The Third Man by Graham Greene–The Bloody Fool: Rollo Martin’s Determined Belief in Harry Lime

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In Postwar Britain, the concept of “belief,” the trusting in the existence of something without tangible proof, was considered quaint and naïve. The “believers” in this period are viewed with the same sympathetic mirth as those who sleep with their doors unlocked only to have their mattress full of hundred dollar bills raided in the night. The viewers feel deep compassion for these people, combined with a peculiar envy for their innocence that is quickly combated by a “well, they had it coming” grimace. This compassionate vindictiveness is captured in the literature of the time. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopic government eventually thwarts Winson Smith’s belief in the existence of a possible future without Big Brother. In Kazou Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Mr. Stevens’ belief in his employer’s goodness, and thus his value as a small influencer of the world’s improvement, is crushed with his acknowledgement of Mr. Darlington’s role as Hitler’s pawn. In both cases the “believers” are faced with overwhelming evidence that contradicts their belief, however, it is only with reluctance that the protagonist eventually accepts the truth. Similarly, Rollo Martins in Graham Greene’s The Third Man doggedly sticks to his belief that his best friend, Harry Lime, is a good person, despite the evidence to the contrary. Martin’s belief in the goodness of Harry Lime, despite its erroneousness is what sets him apart in a world without faith or optimism. There is virtue attached to a character that refuses to acknowledge the corrupt state of the world, retaining faith in the notions of friendship and loyalty. Thus, Rollo Martins, through his naive beliefs, points towards a better world.

When Major Calloway informs Rollo Martins that Harry Lime, “was about the worst racketeer who ever made a dirty living in this city,” (Greene, 25) Martins is entirely unwilling to accept this fact, even though it comes from a police officer, a person of authority. Martins immediately begins to size up the space between him and Calloway to see if he can reach him to hit him. At this moment Calloway thinks, “Martins, I began to realize, was dangerous.” Martins dangerousness, however, does not simply boil down to his propensity towards violence, rather it has more to do with his unwillingness to accept information, his questioning of authority, and his resolute belief that Harry Lime is a good man, a victim of police incompetency. Martins immediately places his suspicion onto the police and away from Harry Lime, “I’ve always hated policemen. They are always either crooked or stupid.” (Greene, 26) Martins goes as far to associate himself with Harry Lime’s work, so firm is his belief in Harry’s innocence, “Because if Harry was that kind of racketeer, I must be one too. We always worked together.” (Greene, 26)

Martin’s naïveté is highlighted when he recalls their early friendship, which provides the reader with a view of Lime to which Martins is entirely unaware, “But what things he did think up! He was a wonderful planner. I was far better at subjects like History and English than Harry, but I was a hopeless mug when it came to carrying out his plans…I was always the one who got caught.” (Greene, 24) While Martins remains blissfully oblivious of the implications of this statement, Calloway and the reader are immediately suspicious. Calloway replies, “That was convenient for Lime,” (Greene, 24) suggesting that Harry had manipulated Martins in the past, and perhaps is not the hero that Martins believes he is. Martins catches the insinuation in Calloway’s statement and replies angrily, “What the hell do you mean…That was my fault not his. He could have found someone cleverer if he’d chosen, but he liked me.” (Greene, 24) While Martins places the blame on himself for being caught after executing Harry’s plans, he similarly places the blame on the police for Harry’s alleged reputation as a racketeer. “I suppose there was some petty racket going on with petrol and you couldn’t pin it on anyone, so you picked a dead man. That’s just like a policeman.” (Greene, 24) Martins’ denial of the possibility of Harry’s culpability highlights his loyalty as well as his foolishness and naïveté.

When Calloway produces evidence of Harry’s wrongdoing with his dilution of penicillin, Martins cannot help but question his belief in his friend, however it takes Calloway several attempts to convey the reality of Harry’s crimes. “They begin to dilute the penicillin with coloured water, and, in the case of penicillin dust, with sand. I keep a small museum in one drawer in my desk, and I showed Martins examples. He wasn’t enjoying the talk, but he hadn’t yet grasped the point.” (Greene, 80) Martins’ faith in Harry Lime is so firm that he cannot initially understand the severity of Lime’s crimes. He replies, “I suppose that makes the stuff useless.” (Greene, 80) Calloway explains that the harm caused by the diluted drug is worse than simple ineffectiveness; indeed, the diluted penicillin caused infections, unnecessary amputations, and deaths. Then Calloway plays his trump card, bringing up the undisputable evil of poisoning innocent children. “But perhaps what horrified me most was visiting the children’s hospital here. They had bought some of this penicillin for use against meningitis. A number of children simply died, and a number went off their heads. You can see them now in the mental ward.” (Greene. 80-81)

Martins’ loyalty to Harry is so paramount, that even the use of innocent children doesn’t entirely convince him. He replies, “You haven’t showed me any evidence yet…” While Martins is determined to believe in his hero, Harry Lime, without any evidence to his goodness, he is unwilling to accept the horrors his hero is accused of without sufficient evidence. Once the proof is presented, however, Martins feels his world crashing around him. “If one watched a plane dive from its course, I don’t suppose one would chatter, and a world for Martins had certainly come to an end, a world of easy friendship, hero-worship, confidence that had begun twenty years ago in a school corridor.” (Greene, 82) While the reader watches the dissolution of Martins’ belief in Harry Lime, Martins still questions the charges leveled against his hero. “Are you certain that he was the real boss.” (Greene, 82) Martins’ faith stretches far enough to invent yet another conspiracy that could clear his friend, “Suppose…someone had got a line on him, forced him into this racket, as you forced Harbin to double-cross…And they murdered him in case he talked when he was arrested.” (Greene, 82-83) Even after Martins is presented with evidence against Lime, he is still determined to explore every avenue that could possibly clear him. He is unwilling to give up his belief until he is entirely certain of Harry’s culpability, until he is faced with Harry himself.

