Posts Tagged ‘literature’

“The Master Builder” by Henrik Ibsen

*** SPOILER WARNING: The following post inevitably reveals some of the plot details of this play, and so, if such things are important to you (they needn’t be), it is possibly best not to read this post till you’ve read or seen the play for yourself. 

All quoted passages are taken from the translation by Barbara Haveland and Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife, published by Penguin Classics


The Master Builder continues to puzzle and bewilder audiences and readers. When watching a performance in the theatre, or reading the text at home, one can hardly miss its intense, life-and-death seriousness. But what is it all about? All kinds of possible interpretations have been put forward – that it is a political allegory, a representation of Man turning against God, a dramatisation of inter-generational conflict, an exploration of Nietzschean concepts of morality, and so on. Ibsen himself, when asked about its interpretation, replied that he simply wrote about people, and that he didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Of course, he was being disingenuous, but perhaps that is not a bad way of approaching this inscrutably obscure drama. It’s not that the play is not about a great many different themes and ideas, but, perhaps, none of that makes too much sense unless we engage first with the people – the characters on stage who carry the drama.

The setting seems realistic enough. In the first scene, we are in an office in the house of master builder Halvard Solness, and we see his employees at their work. This could easily be the setting of a realistic social drama, such as The Pillars of Society. And indeed, in the course of the drama, nothing happens that is unrealistic – in the sense that nothing happens that is physically impossible. But yet, it becomes impossible to take this drama on purely realistic terms. At the heart of the drama are a number of scenes between Master Builder Solness, and his young visitor, Hilde Wangel (whom we had seen in the earlier play The Lady From the Sea), and the duologues between them seem to make little sense if considered from a strictly realistic perspective. From such a perspective, we could say that they are both, in essence, mad – that they are both locked into their own personal fantasies, and that these fantasies somehow feed off each other. We could say that, on occasion, the reality of the lives around them enter into their fantasies; but equally – and, by the end, fatally – their fantasies also obtrude into the real world.

But to leave it there is to relegate this drama into the realms of nonsense: what interest could there possibly be in the fantasies of two crazy people? The reviews of the first London performance did, indeed, see the play in such terms (there’s a wonderful collection of quotes from these reviews in Michael Meyer’s biography of Ibsen): “… a play written rehearsed, and acted by lunatics”; “… platitudes and inanities…”; “… the most dreary and purposeless drivel … pointless, incoherent, and absolutely silly…”; “three acts of gibberish…”; “dull, mysterious, unchaste”.

It is easy to look back on such uncomprehending early criticism, and congratulate ourselves on our greater understanding, but it remains true, I think, that if we fail to enter imaginatively into the fantasy worlds created by Solness and by Hilde, and if we fail to see these fantasies as important counterpoints to the very real and solid world with which they overlap, then the criticisms quoted above may be seen as entirely reasonable, and “dull, mysterious, unchaste” may appear an entirely reasonable summary. Ibsen did, indeed, as he insisted, portray people, but to understand the nature of the people he portrayed, we must prepare ourselves to enter into their fantasies, and take them as seriously as the reality which, throughout all the dramatic complexities, never quite go away.

The opening scenes are very realistic indeed: Ibsen needed a strong, solid base on which to build. Master Builder Solness (Bygmester Solness, as the Norwegian title proclaims) is described in the stage directions as being in his “late middle age”: I think we can take that to mean he is in his 50s – hardly in the first flush of youth, but far from descended into the vale of years: we see him as vigorous, energetic, masterful, exerting his personal power over people around him; and, if the drama that unfolds is to make sense, he is charismatic, and still sexually attractive. Certainly Kaja, his bookkeeper, is completely in thrall to him: he is, naturally, fully aware of the power he exerts over Kaja, and is happy to take advantage of it.

