Archive for June, 2017

“Benito Cereno” by Herman Melville

*** SPOILER WARNING: Inevitably, the following gives away some details of the plot ***


As we sophisticated readers know, literature, and, indeed, the arts in general, have nothing to do with the propagation of moral values. Perhaps we should qualify that a bit: we wouldn’t want to exclude Aesop’s fables, after all. So let us say that literature does not necessarily have to propagate moral values. For, after all, given the bewildering complexity of human life, moral issues are rarely clear-cut, and any work attempting unambiguously to affirm certain codes of conduct, or to reject others, must either ignore the complexity of human affairs, or address only those affairs that are sufficiently straight-forward to allow for clarity. And, unless one is writing simple moral fables, neither of these options seems very promising.

All this we know. And yet, we continue to feel uneasy in the presence of works in which moral judgement seems required, but is withheld. This sense of unease is often deliberate. Lolita is a prime example: Nabokov does not, it is true, endorse his protagonist, who is a predatory paedophile, but in withholding explicit condemnation, and, indeed, daring the reader to empathise with his protagonist, he creates a literary experience that leaves even the most sophisticated of readers feeling uneasy. Lolita is among the finest of all novels, but it is unlikely, I think, to be anyone’s comfort read.

Melville’s short novel Benito Cereno leaves us similarly uneasy, and, I think, for similar reasons: the story Melville tells us seems to demand moral judgement, but he refuses to give us any. Worse than that: the story, though written in the third person, is filtered through the perceptions and the judgement of a Captain Delano, whose perceptions, and, as a consequence, moral judgement, are highly suspect. This is not because Captain Delano is an evil man, as such: he clearly isn’t. Indeed, within his own admittedly limited horizons, he is a good man. But his horizons are fatally limited. One may even describe him as “innocent” – in the sense that those unaware of the true nature of evil may be termed “innocent” – but to Melville, this innocence is itself the problem. As he says in his later novel Billy Budd, Sailor:

And yet a child’s utter innocence is but its blank ignorance, and innocence more or less wanes as intelligence waxes.

Captain Delano is innocent because he is unintelligent: his judgement is not to be trusted. He boards the slave ship San Dominick, and things seem to him a bit strange; but he does not enquire very deeply into the strangeness, and nor does he draw the obvious conclusion that even the first-time reader may quite easily draw – that the slaves on this ship have revolted, and are now in charge. In a sense, it is Captain Delano’s innocence that saves him: had he figured out what really should have been obvious, he would have been killed instantly. But he is incapable of perceiving either the evil of the rebellion (accompanied, as we later find out, by horrendous atrocities); and neither is he capable of perceiving the evil of what the rebel slaves are rebelling against. Slavery is something that is accepted in the society that Captain Delano inhabits, and he has neither the intelligence, nor the imagination, nor even the capacity for empathy required, to understand the nature of this monstrosity.

Melville places this utter innocent – an innocent whose innocence is far from admirable – in the midst of what can only be described as an explosion of evil. At the centre of this narrative is a long, meticulously described scene where the deposed captain of the slave ship, Don Benito Cereno, is being shaved by, seemingly, one of the slaves. Captain Cereno has to maintain the fiction that he is still in charge of the ship: any slip on his part, and both he and the hapless Captain Delano would be killed. Cereno, demoralised by the loss of his ship, and by the slaughter of so many of his crew, has a hard time maintaining the façade, but Delano is too obtuse to pick anything up. Delano is too obtuse to pick anything up.

Only on leaving the ship does Captain Delano realise what has been obvious to us, the readers, from almost the start. And then, as a good man who carries out his duty, he does what he has to do: he gives chase to the rebel ship, captures the rebels, and hands them over to “justice”. And justice is indeed carried out. With as much shocking brutality and violence as the atrocities being avenged.