It is only when Martins is faced with Harry Lime’s lack of guilt at his victims’ deaths that Martins’ belief in Harry’s goodness is finally crushed. Martins says, “Have you ever visited the children’s hospital? Have you ever seen any of your victims?” (Greene, 104) Martins’ use of the word victims shows his acknowledgement of Harry’s guilt. Harry reinforces Martins’ condemnation with lack of empathy for his victims:

Victims?…Don’t be melodramatic, Rollo. Look down there…would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving—for ever. If I said you can have twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stops, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money—without hesitation? Or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax. (Greene, 104)

Harry’s commoditization of human beings with his monetary language, this behavior is in direct contrast with Rollo Martins worshipping of Harry Lime. He sees Lime asbeing larger than life, while Harry sees humans as dispensable dots. His lack of concern for his girlfriend, Anna Schmidt further dehumanizes Harry when he admits to setting up her arrest. “The price of living in this zone, Rollo, is service. I have to give them a little information now and then.” (Greene, 105) When Rollo asks would have happened her he replies unconcernedly, “She’d have been sent back to Hungary. There’s nothing against her really. A year in a labour camp perhaps.” (Greene, 105) The success of Harry Lime is achieved by his use of the people who believe him, the people who love him. Thus belief, as much as it is innocent and noble, also makes one vulnerable to manipulation.

As Harry Lime dies, he whispers to Rollo Martins, “Bloody Fool.” (Greene, 117) Rollo explains to Calloway that he wasn’t sure who the words were referring to. “I don’t know whether he meant that for himself—some sort of act of contrition, however inadequate…—or was it for me—with my thousand a year taxed and my imaginary cattle rustlers who couldn’t even shoot a rabbit clean.” (Greene, 117-118) It’s also possible that Harry Lime is calling Martins a bloody fool for continuing to believe in him throughout their friendship. Indeed, Martin’s assertion that Harry could be capable of any sort of contrition shows that he is still a “bloody fool” when it comes to Harry Lime.

While readers view Rollo Martin’s belief in Harry Lime as virtuous, they also look at him in frustration. Martins’ refusal to accept Lime’s guilt when there is more evidence for it than his innocence may be glorified loyalty; it could also be called naïve and stupid. Rollo Martins’ idealism and optimism remind readers of the world they wished they lived in, while bringing awareness to the danger of reality. Belief without evidence puts one at risk for manipulation and deceit, and crushing disappointment. Postwar Britain was clearly in a cynical state, longing for the ability to believe, but struggling with the risks of doing so.

 

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Care Less, Love More: Edith Wharton’s Disconnected Perspective in “The Mission of Jane”

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Wharton and James both consistently employ the narrative perspective of a somewhat disconnected outsider, a character that acts as a loosely involved observer.  Characters like James’s Ralph Touchett and Frederick Winterbourne and Wharton’s Lawrence Selden all claim this role, remaining emotionally aloof while still observing the protagonists.  In Wharton’s “The Mission of Jane,” Mr. Lethbury undertakes this role, and thus the story is told from his point of view. Though the narration is in the third person, Lethbury’s thoughts, emotions and observations are communicated to the reader, making his point of view the one with which the reader is most closely aligned. This narrative technique furthers the eeriness of “The Mission of Jane,” because the reader is able to observe the peculiar Jane quite objectively, and allows the reader to see the gradual shift toward love in the Lethburys’ relationship.

The use of Lethbury’s point of view allows the story to be told objectively and reliably. Because Lethbury is emotionally detached from both his wife initially and his adopted daughter, he is able to observe them without emotional involvement, providing the reader with an unbiased account.  Lethbury did not have any desire for a child, while Mrs. Lethbury ached for one. Even after the child is adopted Lethbury had not accepted the fact that he was now the father of Jane. While Mrs. Lethbuty, “had gradually expanded her assumption of motherhood till it included his own share in the relation,” he remains surprised when, “he suddenly found himself as the father of Jane.” (421) If “The Mission of Jane” had been told from Mrs. Lethbury’s perspective, the story would be an entirely different one. Though Mrs. Lethbury is not Jane’s biological mother, there is still an unmistakable, almost physical connection between the two. Mrs. Lethbury is inextricably tied up within Jane, and would be entirely unable to judge her impartially. “She was no longer herself alone: she was herself and Jane.” (422) Lethbury’s physical and emotional detachment makes him the most objective and reliable narrator.

Because Lethbury is detached, the reader is able to view Jane without the sometimes-deceiving lens of parental love. This lack of rose-colored glasses shows Jane in an unnatural, almost robotic light. Even in her infancy Jane appears abnormal, “Jane contributed to them only a placid stare which might have served as a rebuke to the combatants.” (421) The use of the world rebuke paired with the agent of an infant is certainly abnormal and already warns the reader to be wary of Jane. This sentence is surely one of the “sign-posts” Wharton mentions in her piece, “Telling a Short Story” where she says, “One of the chief obligations, in a short story, is to give the reader an immediate sense of security. Every phrase should be a sign-post and never (unless intentionally) a misleading one: the reader must feel that he can trust to their guidance.” (37) Her oddity continues as a child. As Mr. Lethbury tries to educate Jane he is at first impressed by her intelligence. He soon realizes however that, “Her young mind remained a mere receptacle for facts: a kind of cold-storage from which anything which had been put there could be taken out at a moment’s notice, intact but congealed.” (424) The image of Jane’s mind as a sort of meat locker that congeals facts dehumanizes her further, making her seem lifeless yet functioning: an almost robotic character. She becomes more sinister as she flaunts her curdled scraps of information. “She was overhead to jeer at her nurse for not knowing when the Saxon Heptarchy had fallen, and she alternately dazzled and depressed Mrs. Lethbury by the wealth of her chronological allusions.” (424) Jane’s capacity for cruelty is observed and noted by Mr. Lethbury, though he is not a victim of her ridicule. It is perhaps this detachment that allows Lethbury to note the mocking tone of Jane’s boasting.