Kaja’s intended, Ragnar Brovik, and Ragnar’s father Knut, also work in the office, as architects and designers. Old Knut Brovik once had his own construction business, but that had failed, and we see him merely an underling of Solness. Now, obviously old and ill, he would like to see his son succeed in the business, and he asks Solness to recommend Ragnar’s design for a commission, but Solness, terrified of the thought of being supplanted by a younger generation (as he, as a young man, had supplanted Knut Brovik), angrily refuses.

BROVIK: Am I to depart this life so poor?

SOLNESS [appears to be  struggling with himself; at length he says quietly, but firmly]: You will have to depart this life as best you can.

BROVIK: Well, so be it. [He walks away.]

SOLNESS [going after him, almost despairingly]: But I can’t do otherwise, you see! I am the way I am, after all!

Like God Almighty, he is what he is.

This opening exchange lays bare the essential character of Solness. He can be cruel, he can hurt people; but cruelty is not something that comes to him naturally. He has to struggle with himself before he utters those immensely cruel words “You will have to depart this life as best you can”. And afterwards, he has to try to explain himself. As the scene continues, we see him pour out a glass of water for his employee, and seeing that he is ill, advises Ragnar to take his father home. He is not amoral: he has a sense of what is right and what is wrong, of what is kind and what is cruel, but he cannot do otherwise: he is what he is.

So far, so realistic: this could still be a play from Ibsen’s earlier years. But in the scene that follows between Solness and the doctor, Solness comes out with the most extraordinary paranoia: has not Aline, Solness’ wife, asked the doctor to keep an eye on him? Has not Aline confided to the doctor that she thinks he is … mad? The doctor denies this, but Solness doesn’t quite believe him.

Because to some extent, you see, she – she might have reason to think such a thing.

Solness changes the subject quickly after this, but if we had thought this a realistic play, we are, perhaps, a bit less sure of our ground now. The ground shifts even further as Solness tell the doctor that he feels that he has certain supernatural powers: his deepest desires, he feels, though unspoken, somehow communicate themselves to others, and these others, unbidden, serve him: he can, he is convinced, bend the will of others to his own merely by desiring.

And then there comes a most extraordinary exchange that seems to confirm Solness’ suspicions concerning his own sanity. Contrary to the doctor’s suspicions, he is not, he insists, having an affair with his bookkeeper Kaja, but he allows his wife to suspect that he is:

Because I feel there is a kind of – kind of salutary self-torture for me in simply allowing Aline to think unjustly of me … it’s like paying off some portion of some vast and bottomless debt …

The doctor at this point throws up his hands and says he doesn’t understand a word of this, and we in the audience may start feeling the same. But Solness goes further: he is frightened. Yes, he has been successful in his career, “but at some point, the turn will come”. The younger generation will rise up, he says, and will overthrow him. Youth will come knocking at the door. And, as if to underline how far we have strayed by this point from the strict realism with which the play had begun, there is indeed a knock on the door at this precise point, and it is indeed youth who is knocking. But not the youth that Solness had been expecting: it is a young lady, a stranger, Hilde Wangel, who seems to have known Solness, but whom he cannot recognise. Having laid the basis of the drama in these few short but densely packed scenes that start with strict realism, but which, in Solness’ conversation with the doctor, drift towards what seems like madness, Ibsen now introduces Hilde, the final character of the drama. The prologue, as it were, is now over.

Hilde had appeared in a play Ibsen had written some four years earlier – The Lady from the Sea. There, we had seen her a teenager, living with her elder sister and her father, both gentle and loving souls, and with her stepmother, from whom she feels alienated. The play does end with a promise of renewal, but Hilde herself had emerged a not entirely sympathetic character: she is fascinated by the fact that a neighbouring young man is, unknown to himself, terminally ill, and, while others are kind to him despite his foolish and conceited nature, she teases him mercilessly. There was, in that play, something predatory about her, a certain failure of human empathy. Ibsen presumably felt that given the supporting role she had played in that drama, there wasn’t room to develop her character as he might ideally have wanted; whether he did or not, he brings her back here, and allots her a more prominent role. There is still an element of the predatory about her: though it is not explicitly stated – virtually nothing is explicitly stated in this play – she has certainly come to take Solness away from his wife. But there is more. She is, we find out, also locked into her own personal fantasies, although how much of her fantasy is also real is, from the beginning, uncertain, and open to question.

