Monday, December 21, 2015

Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers

'You mean,' Captain Penderton said, 'that any fulfillment obtained at the expense of normalcy is wrong, and should not be allowed to bring happiness.  In short, it is better, because it is morally honorable, for the square peg to keep scraping about the round hole rather than to discover and use the unorthodox square that would fit it?'

'Why, you put it exactly right,' the Major said.  'Don't you agree with me?'

'No,' said the Captain, after a short pause.  With gruesome vividness the Captain suddenly looked into his soul and saw himself.  For once he did not see himself as others saw him; there came to him a distorted doll-like image, mean of countenance and grotesque in form.  The Captain dwelt on this vision without compassion.  He accepted it with neither alteration nor excuse.

The comparison I reached for immediately while reading Carson McCullers' Reflections in a Golden Eye is the "four-square house" of The Good Soldier, which comes tumbling down when John Dowell realizes that his wife and best friend have been carrying on an affair for years.  But the "four-square house" of Reflections in a Golden Eye is rotten and termite-ridden to the core: its four pillars--two officers and their wives on a Southern army base during peacetime--already aware of the affair going on among them, and seething with loathing.  McCullers transforms Edwardian reserve and gentility into Southern Gothic, in which things like this happen:

They had been sitting like this late one night when suddenly Mrs. Langdon, who had a high temperature, left the room and ran over to her own house.  The Major did not follow her immediately, as he was comfortably stupefied with whiskey.  Then later Anacleto, the Langdons' Filipino servant, rushed wailing into the room with such a wild-eyed face that they followed him without a word.  They found Mrs. Langdon unconscious and she had cut off the tender nipples of her breasts with the garden shears.

Damn, Mrs. Langdon!  Mrs. Langdon--Alison--is the sensitive and sickly wife of Major Langdon, who is having an affair with the wife of his superior officer, Captain Penderton.  Leonora Penderton (hey--the same name as in The Good Soldier) is oversexed and frustrated by her marriage to the cold, aloof Captain, who seems mostly indifferent to his wife's affair.  Into this volatile group, McCullers adds a fifth--a private named Williams who sneaks into Mrs. Pendleton's room every night to watch her sleep, in the nude.

Williams is something of an enigma--he rarely speaks, and has no friends or close associates.  McCullers depicts him as a "natural," an idiot more at home in the woods than in the order of the barracks.  The Captain obsesses over Williams, whose inscrutability is both threatening and mysterious.  One scholar called Reflections in a Golden Eye one of the great "gay novels," and I admit that I missed the latent homosexuality suggested by the Captain's obsession.  What was clear was the fine line between loving and loathing; the Captain's boiling hatred for Pvt. Williams is closer to real love than anything else in the novel, except perhaps for the relationship between Alison Langdon and her flamboyant servant Anacleto.

McCullers is one of the great novelists of the outsider, the marginalized figure.  Even when she gives us a character with great status and power, like the Captain, she manages to find the deep secret within that puts him at the margins.  She has the same kind of sympathy for Alison Langdon in her sickbed, and even the bitterly objectified and lonely Mrs. Penderton.  The novel's most vivid and realized character, Anacleto, is an outsider twice over: a servant and a foreigner, clinging desperately and slavishly to Mrs. Langdon.  Yet, he professes the kind of bravado and eccentricity that only a marginalized figure can; he's made in the mold of the deaf hedonist Antonapoulos from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.  McCullers' contempt, on the other hand, is saved for figures like Major Langdon, whose banality and conformity are far greater crimes than his infidelity.

As a closeted homosexual--if that's the best term for him--the Captain is shoved to the margins even of his own consciousness until that image comes to him, "distorted" and "doll-like."  Private Williams, so far outside the realm of human activity that not even McCullers seems to understand or comprehend him, threatens the teetering social stability of these four even without their knowledge.  It's no surprise when the novel, which hums with barely suppressed menace, erupts finally into grand violence.  McCullers wrote in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter that "violence is the most precious flower of poverty"; but she was too often aware of the many ways, poverty besides, people are forced into invisibility and indignity.

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