In Wharton’s section on ghost stories in “Telling A Short Story” she reveals her technique of telling a horror story:

When the reader’s confidence is gained the next rule of the game is to avoid distracting and splintering up his attention. Many a would-be tale of horror becomes very innocuous through the very multiplication and variety of its horrors…Once the preliminary horror posited, it is the harping on the same string—the same nerve—that does the trick. Quiet iteration is far more racking than diversified assaults; the expected is more frightful than the unforeseen. (40)

This illuminates why Jane is so eerie. She never develops or changes, but remains consistently impassive and unmoved. When she receives a marriage proposal from the worthy Mr. Budd, she tells her mother she needs time to think it over. Jane is incapable of an emotional response. After she is warned, “a young man of Mr. Budd’s impulsive temperament might—might be easily discouraged—” (429) she is undaunted and “she said that if she was worth winning she was worth waiting for.” (429) Jane is able to be this enduring, only because she would be indifferent if Mr. Budd abandoned her. The consistent repetition of Jane’s apathetic behavior is much creepier than her sprouting multiple heads or eating Mrs. Lethbury. Wharton’s theory proves accurate in relation to Jane. Her consistency is much eerier than an escalation of her behavior.

Interestingly, the use of Lethbury’s point of view only allows him and Mrs. Lethbury to speak throughout the story. Jane, who is in some ways the centerpiece of the story only has one line on the final page, “I can’t leave you!” (432) The rest of the story only includes dialogue between Lethbury and Mrs. Lethbury.  This reveals that Mrs. Lethbury is possibly the only voice that Mr. Lethbury hears, despite the perceived distance of their marriage in the beginning in the story.

The detached narrative style also allows the reader to see the gradual shift in the Lethbury’s marriage. At the beginning of the story they are two strangers who are incredibly accustomed to each other. He enjoys observing her, yet he really knows nothing of her desires. When she declares she wants a baby, he realizes how little he really knows her. “’You’ve been lonely, I suppose?’ he began. It was odd having suddenly to reckon with the stranger who gazed at him out of her trivial eyes.” (417) As the story progresses Lethbury’s attitude and tone seem to soften, not toward his adoptive daughter, but toward his wife. “For Mrs. Lethbury was undoubtedly happy for the first time in years; and the thought that he had tardily contributed to this end reconciled him to the irony of the means.” (421) As Jane begins to be cruel to his wife, Lethbury has to restrain himself from jumping to her defense. “He even began to feel a personal stake in the pursuit, not as it concerned Jane but as it affected his wife. He saw that the latter was the victim of Jane’s disappointment: that Jane was not above the crude satisfaction of ‘taking it out’ of her mother. Experience checked the impulse to come to his wife’s defense.” (426) He most resents Jane for the amount of suffering she inflicts on Mrs. Lethbury.  He even realizes with an indignant exclamation, “And yet it was his wife who had suffered most from Jane!” (431) Because Lethbury doesn’t seem to be aware of his own growing affection for his wife, the reader experiences Lethbury’s realization of his love for his wife at the end of the story. After Jane’s single death rattle of a line “I can’t leave you!” (432) the reader is filled with apprehension. Is she really gone? As Mr. Budd drags her away; the reader cannot help but sigh with relief that the Lethburys have finally ridded themselves of Jane. In the shocking deliverance from their adopted daughter, the couple finally notices each other again:

As he turned toward her, he noticed the tired look of heroism in her eyes, the deepened lines of her face…He went up to her, and an answering impulse made her lay a hand on his arm.

“Let us go off and have a jolly little dinner at a restaurant,” he proposed.

There had been a time when such a suggestion would have surprised her to the verge of disapproval; but now she agreed to it at once.

“Oh, that would be so nice,” she murmured with a great sign of relief and assuagement. (432)

The following line, “Jane had fulfilled her mission after all: she had drawn them together at last” (432) seems almost a “sign-post” in the middle of a straight road. It tells what has already been effectively shown in the story. Wharton perhaps underestimates the perceptiveness of her readers.

Ironically, it is Jane’s courtship that distracts the reader from the consistently growing bond between husband and wife. The traditional love story diverts the reader from the much more realistic one that is occurring in the meantime. This is perhaps one of Wharton’s intentionally misleading sign-posts. In “Telling a Short Story” Wharton says, “The chief technical difference between the short story and the novel may therefore be summed up by saying that the situation is the main concern of the short story, character of the novel.” (48) Though the characters are certainly not developed enough for a novel, the renewed love between the Lethburys by means of their bizarre adopted daughter is rendered beautifully. It is certainly the situation rather than the characters that drives “The Mission of Jane.”

The use of Mr. Lethbury’s point of view to narrate “The Mission of Jane” has several effects on the readers understanding of the story. The reader is able to see Jane objectively through the eyes of her emotionally detached adoptive father, making the reader aware of her oddity. In addition to the he objective rendering of Jane, the reader is also able to participate in Lethbury’s renewed love in his wife. His lack of awareness of his own developing feelings despite the subtle evidence to support that, combined with the skillful distractions and detours put in place by Wharton, put us in a position to be as surprised and natural as the Lethburys themselves.

