This book was written in 1896, if you've ever wondered how much people don't change. Change "Irish" to "Muslim" up there and this could be a snippet from Breitbart.
I didn't intend for several of my early reviews to be politically tinged, and I didn't think The Damnation of Theron Ware would likely be very political. I was expecting--hoping--for something along the lines of The Scarlet Letter when I saw this in the remainder bin at Barnes and Noble. And in some ways, the comparison is apt, mostly in the heavy emphasis on Christianity and a few very strange passages that belie the simplicity these sorts of themes sometimes engender.
But mostly, Ware is a different kind of book, telling the story of the titular Theron and his journey away from primitive Methodism, a movement in which he is an up-and-coming pastor. The book opens with a sermon at a new, much-desired post, but by the end of the first chapter, Ware and his wife are dealing with the disappointment of rejection and shunting out to a small church in the middle of nowhere, victims of petty fractures in the leadership.
Theron meets the elders of the church, who, again, spout monologues not too different from some I heard growing up:
Brother Pierce’s parchment face showed no sign of surprise or pleasure at this easy submission. “Another thing: We don’t want no book-learnin’ or dictionary words in our pulpit,” he went on coldly. “Some folks may stomach ‘em; we won’t. Them two sermons o’ yours, p’r’aps they’d do down in some city place; but they’re like your wife’s bunnit here, they’re too flowery to suit us. What we want to hear is the plain, old-fashioned Word of God, without any palaver or ‘hems and ha’s. They tell me there’s some parts where hell’s treated as played-out—where our ministers don’t like to talk much about it because people don’t want to hear about it. Such preachers ought to be put out. They ain’t Methodists at all. What we want here, sir, is straight-out, flat-footed hell—the burnin’ lake o’ fire an’ brim-stone. Pour it into ‘em, hot an’ strong. We can’t have too much of it. Work in them awful deathbeds of Voltaire an’ Tom Paine, with the Devil right there in the room, reachin’ for ‘em, an’ they yellin’ for fright; that’s what fills the anxious seat an’ brings in souls hand over fist.”
After this dressing down, Ware is out for a stroll when he stumbles into, and follows, for some reason not even he entirely understands, a Catholic funeral procession that meets its terminus in the administration of last rites by one Father Forbes, a veteran parish priest. He also meets the redheaded Celia, who eventually changes his perceptions about the Irish, among other things.
Celia is a very interesting character to exist in a book this old. A Hellenistic libertine, she worships the Greeks and their "gods", though she doesn't believe them to be real. She's a vivacious, complex character, and, in a lesser novel, one might expect her to end up in a pool of regret, repenting of her ways, similiar to the disappointing penultimate chapter of The Scarlet Letter. Instead, her ending is much more ambiguous. But more on this shortly.
The wake leads to Ware deciding on the one hand to write a book about Abraham, and on the other, to have supper with Father Forbes and his off-putting friend, Dr. Ledsmar. Upon sharing his book idea with them, rather than the affirmation and encouragement he expected, Ware finds himself awash in a sea of biblical criticism and liberal theology, things which have, to this point, been completely unknown to him. By the time he leaves, he's been introduced to the idea that Abraham was not a real person, the various supernatural events in the Bible are myth, that Jesus is a mythological/literary descendant of a snake god, and so on.
Again, in a lesser novel, I think the author might've felt compelled to take a position on what theology was right or wrong. After all, the Methodist elders early on are not sympathetic, though Ware's wife is, and grows moreso as Ware himself moves further and further from his original beliefs, culminating in a sex-fueled fever dream listening to Celia play Chopin in her quarters.
And Ware slowly distances himself from his church, his wife, his God, and becomes less and less likable, even as his newfound friends begin drawing further and further away, culminating in a surprisingly devastating and ambiguous speech from Celia, after Ware has determined to leave his wife and follow her to New York City:
"Let me go on. But then it became apparent, little by little, that we had misjudged you. We liked you, as I have said, because you were unsophisticated and delightfully fresh and natural. Somehow we took it for granted you would stay so. Rut that is just what you didn’t do—just what you hadn’t the sense to try to do. Instead, we found you inflating yourself with all sorts of egotisms and vanities. We found you presuming upon the friendships which had been mistakenly extended to you.
Your whole mind became an unpleasant thing to contemplate. You thought it would amuse and impress us to hear you ridiculing and reviling the people of your church, whose money supports you, and making a mock of the things they believe in, and which you for your life wouldn’t dare let them know you didn’t believe in. You talked to us slightingly about your wife. What were you thinking of, not to comprehend that that would disgust us? You showed me once—do you remember?—a life of George Sand that you had just bought,—bought because you had just discovered that she had an unclean side to her life. You chuckled as you spoke to me about it, and you were for all the world like a little nasty boy, giggling over something dirty that older people had learned not to notice. These are merely random incidents.
They are just samples, picked hap-hazard, of the things in you which have been opening our eyes, little by little, to our mistake. I can understand that all the while you really fancied that you were expanding, growing, in all directions. What you took to be improvement was degeneration. When you thought that you were impressing us most by your smart sayings and doings, you were reminding us most of the fable about the donkey trying to play lap-dog. And it wasn’t even an honest, straightforward donkey at that!”
In the end, Frederic refuses to provide any pat answers. Ware leaves the ministry, still feeling as if he has been wronged, Father Forbes continues to minister to his parish, in spite of his lack of belief, and Ledsmar... well, Ledsmar is an unlikable jerk, but he also never receives any kind of comeuppance. So although it can't help but feel like this book is a morality tale of some sort, exactly what the moral is eludes me... but it's a wonderful tale.