Solness does not recognise her at first. She has to remind him: some ten years ago, when she had been about twelve or thirteen, Solness had gone up north to Lysanger, Hilde’s hometown, to build a church. And, on that occasion, to consecrate the new church, Solness had climbed up the high tower and had placed upon it a wreath. Hilde describes the scene in almost ecstatic terms:

… it was so splendid and so terribly exciting. I couldn’t believe there was a master builder in all the world who could build such an enormously high tower. And then the fact that you were standing up there yourself, at the very top! In person! And that you weren’t the slightest bit dizzy. That was the most – kind of – dizzying thought of all.

But there is more. Hilde goes on to claim that afterwards, he, Solness, had found her alone, and had told her she looked beautiful, like a princess. Solness has no recollection of this, but Hilde continues. He had promised that in ten years’ time he would return like a troll; that he would carry her off; and that he would buy her a kingdom, and a castle. Solness feels uneasy: he doesn’t remember this, but doesn’t contradict her. But then, Hilde says, he had bent her back and had kissed her, passionately, many, many times.

In our own times, with our greater awareness of child abuse, we are likely to find this narration deeply shocking. I think it is intended to be shocking. There can be no excuse for any man behaving in such a manner with a twelve-year-old girl. And indeed, at this point, Solness himself is very deeply shocked by the accusation, and he vehemently denies it. But, very disconcertingly, she is not accusing him: she has come, she says, to claim what she had been promised – her kingdom and her castle. The ten years, she says, are up, and since he hadn’t come to her, she has had to come to him. And in a tone that seems both joking and serious at the same time, she claims from the Master Builder the promised kingdom.

Solness first claims that all this is something she may have dreamed, but then seems to halt in his tracks: “Wait, though,” he says, “there’s something here that goes deeper…” Could it be that the memory of actually having done all this now resurfaces? Or could it be that he thinks that he had communicated to her his unspoken desire, and, as he is convinced he has the ability to do, he had, through some supernatural power, bent her will to his? We never do find out whether the story Hilde tells is indeed true – whether Solness really had done all this. But true or not, Solness, though remaining puzzled as to her true motive in seeking him out after all these years, is happy that she had come: he seems to find in her someone who is, if not necessarily a kindred spirit, someone he could talk with openly, in the hope of being understood. He invites her to stay in his house, in one of the three empty rooms, the nurseries that have never been used.

In the course of the play, a series of quite extraordinary duologues develop between Solness and Hilde, as each invites the other into their own fantasy, and they find these fantasies, in effect, complementing each other. If we are to look at it purely from a realistic perspective – and while this is not the only perspective, it is one always worth bearing it in mind – regardless of whether or not Solness had made advances towards the then twelve-year-old Hilde, she had been drawn to him; and now, a grown-up woman, she has come to take him away from his wife. And he – again regardless of whether or not the reported incident had actually happened – had secretly desired her then; for how could he have communicated his desire to her if he had not desired in the first place? And he continues to desire her now. But that is only a very partial view of the drama. To get to the mysterious and elusive heart of the play, we must enter into their fantasies, which develop on a related but somewhat plane from reality. We seem, in some ways, to be back in the world of Peer Gynt, where reality and fantasy seem to exist and develop side by side, interpenetrating and reflecting each other, but never quite touching.