Edith Wharton and the Marriage Plot

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Wharton was not lucky in love. Her parents had little confidence in her feminine wiles, thinking her too shy and intelligent, and thus undesirable for marriage. (Lee, 58)  Her engagement to Henry Leyden Stevens was announced in August of 1882 when she was twenty and publicly broken in October of that same year in the publication Town Topics. The piece said, “The only reason for the breaking of the engagement…is an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride.” (Lee, 61-62) While there is little evidence to confirm or dismiss Edith’s romantic feelings for Stevens, it is obvious that the failed engagement was a source of mortification for both Edith and her family. The public exposure of the couple’s split coincides with the failure of her father’s health, and it can be inferred that embarrassment at least hastened his decline. This humiliation also partially explains Edith’s rushed marriage to Edward Wharton. (Lee, 63)

In the summer of 1883, Wharton met Walter Van Rensselaer Berry, for whom she cherished an intellectual love. She describes her first few weeks with him as, “a fleeting hint of what the communion of kindred intelligences might be.” (Lee, 64) Though the couple was never engaged, they maintained a close and loving friendship after Wharton’s marriage to Teddy Wharton, one that is somewhat tinged with regret. In a letter to Wharton from Berry, he intimates, “Well, my dear, I’ve never ‘wondered’ about anyone else, and there wouldn’t be much of me if you were cut out of it. Forty years of it is yours, dear. W” (Lee, 65) It is perhaps this relationship that informs the impossible loves of some of her protagonists especially that of Lily Bart and Lawrence Selden in The House of Mirth.

Their budding romance was cut short, however, by the bewildering disappearance of Walter Berry that summer, which allowed Wharton’s future husband, Teddy to enter the scene. Teddy Wharton had none of the intellectual appeal of Walter Berry; however, he was attractive and from a decent family. Edith was certainly vulnerable after her failed romances with two men, and still stinging from the public humiliation of a broken engagement. It is therefore not surprising that Wharton accepted Teddy in all of his masculine, sporty glory. She was also twenty-four, nearing the age beyond which it would become increasingly difficult to be married. (Lewis, 52) It is not a stretch to compare Lily Bart’s consideration of Rosedale with Wharton’s acceptance of Teddy. Both women were older and in need of a husband, vulnerable from failed romances with men they loved.

Their marriage was not a particularly happy one, causing Edith to seek other relationships outside of her marriage. In addition to her intimate correspondence with Walter Berry, Wharton also began a passionate affair with Morton Fullerton, a friend of Henry James, in 1907. Wharton had limited sexual experience, thus this relationship was her awakening to her own sexual feelings. Though the affair was short lived, Wharton’s surviving letters to Fullerton reveal the fervent infatuation she felt for him, though it is unclear how Fullerton actually felt about her. After the disappointing conclusion to their relationship, Wharton’s disappointment and heartbreak is clear despite her obvious efforts to conceal it. In a letter after their split she writes:

My Dearest Love,

I am writing to this because, this afternoon, I passed by the dear old crooked church of Creil, where I spent such a happy hour with you a year & a half ago…

Before that, I had no personal life: since then you have given me all imaginable joy.

Nothing can take it from me now, or diminish it in my eyes, save the discovery that what has set my whole being free may gradually, in perceptively, have become a kind of irksome bondage to you. (Lewis and Lewis, 189)

Edith seems to have seen herself as a burden to Fullerton, as evidenced in her letter. It’s possible that Wharton’s affair is idealized in the tragic unconsummated love between Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence. There are similarities between the affairs, which suggest that her fictional account of an affair was at least affected by her own personal experience.

Wharton’s disappointing love life certainly is visible in her fiction. Unlike Henry James, whose relationships are somewhat forced and unrealistic, Wharton manages to capture the human essence of failed love. Her unfulfilled, yet idealized romance with Walter Barry draws effortless parallels with the consistent misunderstandings and wrong turns experienced by Selden and Lily in The House of Mirth. The idea of marriage as a necessary, yet not necessarily loving union appears in much of Wharton’s fiction, particularly The Age of Innocence in regard to Newland and May’s union. This negative notion of marriage also appears frequently in The House of Mirth, particularly in Lily’s search for the ‘right’ husband. Finally, Wharton’s extramarital affair with Morton Fullerton is idealized in The Age of Innocence using the adulterous relationship between the Countess Olenska and Newland Archer as a vehicle. While Wharton’s novels are not biographical, the picture of married love in comparison to unmarried and adulterous love is vastly different, married love acting as a passionless business transaction, while unmarried and adulterous love remains ironically pure.

The heartbreaking romance between Lily and Selden in Wharton’s The House of Mirth surpasses (in my opinion) or at least rivals the tragedy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. This romance also has uncanny connections with the relationship between Walter Berry and Edith Wharton. Lily Bart, an unmarried twenty-nine year old socialite who suffers the affliction of being “horribly poor—and very expensive” (The House of Mirth, 10) seems to be physically dependent upon money, evidenced by scenes in which she has a physical reaction to wealth.

The glow of the stones warmed Lily’s veins like wine. More completely than any other expression of wealth they symbolized the life she longed to lead, the life of fastidious aloofness and refinement in which every detail should have the finish of a jewel, and the whole form a harmonious setting in her own jewel like rareness. (The House of Mirth, 71-72)

While Lily seeks a marriage that will provide her the status and financial security she needs, she falls in love with Lawrence Selden, a middle class lawyer, like Berry, who can provide neither.