All of this seems to cry out for some sort of moral guidance, but Melville refuses to provide any. Captain Delano’s perceptions, and his moral judgement, clearly do not provide any kind of moral framework that may help the reader negotiate these deep waters as these. So how is the reader to interpret this?  There seems to be a wide range of possible interpretations, each entirely justified by the text, but none, in itself, at all satisfactory. We may take the view that the rebel slaves are evil; that Captain Delano, though slow of thought, carried out his duty as an honourable man; and that the punishment meted out to the rebels, horrific though they are, are entirely justified. There is nothing in the text to invalidate such an interpretation. Or we could look below the surface, detect the various ironies, and conclude that it is the rebellion of the slaves that is morally justified; that the violence the slaves commit in the course of that rebellion, though horrific, is unavoidable; and that, further, the failure of this rebellion is the failure to defeat the greatest evil of all. The text could support such an interpretation also. But this does not seem satisfactory either. And neither does any balancing position between these two extremes. When there is so much evil on all sides, where can one turn for certainty?

Melville does not guide us. He leaves us floundering. All is so dark, so murky, we cannot even turn to innocence to shield us from it all, for in Melville’s world, innocence itself is morally weak, and is culpable. Perhaps no other author, not even Dostoyevsky or Kafka, presents us with quite so bleak and desolate a vision of our human state.

“The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton

*** SPOILER WARNING: Please note that although the following does not focus on the plot of the novel, some elements of the plot are inevitably revealed. ***


First of all, the title. Wikipedia tells me that the title is ironic. Perhaps. But if so, it is a rather unsubtle and heavy-handed irony, and somewhat at odds with the subtlety and lightness of touch that are apparent in the novel itself. The title of Wharton’s earlier novel, The House of Mirth, had certainly been intended ironically, but that was very caustic in tone, almost bitter and angry; this, on the other hand, is far gentler, and far more genteel in its manners. So let us, for the moment at least, take the title at face value: let us assume that Wharton is, indeed, depicting an Age of Innocence.

But whose innocence? The two principal characters, Wayland Archer and Ellen Olenska, though both relatively relatively young, are not in the first flush of youth; and neither are they sexually inexperienced. These do not preclude innocence, of course, but if Wharton intends the “innocence” of the title to apply to these two principal characters, then we must look beyond what is seen merely on the surface.

Or perhaps the “innocence” applies to May Welland, Wayland’s fiancée and subsequently his wife. This is possibly more likely, as she really is, at the start of the novel, very young, and inexperienced. However, despite being one of the major participants in the drama, she is rarely allowed to occupy centre-stage, and she plays a quite shadowy (though intriguing) role throughout. One should not rule her out, though: her role, though shadowy, proves vitally important; and throughout the novel, despite her youth and experience, she embodies all the values most prized by the society these characters inhabit: formality, decorousness, correctness. And if the innocence of the title applies to her, it applies also to the society that she and her powerful family represent. And perhaps this isn’t intended ironically either.

The society Wharton depicts is the same society she had depicted earlier in The House of Mirth – the aristocracy of East Coast America, some time late in the 19th century. In the earlier novel, Wharton’s depiction had been quite acrimonious: there’s a sense almost of anger in her portrayal of the various cruelties and hypocricies of a society that, for all its formal and decorous surfaces, heartlessly crushes and destroys the novel’s tragic heroine Lily Bart. However, that earlier novel had been published in 1905; The Age of Innocence, on the other hand, was published in 1920, on the other side of the Great War, when all the old certainties seemed precariously balanced on the edge of extinction, and all values – moral, social, aesthetic – seemed in danger of being turned upside-down. Under the circumstances, it was perhaps not unreasonable to see what had gone before, for all its manifold shortcomings, as being, indeed, an “age of innocence”.