There is, of course, a third point in the triangle: Aline, Solness’ wife, to whom Solness feels he owes a “vast and bottomless debt”. In the first two acts, she seems a pallid, almost a ghostly, presence, solicitous of her husband, but very unlike her husband: she is retiring and self-effacing, and almost entirely passive. When she says she will help Hilde settle in, she adds it’s her “duty”. The emptiness of duty devoid of love had been a theme in many of Ibsen’s earlier work – in particular, Ghosts – and this sense of emptiness strikes Hilde forcibly. Why had she not said she would help Hilde because she wanted to? This emphasis on duty has such a coldness about it.

But before this, there had been a brief but remarkable scene between Solness and Aline, which, like so much else in this play, seems almost impossible to summarise. Solness, we know, feels guilty towards his wife, although we do not yet know why. In this scene, she surprises him by expressing her own sense of guilt. “I should have hardened myself. Not let the shock get hold of me.” We cannot be sure at this stage what she is referring to. Solness tries to assure her that things would be better for them once they move into their new house, but she can see no such hope. Eventually, Solness gives up trying to persuade her, and vents his frustration:

SOLNESS [clenching his hands and crossing the floor]: Oh, but this is all so hopeless! Never a ray of sunshine! Not so much as a glimmer of light falling into this house!

MRS SOLNESS: This is no home, Halvard.

SOLNESS: No, well may you say that. [Heavily] And God knows you could be right – maybe things won’t get any better for us in the new house either.

MRS SOLNESS: They never will. Just as empty. Just as desolate. There as here.

The worst is that these two, caught in their joyless life together, are actually solicitous for each other, and have for each other a kind of love, even in their mutual misery. Later in the play, Solness describes his marriage in startlingly vivid terms:

And now she’s dead – for my sake. And I am chained, living, to the dead. [Frantically] I – I – who cannot live a joyless life!

The soul within Aline seems dead. At the start of the third and final act, Hilde has a scene with Aline, after which she says “I have just climbed out of a tomb … I am chilled to the bone…” In Ghosts, Ibsen had depicted a world stripped of human joy by insistence on duty – unquestioning duty that is to be carried out for its own sake, without love. Here, similarly, Solness, who cannot live without joy, feels he is chained to a corpse. But if Aline is indeed a corpse, Solness knows it is he who has killed her. This is the “vast and bottomless debt” he feels for her, and he is caught hopelessly between this immense sense of obligation he feels for her, and an overwhelming desire to break free.

The past that has led to this present is related in Act Two – but then again, only through Solness’ narration, which is not necessarily the most reliable. He has, in his career, been successful, but that success had only come at a great cost. His wife’s family home had burnt down, to the ground. This had given him the opportunity to divide the estate into small plots, and build houses on them. And that fire he had willed. He had noticed a fatal crack in the flue of the old house which, if not seen to, could cause a catastrophic fire; and every day, he would look at that crack, willing the disaster to happen. And yet, when the fire did happen, it wasn’t because of that crack: it was proven that the fire had started elsewhere. However, he had willed it: that, for Solness, was enough:

SOLNESS [confidentially]: Hilde, don’t you too believe that there are certain special, chosen people who have been granted the blessing and the power and the ability to wish for something, desire something, want something so deeply and so – so inexorably – that they’re bound to get it in the end? Don’t you believe that?

In Solness’ mind, there are, as he calls them, “helpers and servants” – supernatural beings who are summoned merely by the fact of his desire. And so, because he had willed it, the house had burnt down, and the entire family had had to evacuate into the freezing cold night. And the price paid was even greater than the house: their newborn infant sons, twins, had died shortly afterwards. But for this, Solness refuses to accept responsibility: he claims that Aline had caught a chill that night, and that her breast-milk had become infected; but that she had insisted that it was her duty to carry on breast-feeding them.