The love between Selden and Lily is similar to that described by Wharton and Berry. In one of the few surviving letters from Berry to Wharton, Berry writes to Wharton in 1923:

Dearest—The real dream—mine—was in the canoe and in the night, afterwards,—for I lay awake wondering and wondering,—and them, when morning came, wondering how I could have wondered,—I, a $less lawyer (not even that, yet) with just about enough cash for the canoe and for Rodick’s [the big Bar Harbor hotel] bill—And then, later, in the little cottage at Newport, I wondered why I hadn’t—for it would have been good,—and then the slices of years slid by. (Lee, 63)

Hermione Lee in her biography of Wharton writes, “The lost dream; the missed chance, and the “long run” of disappointment and compromise that follows it; the by-passing of the one true intimacy, the stifled lifelong longing: these are Wharton’s subjects, and Walter may have inspired them.” (Lee, 63) Wharton, though significantly younger than Lily at age twenty-one, was also nearing the age where she would be regarded as unmarriageable. There is a sense of urgency for Lily to find a husband, just as Wharton’s family would have been pressuring her to find one. Though Wharton and Lily found a suitable companion in Berry and Selden, the timing simply seemed not to work out. Just as Selden misunderstood Lily’s fleeing from Gus Trenor’s house, Wharton could have misinterpreted Berry’s flight that summer. Perhaps if Wharton would have held out a little longer, she could have married Berry. But, the beauty in Whartonian love affairs is that they are, alas, impossible.

Selden and Lily are an example of a loving unmarried relationship. Their tragic love can be recapitulated in this scene:

“Do you want to marry me?” she asked.

He broke into a laugh. “No, I don’t want to—but perhaps I should if you did!”

“That’s what I told you—you’re so sure of me that you can amuse yourself with experiments.” She drew back the hand he had regained and sat looking down on him sadly.

“I am not making experiments,” he returned. “Or if I am, it is not on you but on myself. I don’t know what effect they are going to have on me—but if marrying you is one of them, I will take the risk.”

She smiled faintly. “It would be a great risk certainly—I have never concealed from you how great.”

“Ah, it’s you who are the coward!” he exclaimed.

She had risen, and he stood facing her with his eyes on hers. The soft isolation of the falling day enveloped them: they seemed lifted into a finer air. All the exquisite influences of the hour trembled in their veins and drew them to each other as the loosened leaves were drawn to the earth.

“It is you who are the coward,” he repeated, catching her hands in his.

She leaned on him for a moment, as if with a drop of tired wings, he felt as though her heart were beating rather with the stress of a long flight than the thrill of new distances. Then, drawing back with a little smile of warning—“I shall look hideous in dowdy clothes; but I can trim my own hats she declared.” (The House of Mirth, 58-59)

This scene reveals the tenuous and doomed love of the couple. Initially, Selden refuses to say he wants to marry Lily. He only says he would only want to if she did. This illustrates Selden’s continual lack of initiative in courting Lily. He then calls Lily a coward twice, even though it was he who was afraid to state his desires plainly initially. This is consistent with Selden’s constant misjudgment, misunderstanding, and criticism of Lily’s actions. He is always content to judge and blame without allowing her a chance for defense. The climax of the scene occurs between these two accusations with images of breath and veins, the sustenance of life. In this moment it seems that perhaps love can sustain Lily; she does not need jewels to “warm [her] veins.” (The House of Mirth, 71) Then Selden once again calls her a coward, taking the air out from under her metaphorical wings. The fact that her heart is beating from “the stress of a long flight” rather than “the thrill of new distances” suggests that they have not really gone anywhere; Selden has not trusted Lily to sacrifice her social status for love, and thus Lily falls. She then follows with the tragic line that she “can trim [her] own hats” an assertion that is to be proven false in Book II. This phrase is said, as she is “drawing back with a smile of warning.” Her reluctant body language combined with this phrase suggests that this is her romantic ideal, and not something that is possible in reality.

It is impossible to know the details of the romance between Wharton and Berry because Wharton destroyed nearly all of their letters. However the existing letters do give evidence of the regret of an impossible romance. (Lee, 65) Interestingly the destruction of letters also appears in The House of Mirth. Lily destroys Selden’s letters to Bertha Dorset in order to protect his reputation. “When she rose he fancied that he saw her draw something from her dress and drop it in to the fire but he hardly noticed the gesture at the time.” (The House of Mirth, 241) It’s possible that Wharton did the same, worried that their love letters would one day be published. (Lee, 65)

With the similarities between the Selden-Lily, and Berry-Wharton relationships, one notices similarities between Rosedale and Teddy Wharton.  Rosedale is by no means the love of Lily Bart’s life, but an escape route from ruin. He is vulgar and nouveau riche, however these shortcomings can be overlooked when regarding his pocketbook and protection from scandal.  While Lily does not actually marry Rosedale, she does seriously consider it, at one point even accepting his proposal. “I do believe what you say, Mr. Rosedale…and I am ready to marry you whenever you wish.” (The House of Mirth, 198) While Lily’s reputation was in shatters, leading to Rosedale’s tactful refusal of her acceptance, “My dear Miss Lily, I’m sorry if there’s been any little misapprehension between us—but you made me feel my suit was so hopeless that I had really no intention in renewing it,” (The House of Mirth, 198) Wharton still had a chance at marriage and retaining her standing. Though she had been shamed by her first engagement, she was still a Jones, and therefore remained a desirable match. (Lee, 61) Teddy Wharton’s family did not have nearly the amount of money that the Edith’s family did, however Edith’s age and previous scandal from her failed engagement combined with her vulnerability after losing Berry made her an attainable bride. (Coolidge, 57) Thus began the unhappy marriage of Edith and Teddy Wharton.

