved to another convent in Belgium. She nearly took the veil herself, but decided against it. She got involved with a different set of cons, and married one of their marks when the police busted their gig. He was abusive, and she fell in love with another guy, so she poisoned him. There was a well-publicized trial, and she was convicted. The public rose up in outrage, though, a beautiful woman who had been mistreated and all that Roxie Hart stuff, so she wasn’t punished. Celebrity trials worked pretty much the same then as they do now. Journalists can have as much influence on justice as the judges themselves. So she tries to hook up with her Cuban lover, but their marriage is invalid because he’s already married. He takes her money and leaves; she tries to kill herself, but one of the Blanchard men was (coincidentally) on the same ship she jumped out of, so he saves her. He gets a cold and dies – his other male relatives are in an avalanche on their way back for the funeral, so the Blanchard estate goes to Allan. Midwinter was briefly an usher in a school, but when he got sick he was fired, and wandered away until he turns up in Allan’s town, again by coincidence, and they become best friends.

For a while the novel is taken up with the struggle over fate or coincidence. How can all of these things have happened by accident? Then, Allan and Midwinter go for a boat ride one night (Allan was drunk and unmanageable), and they end up onboard the wreck of the ship where Wrentmore killed Fergus Ingleby. Allan has a series of prophetic dreams that may or may not warn him against getting close to Midwinter and Miss Gwilt. Midwinter becomes convinced that there’s a malevolent Fate that has brought Allan and him together to recreate the murder, even though they love each other. My gay heart leaps up when I read casual details, like Allan giving Midwinter a set of gold studs (do straight men give each other expensive jewelry? Not in my experience), or Midwinter’s closing affirmation on the last page of the book,

Your love and mine will never be divided again

So yeah, you could read them as gay before that existed as a cultural concept. They do fall in love with women, but that’s secondary to their interest in each other. The middle of the novel gets mired in the circumstantial evidence necessary to debate the existence of accidental coincidences – the introduction of Mrs Milroy perks things up for a while, but they slow down again, until halfway through Book Four we start reading Miss Gwilt’s diary and the character of the novel changes.

Miss Gwilt initially schemes to marry Allan, but she hates him. She falls in love with his friend instead. Her love for Midwinter changes her in some significant ways.

I have seen handsomer men by hundreds, cleverer men by hundreds. What can this man have roused in me? Is it Love? I thought I had loved, never to love again. Does a woman not love, when the man’s hardness to her drives her to drown herself? A man drove me to that last despair in days gone by. Did all my misery at that time come from something which was not Love? Have I lived to be five and thirty, and am I only feeling now, what Love really is? – now, when it is too late?

Hardly the monologue of a hardened villain, but Miss Gwilt is more complex than that. One of my frustrations with Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon is that it’s the classic Gothic story told from the point of view of the villain, but Thackeray’s villain is no more nuanced than those of Ann Radcliffe. Miss Gwilt is not your average villain, and I don’t mean that because she’s more evil than the rest, but because she’s a lot more subtly drawn than they are. There’s no motiveless malice; she’s abused and depressed, and her society has left her with very few alternatives.

Poor dear Midwinter! Yes, ‘dear’. I don’t care. I’m lonely and helpless. I want somebody who is gentle and loving, to make much of me; I wish I had his head on my bosom again; I have a good mind to go to London, and marry him. Am I mad? Yes; all people who are as miserable as I am, are mad. I must go to the window and get some air. Shall I jump out? No; it disfigures one so, and the coroner’s inquest lets so many people see it.

I know that I’ve been going on for quite a while now, but Victorian novels lead me into tangled wildernesses of thought from which it is difficult to extricate myself. I just have one more thing to talk about, so hang on just a little longer.

This novel gives a close look at a marriage, and it’s rather similar to what mine became. The ex was like a lot of conservative Christians:

In the miserable monotony of the lives led by a large section of the middle classes of England, anything is welcome to the women which offers them any sort of harmless refuge from the established tyranny of the principle that all human happiness begins and ends at home.

She saw her job, her mission in life, as taking care of her children. Just that. She got out of the house when we had only one, but after the second came, she only left the house when necessary. She had a couple of friends whom she could neglect for months at a time without offending, but she confined her daily life to her family. She ended up centering all her hope of adult interaction on me. I may have mentioned this before, but I’m a shy person who doesn’t like spending all of his time interacting with people. But as a teacher, that’s my job, so I’d talk to people all day long, and then I’d look forward to coming home where I could just be quiet. We had very different ideas about how I’d spend my time.

It is not in his nature to inflict suffering on others. Not a hard word, not a hard look, escapes him. It is only at night, when I hear him sighing in his sleep; and sometimes when I see him dreaming, in the morning hours, that I know how hopelessly I am losing the love he once felt for me. He hides, or tries to hide it, in the day, for my sake. He is all gentleness, all kindness – but his heart is not on his lips, when he kisses me now; his hand tells me nothing when it touches mine. Day after day, the hours that he gives to his hateful writing grow longer and longer; day after day, he becomes more and more silent, in the hours that he gives to Me.

The ex used to say that while I could make any sort of sacrifice of money and possessions for her and the boys, I was extremely selfish with my time. Maybe she was right, but I find that I need time alone in order to be able to handle being around people, even people I love. I get too much alone time now, but back then I never got any. I’d get home from work after the kids were in bed, and she’d want to spend time with me. All I wanted to do was eat my cold dinner and go to sleep. It may have been the introversion, or it may have been the homosexuality, but at the end of our time together I couldn’t stand her touching me. I just wanted to be left alone. Then the baby would lie between us perpendicularly and kick me in the face half the night, and the middle boy would wake himself up at 4:30 so that he could see me before I left for work in the morning. I didn’t leave until 6:45, so having another hour to sleep would have been really nice, but not going to happen when a two-year-old wants his breakfast.

These days I feel like Lydia Gwilt. I want someone gentle and loving to make much of me; I want to rediscover what it feels like to fall in love when I’m thirty-five. However, I’ve been in a relationship where I’m everything to the other person, and I don’t want that again. I want to be with someone who has interests outside of me – other friends, hobbies I’m not interested in, activities to pursue that leave me time to be alone. I’m finding the ability to set boundaries extremely sexy.

One last thing, and then I promise to stop. The last chapter, the one with The Purple Flask, is one of the most emotionally intense reading experiences I’ve ever had. The effect is not diminished with time or repetition. You see, Midwinter’s idea of fate is always negative, and coincidence is neutral. The novelist seems out to prove that you can interpret the events of your life to mean that there is a positive supernatural force guiding our lives, one that’s interested in using Midwinter to save Allan’s life, and ultimately, even in redeeming Lydia Gwilt. Christianity might be full of hypocrisy (evangelical churches and theatres blend into each other in this book), but that doesn’t mean that atheism is the only alternative.