Now, this part of Solness’ narrative I, personally, would take with great scepticism. First of all, there is no evidence, either in medicine or in popular folk belief, that this can happen. And secondly, even if this really did happen, one may justly ask how Solness, in those days before full post-mortems, could be so sure of it. I would guess that this is another of Solness’ fantasies, part of the mythology he has created around himself. He is prepared to invent the mythology of his “helpers and servants” to justify the immense sense of guilt he feels for his wife, but to accept responsibility for the death of his children was too much, even for him; and here, I think, he had to transfer the guilt to his wife, and, significantly, to that particular aspect of his wife’s character that he finds so intolerable – that sense of loveless duty.

Later, at the start of the third act, Hilde speaks with Aline, and, like her husband, Aline finds herself telling things to Hilde that she is unlikely to have told anyone else – certainly not to her spouse. To Hilde’s surprise, Aline feels no remorse for the death of the children: that was God’s will, and it is her duty to accept. But it’s the smaller things that hurt more – things that to most other people may appear insignificant: in that fire, her childhood dolls had been burnt, and that she cannot come to terms with. Her connection with the past, her childhood, had been destroyed.

We are not told this, but we may infer that, after the fire, after the death of their children (of which the symbolically empty nurseries stand as a permanent reminder), she had suffered some sort of mental breakdown. Which, of course, would have been untreated in those days. In an earlier scene with her husband, she blames herself not for the death of the children (that story about the infected breast milk is, I think it is safe to assume, entirely Solness’ fantasy), but for not being strong enough after the tragedy had struck. And so she remains, a living corpse to whom the still vigorous Solness finds himself chained. This is what he has willed – this is the desire his “helpers and servants” have brought to fruition.

This is what folk call having Fortune on your side. But let me tell you how that Fortune feels! It feels like a large, raw patch here on my chest. And the helpers and servants, they go around tearing chunks of skin off other people in order to close my wound. But sill the wound won’t heal.

Hilde diagnoses him: he has an “ailing conscience”. This is not the Master Builder she had pictured. She had pictured a man with a robust conscience, a man unafraid to strive for what he desired. That was the man whom she had seen those ten years ago, on the tower, unafraid, not dizzy. And she had heard “harps in the air”. Soon afterwards, Hilde hears from Aline that Solness is actually afraid of heights, and dare not climb up towers any more. Hilde is outraged. Is it true that “my master builder dare not – cannot – climb as high as he actually builds?” Does he, after all, have a “dizzy conscience”?

It would be easy to see Hilde as merely a harpy, compelling Solness to leave behind his moral obligations. And while there is certainly some truth in this, this is not the entire truth either. After all, it is she who persuades Solness to do the right thing with Ragnar Brovik, and to approve his design. And, after speaking with Aline, she seems to lose her own will: her conscience, too, is not as “robust” as she had thought.

I cannot hurt someone I know! Cannot take away something that belongs to her.

Solness, too, acknowledges his moral  obligations:

HILDE: That a person doesn’t dare to reach out and seize his own happiness. His own life! Simply because someone they know is standing in his way!

SOLNESS: Someone they’ve no right to pass by.

HILDE: Who’s to say one doesn’t, in fact, have the right to do that? But, then again – Oh, if only one could sleep through the whole thing!

Hilde’s hopes seem dashed. Claims of moral obligation, which she had once thought dispensable, now assert themselves. As Rebecca West had found in Rosmersholm, the Rosmer way of life ennobles, but … but it kills happiness. It makes impossible the joy that Solness cannot live without.

And now, Solness, in the final duologue between them, tells her of what he had actually done when she had seen him on that one occasion, defying his fear of heights and actually climbing that tower. It had been ten years ago, shortly after the death of his children.

Solness had, he tells Hilde, come from a “religious home from a small village”. And he had believed that building churches was the finest thing he could do.

SOLNESS: I feel he ought to have been pleased with me.

HILDE: He? Who’s he?

SOLNESS: Him – the one the churches were for, of course! The one they were meant to glorify and praise!  