Teddy and Edith Wharton were “unmatched emotionally, physically, and intellectually,” (Price and McBride, 664) and shared few interests and commonalities. Teddy wanted to live in Newport; Edith did not. Edith was incredibly intellectually inclined, while Teddy was much more interested in sports. The two certainly did not dislike each other, yet as a couple they did not mesh. (Colidge, 57) The nature of her marriage to Teddy likely informed her pessimistic depiction of marriages in her novels and short stories. The marriage of May and Newland Archer in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence has some similarities with that of Edith and Teddy. While initially Edith believed herself to be in love with Teddy, she soon realized that he was a very dull man. While Archer seeks intellectual companionship, May is more interested in athletic activities, which hold little interest for Archer:

But in reality traveling interested her even less than he had expected. She regarded it (once her clothes were ordered) as merely an enlarged opportunity for walking, riding, swimming, and trying her hand at the fascinating new game of lawn tennis; and when they finally got back to London (where they were to spend a fortnight while he ordered his clothes) she no longer concealed the eagerness with which she looked forward to sailing.  (The Age of Innocence, 119)

Archer’s description of his marriage to May is also shockingly familiar when read with the Wharton’s marriage in mind. “He had married (as most young men did) because he had met a perfectly charming girl at the moment when a series of rather aimless sentimental adventures were ending in premature disgust; and she had represented peace, stability, comradeship, and the steadying sense of inescapable duty.” (The Age of Innocence, 126)

It is nearly impossible to find a happily married couple in Edith Wharton’s fiction. The business of marrying is discussed in terms of monetary and social value. There is little talk of love and matrimony. When Lily is trying to coax a proposal from Percy Gryce, a man whose greatest passion is his Americana rather than in women, Lily’s best friend, Judy Trenor says to her, “We could none of us imagine you putting up with him for a moment unless you meant to marry him.” (The House of Mirth, 60) It is in adulterous relationships and impossible courtships that Wharton finds passion rather than in married ones.

Wharton’s affair with Morton Fullerton provided the romantic fulfillment Wharton had craved her whole life. While they were sexually intimate, much of the passion between them stems from the painful impossibility of their being together. (Price and McBride, 663) For Fullerton, there may have been a safety in the fact that Wharton was married.  She was unavailable, thus he could remain uncommitted. (Erlich, 97) Wharton’s disapproving and concerned friends referred to Fullerton as, “an elegant seducer,” a “libertine,” and a “middle-aged mustached Lothario.” (Erlich, 98) Wharton was entirely taken under his spell, and though their affair was not permanent, Wharton was permanently sexually liberated. (Erlich, 98)

The only record we have of their affair is one sided. Wharton destroyed her Fullerton’s letters to her and begged him to do the same with hers. He refused; thus we have Wharton’s side of their correspondence. (Erlich, 98) When reading through these letters, it is impossible to deny the striking connections between their affair and that of the Countess Olenska and Newland Archer.

Near the beginning of their affair, Wharton writes a letter to Fullerton suggesting that they meet privately:

Do you want me to lunch with you tomorrow…I find myself put-off by Rosa…—so I can slip off beautifully—if you have time & are free…I should like it to be somewhere at the end of the earth…where there is bad food, & no chance of meeting acquaintances.—If you tell me where, I’ll come—or better, meet you at the Louvre at one o’c, in the shadow of Jean Gorgon’s Diana. (Lewis and Lewis, 134)

The fact of their meeting at a museum seems too coincidental when compared with the following scene from The Age of Innocence:

“Tomorrow I must see you—somewhere where we can be alone,” he said in a voice that sounded almost angry to his own ears.

She wavered and moved toward the carriage.

“But I shall be at Granny’s…”

“Somewhere where we can be alone,” he insisted…

“In New York? But there are no churches…no monuments.”

“There’s the Art Museum—in the Park.” (The Age of Innocence, 185)

The connections between these two scenes do not stop at the idea of meeting in public places to be alone, specifically art museums.  Wharton’s reference to Jean Gorgon’s Diana connects to Archer’s wife, May who is consistently compared to the virginal warrior goddess. The last name of the artist, Gorgon is also a female Greek mythological creature that turns figures into stone. (The Age of Innocence, 173) When Ellen Olenska and Archer are in the carriage discussing their affair, Newland says to Ellen, “The Gorgon has dried your tears.” (The Age of Innocence, 175) Though the significance of these allusions are unclear, it is possible that Wharton was quietly and subtly connecting her own meeting with Fullerton with her fictional representation of a love affair.

The end of the Wharton-Fullerton affair could not be more vastly different from the conclusion of the Olenska-Archer one. While Fullerton gradually lost interest in the affair, moving on to his next lover, Wharton could not help but feel a sense of anti-climax and betrayal. (Erlich, 98) Because they shared mutual friends, they still attended the same social events, at which they were forced to interact. It is these mundane exchanges, which seem to disappoint Wharton the most. Wharton writes this letter soon after their split:

Are you coming to dine tonight? And am I not wrong in asking you when I know how stupid, disappointing, altogether “impossible” you found me yesterday?—Alas the long isolation has made me inarticulate & yet I wasn’t meant to be!…

Think of me, Dear, in the old way, the only way in which I may be a little worth while–& don’t, above all, feel obliged to try to make me think what isn’t! Please! (Lewis and Lewis, 176)

Reading Wharton’s fiction, it is safe to assume that she would have preferred a fervent and tragic ending to her affair, instead of the casual ending she experienced. Perhaps Wharton’s way of coming to terms with the affair was to write the ending that she wished she had.

Then he tried to see the persons already in the room—for probably at that sociable hour there would be more than one—and among them a dark lady, pale an dark, who would look up quickly, half rise, and hold out a long thin hand with three rings on it…

“It’s more real to me here than if I went up,” he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other. (The Age of Innocence, 217)

In creating the fictional romance of Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer, perhaps Edith Wharton was providing the ending to her affair that she would have preferred. As the affair had ended on Fullerton’s terms, this could have been Edith’s means for gaining solace and closure.