The plot itself is fairly straight-forward: one may go so far as to call it a “standard plot”, ready-made and off-the-shelf. A man, no longer very young but not yet middle-aged, is engaged to a younger woman who is innocent and virginal; but he falls for a more experienced woman who is closer to his age, and a passion develops; and it all ends unhappily. This is the blueprint for any number of Turgenev stories. Indeed, there is more than a whiff of Turgenev to all the proceedings, right down to a nostalgic and regretful epilogue that takes place many years after the main events. And we cannot help but ask ourselves what Wharton was thinking of, at the very time when modernism was on the ascendency and the air was suffused with the excitement of the new, writing a novel of a kind that could very easily have been written some sixty or seventy years earlier. Was it a mere act of defiance, a mere extolling of the values of the past, aesthetic and moral, in the face of their likely demise?

I think that is certainly the case, but only partly. Wharton’s aesthetics and morals were, I think, by nature conservative, but not blindly so. The society she depicts here is still a society of cruelty and hypocrisy: it still values outward show and formality higher than emotional needs, and stability above individual fulfilment. And if someone’s individual needs threaten this stability, then they are crushed. Wharton is still very much aware of all this. At the centre of this novel, after all, is a profoundly sad love story: the love, which grows into a passion, is never consummated, and the two lovers end up apart from each other, living out lives that are empty and hollow. All this Wharton knows; and, what is more, she is sympathetic. And yet, the society which could do all this, the age in which all this could happen, where the turbulence of the inner life is drained to maintain the unruffled nature of the surface, are still, Wharton seems to insist without irony, an innocent society, an innocent age. Social stability may indeed come at a great cost, but at a time when everything seemed up in the air, and the world itself seemed on the verge of turning upside-down, this stability, though dearly purchased, is not something to be easily dismissed.

And if this society is itself essentially innocent, then its representative in this novel (in the sense that it is she who acts to maintain society’s values), May Welland, is also innocent. But this innocence is more complex than it may at first sight appear to the reader. It is certainly more complex than it appears to Newland, who becomes her husband: towards the end of the novel, he is taken by surprise on hearing that, shortly before her death, she had told their son that he could rely on his father, as his father had already made the greatest sacrifice for the sake of his family. In other words, she had known what her husband had felt about Ellen Olenska: she had known the extent of his passion for her, and how much his sacrifice had cost him. And if this knowledge had occasioned in her grief and pain, both had been hidden so perfectly, that not even her own husband had noticed. The external surfaces must, at all costs, remain unruffled: and if her husband has to deny his passion towards this end, May has to deny her injury.

We also cannot help wondering whether Wayland had also underestimated her earlier. During their engagement, she had suggested postponing the marriage, so as to give her fiancé the opportunity to change his mind, should he so wish. Wayland had assumed that May had been thinking of a former flame of his, and he had no worries on that score. But, given how badly he had mistaken May throughout his long marriage to her, it seems likely, in retrospect, that he had mistaken her in this also – that, in truth, May had known all along, possibly earlier than he had done himself, of the true nature of his feelings for Ellen. May, for all her innocence, plays her hand perfectly, much as Maggie Verver plays her hand in Henry James’ The Golden Bowl: May tells Ellen that she is pregnant before she is sure of the fact, and, in effect, packs Ellen off, leaving Wayland for herself. May is utterly victorious. We may ask whether she is happy, or emotionally fulfilled by her victory: perhaps not. It is hard to discern what emotional fulfilment there can be when one is married to someone who, one knows, is deeply in love with someone else. But to May, as to the powerful society family she comes from, social norms and formalities, social stability, all take precedence over mere individual fulfilment. And if Wayland has to sacrifice his inner self to this end, so does she. And all of this, Wharton insists, is indeed innocence.

May Welland is rarely in the forefront of the novel, but the more I think about this, the more important her role appears to be. Shadowy though her presence is, it is her actions in the background that determine the outcome. The novel may be read simply as a sad love story; and as such, it is as exquisite as anything by Turgenev. But while it portrays unfulfilled lives with great sympathy, it also raises, it seems to me, uncomfortable questions on whether the price to be paid for personal fulfilment is a price that is worth paying. The gentleness and, indeed, the gentility of the writing cover matters considerably more disturbing.