Edith Wharton’s love life was full of heartbreaks and disappointments. While the men she loved, Walter Berry and Morton Fullerton were never truly attainable, she was forced to spend the majority of her life with a man with whom she had little in common. When compared to Henry James who had no sexual or romantic experience, it is clear that Wharton gained romantic wisdom through heartache. While Henry James writes about erotic love in a surreal slightly bizarre way that reveals both his sexual repression and inexperience, Wharton writes about it in a manner that is both realistic and remains literarily pleasing. Wharton’s own tragic love life gave her the experience that allowed her to create some of the most beautiful and tragic romances written. Though I so wish Edith had found love and companionship for her own sake, it is unlikely her stories about love would be as resonant or as true if she had lived in a content, conventional marriage. Fullerton’s prediction that Edith, “should write better for this experience of loving,” certainly seems to have come to fruition. (Price and McBride, 663)

The Vengeful Villain and the Guilt Ridden Tyrant: A Comparison between Shakespeare’s Richard III and Pushkin’s Boris Gudunov

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Boris, the protagonist of Pushkin’s Boris Godunov and Richard of Shakespeare’s Richard III are vastly different characters despite their similar aspirations.  Both wish to occupy a throne that is not rightfully theirs and both succeed by killing those people who are obstacles to that goal.  Although parallels can be drawn from their actions, their characters greatly differ in their emotional state.  While Boris is racked with guilt and haunted by visions of his victims, Richard is cool and calculated and feels justified in his evil acts.  These character traits are particularly visible in their soliloquies.

In Boris Godunov’s soliloquy, he complains how although he is Tsar, he is still unhappy. “This is the sixth year of my peaceful reign. But my heart has had no happiness.” (Line 2-3) He is not satisfied with his reign, because he is plagued by guilt.  His conscience will not let him rest.  He is despondent and says, “Nothing can assuage our sorrows in this world; nothing, nothing…except perhaps our conscience. When healthy, it triumphs over evil.” (Line 39-42) He is completely unable to be satisfied with his position that he sacrificed so much for.  He is haunted by his past evils, especially the murder of the young Dimitry, “Bloody little boys before your eyes…” (Line 50)  He concludes that, “He’s pitiful whose conscience is not clean.” (Line 52) In can be inferred that Boris finds the atrocities committed not worth the position he has gained.  He now realizes that a clean conscience is more valuable.

In contrast with Boris’ guilt, Richard feels his evil deeds are completely justified. He feels he is entitled to a bit of revenge because of his deformity.  “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature, /deformed, unfinished, sent before my time/ into this breathing world scarce made half made up.” (Line (19-21) He feels that because he was deformed, his killings allow for a wicked sort of justice.  He chooses wickedness, in a calculated decision.  “I am determined to play a villain.” (Line 30)  He knows his actions are wrong and evil, however he feels no remorse whatsoever.  In his mind, the evil he is responsible for is justified because he was forced to bear his deformity.  He is well aware that he is evil, “And if King Edward be as true and just/ As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,” (Line 36-37) yet he feels no remorse.  He takes odd pleasure in his knowledge that he is evil and cunning, not good.  He is hardly haunted by his guilt as Boris is.

Although Boris and Richard are similar in that they usurp the throne by killing innocent people, their feelings about these actions are vastly different.  Boris feels guilt and regret at his actions and therefore cannot enjoy his position. Richard in contrast feels his actions were justified.  Because of his disfigurement, he feels he has the right to be evil.  He is comfortable with his role as the villain while Boris struggles with it.  Richard revels in his poisoned character and Boris is destroyed by his.  Although there are certainly parallels between the two characters, their emotional state is vastly different.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

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My “mother-daughter book club” (my Joy Luck Club) consists of my best friends (for 13/14 years) and our mothers. There are a total of six of us in the group, and each mother daughter pair brings different preferences to the table. We have all brought in a book that has been unpopular, but we have also exposed each other to books that we would never otherwise read. Lauren has always been prone to fantasy. Whether it was transforming her kindergarten drawings of horses into Pegasi (God help you if you think it’s a unicorn) or writing about her new crush, Harry Potter, in her elementary school diary, she has always lived in a world more fantastical than the average girl. She and her mother brought in The Night Circus, which admittedly, I never would have picked up. The picture of the gothic priestess A.K.A. author on the back flap was enough to scare me away. The last book we read was Elizabeth Bowen’s Death of the Heart, which Lauren had found far too dull and ordinary. So Olivia and I took pity on Lauren, voting for her choice because she had just endured our literary drudgery. It seemed only fair.

While The Night Circus wasn’t necessarily “my-type” I did recognize its merits.  The book revolves around a mysterious, mythical circus whose descriptions are absolutely exquisite. This beauty of description is somewhat undermined by the haphazard organization of the book. The storyline distractingly bounces around thorough time leaving the reader confused about the age and development of the characters. While the setting is beautifully rendered, none of the characters reach their full realization.  The plot revolves around a love story between an enchanter and enchantress who are bound to compete in a possibly fatal game that will affect the fate of the circus. The romance is not built up enough to have the readers rooting for it with any sort of passion. In fact, I felt indifference for the characters and concern for the fate of the circus rather than their lives. The protagonist Celia remains a bit too aloof, while her lover Marco is distinctly unlikable.  There are other interesting characters introduced, but, again, they lack development. While the book is certainly entertaining, it is not particularly moving. I enjoyed the ride, however I won’t be dwelling on it for long.

A World of Difference: An Anthology of Short Stories from Five Continents Edited by Lynda Prescott

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Dear Readers,

I profusely apologize for my month long absence. What with finals and travel I was lacking blogging time. Having just returned from a year in the U.K., I would like to devote this post to the affect of cultural nationality in writing.  The Anthology A World Of Difference along with my year long expat experience has made me realize the enormous influence one’s nationality has on the art they produce.

A World of Difference is an Anthology of short stories that focuses on cultural encounters and differences. Writers featured hail from South Africa to Kentucky, from Cuba to Cork. The diversity of the geographical locations and cultures is echoed in the writing of each. After leaving my homeland for a year, the reason behind this variety has become obvious.  I had to leave America to realize how deep that part of my identity was ingrained.

As individuals, our identities are incredibly complex. Our gender, political affiliation, sexual orientation, religion, socioeconomic background, interests, and heritage all play a role in defining our place in society. A rich gay Swedish democratic atheist male interested in fashion living in New York has very little in common with a poor straight Irish Catholic female interested in shooting living in Arkansas, and yet both of these individuals have been brought up in the same nation that is at one divided and united. They have been raised with American values and though they may seem to share little, that national identity is much more powerful than one realizes.

I wouldn’t say I was especially patriotic before I left. Yes, I worshiped at the alter of the great Bruce Springsteen, I voteed, I rooted for the US in the Olympics, and relished the story of the Revolutionary War, yet I didn’t get teary during the pledge of allegiance, I didn’t read the US news everyday, and I toyed with the idea of leaving the US for a period longer than a year. That was until I lived abroad this year. Don’t get me wrong; I adored my time at St. Andrews. I met some of the best friends I will every make, but my time apart from America made me appreciate all of the wonderful things about our nation that I took for granted. America is the nation I grew up in, the one in which I formed my values, and whether I realized it or not, my nationality was a huge part of my identity.

The same is true for other nations. Each culture has it’s own valuable, flavor that is inimitable anywhere else. Your home nation is always a part of you no matter how far you go from it. That was obvious in A World of Difference. Each writer as an individual was clearly defined by his or her home nation. And so readers, think about your national identity. How does it define you and your art? I assure you, it does.

xx,

Critiqueen

Love by Toni Morrison

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When I say I wasn’t a Toni Morrison fan, I mean I really wasn’t a Toni Morrison fan. I read Beloved for my Mother-Daughter-Book-Club and my mother and I were unimpressed, weirded out, scared off. I had no intention of reading another T-Mo book, except that my friend Olivia, one of my best friends since the second grade kept talking about her. “You should read some of her shorter stuff, she’s really good!” Olivia and I have similar tastes (though she loved Beloved) so i said I’d give her another shot.

I have this list of books I want to read. At the moment it is totaled at 819 books, so basically it’s like winning the lottery for the book that is chosen randomly. Lucky for my my mouse landed on Love.

I searched through the Waterstone’s in St. Andrews, 4 bookstores in London, but to no avail. I guess Toni is more popular in my good ol’ USA.  By the time I met up with Olivia in Paris I was desperate for a book. I had endured two plane rides with nothing but my Art History textbook for company.

When I told Olivia I was looking for Love she smiled at me smugly. We entered Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore, mere feet away from Notre Dame Cathedral.

Shakespeare and Company Bookstore is literally  my favorite place in the world. The walls are crawling in books, the aisles so thin that I had to squeeze through to get to the next room as the ghosts of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Alan Ginsberg floated around my head. There is a piano up the rickety stairs with a man playing flawlessly, artistic people sitting around reading on little cushions. “This is what heaven looks like,” Olivia breathed in my ear. We didn’t want to pop the dream that had become our reality, and speaking seemed like something that would do just that.

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Then something crazy happened. At the top of the M fiction bookshelf I saw not one, but two copies of Toni Morrison’s Love. I climbed my first bookshop ladder (a personal dream) and brought them both down. The paperback was expensive, but of course I was going to buy it. After all my searching I wasn’t about to let this go. I looked inside the hardcover, just in case, and saw the delicately penciled in first edition 14 euros. Now tell me you don’t believe in fate.

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I started Love that night, expecting to despise it, but I didn’t. In fact I have rarely been so attached to a book. The problem with Beloved  was it was completely unreliable. The daughter I beheaded to save from slavery hasn’t come back to haunt me in the form of a beautiful teenager. I don’t do fantastical realism. Love, grabbed onto my heart and squeezed it.

Love tells the story of a recently dead hotel owner, Bill Cosey through the perspective of several different women with differing relationships to him, his granddaughter, his employees, his wife, and his murderer. Though the story orbits around Bill Cosey, it really tells the story of a broken friendship between his granddaughter, Christine, and his wife, Heed.

Friendship is one of the most rewarding and painful institutions set up by humankind. They are plagued by envy, and overcome with adoration. Its ironic that Olivia, my best friend since I was eight years old, got me back on the Morrison track to read the most beautiful book on friendship I have ever encountered.

Because the book continually switches perspective, the reader is able to remain objective, while simultaneously having a close relationship with each character. The book is beautifully written and organized in such an enticing way. There is a constant element of mystery, Toni lets out the secrets one by one, developing the story effortlessly and masterfully.

I started Love loathing Toni Morrison.  I finished it wanting to be her.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Admittedly, I am a bit weary of Pulitzer prize winners. I read Beloved recently and that reaffirmed my general avoidance. A Visit From the Goon Squad somehow passed my initial Pulitzer “weed out”, and thank goodness it did. 

Jennifer Egan succeeds brilliantly in creating a cohesive narrative out of so many fragments. Each chapter is told in a distinct narrative voice, making each character’s story vibrantly unique. The use of multiple narrators, obviously lends itself to multiple viewpoints. This original technique allows characters to be fleshed out and come to life. 

In addition to the effective structure of the book, the quality of the writing is also great: modern yet smart, bitingly funny yet simultaneously heart wrenching. 

This book earned its Pulitzer.