Solness cannot even bring himself to speak God’s name. But that day, on top of that tower that he would usually be afraid to climb, he had rebelled against God, whose name even now he is unable to articulate. He had said to God that he shall no longer build churches. He shall build houses – houses for people to live in. But it was no good: for at the centre of Solness’ own house remain those empty, desolate rooms. John Rosmer, having rejected the God he had once believed in, but unable to shake off the God-given guilt, had to pass judgement on himself; Solness, similarly having rejected Him whom he cannot even name, and similarly weighed down by guilt, now faces the horrifying fact of nothingness:

So you see, that’s what it all amounts to, no matter how far I look back. Nothing built, basically. And nothing sacrificed to be able to build anything either. Nothing, nothing – all of it.

This contemplation of nothingness is the bleakest point of the drama – its moral and spiritual nadir. But there is a coda. Solness and Hilde, from this point onward, both appear to retreat completely into the fantasy worlds they have created for themselves. Solness will give his princess the castle he had promised her, and it will be the finest castle that may be built – a castle in the air. He will, once again, defy his dizziness: he will climb the tower, and prove himself free. To Aline Solness, living in the real world and terrified for her husband’s safety, he is foolishly endangering his life for no reason; but on a different dramatic plane, this is his victory, and this is Hilde’s victory: she sees him great again. Of course, he crashes to the ground, and dies: from the perspective of the real world, it was madness. But Hilde, by this stage, is completely locked in her fantasy.

HILDE [in a sort of quiet, bewildered triumph]: But he got to the very top. And I heard harps playing in the air. [She waves her shawl above her head, and cries with wild rapture] My – my master builder!

The master builder that others see – their master builder – fell to his death in a foolhardy escapade. But her master builder finally dared to climb as high as he builds: he got to the top.


What are we to make of this strange play? I have tried in this post to give as lucid an account as I can of how I see the play, but reading over what I have written, I can’t help but feel that my interpretation simplifies matters, smooths out too many complexities. Perhaps that is the fate of all interpretations. Great works of art are all, despite possible interpretations, ultimately inscrutable, and do not give up their secrets. In this dizzyingly enigmatic and elusive play, Ibsen takes us into realms of the human mind which even he had not entered before. It is a play that continues to fascinate my imagination, even as I struggle to articulate why.

“The Optimist’s Daughter” by Eudora Welty

What can we do but enumerate old themes? Love, loss, death, remembrance, and the passage of time that allows us fresh glimpses into these familiar things … It is hard to imagine a time when serious artists won’t want to address such matters. No hankering for novelty can remove these things from the centre of our lives. What is there to be said on these matters that is new? Has not all that can be said already been said?

Perhaps the answer to that question is that it is not a matter of saying anything new about them. Or, indeed, a matter of saying anything at all. For no-one addressing these themes do so because they wish to impart some sort of message: any message capable of being expressed on these matters is, almost inevitably, too superficial. But we can contemplate. Not contemplate to arrive at some sort of answer, or even to arrive at some sort of resolution, but contemplate simply because we cannot help ourselves. And each contemplation is new, because each perspective is personal, individual. We live, we love, and then we die, and those remaining remember. We know ‘tis common – all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity – but there is little point asking why it seems so particular with us. We know not “seems”.

These old themes are unapologetically at the centre of The Optimist’s Daughter, a short novel, and Eudora Welty’s last, published in the 1970s in her old age. In its concentration, it is almost a short story. Its principal character, Laurel, now living in Chicago, returns to her homeland in the South: her aged father is ill. At first, it does not seem very serious: a standard eye operation. But he fails to recover. His second wife, the vulgar, frivolous, and self-obsessed Fay, much younger than her frail husband, has little sympathy with death; but although she may think that she is on the side of life, she isn’t: life can mean but little if the significance of death fails to inspire awe, or even, as in this instance, adequate acknowledgement. She urges her husband to live – not for his own sake, but for her own. Possibly, she is responsible, in her thoughtlessness, for hastening her husband’s end. But it all means little to her: she is incapable of contemplation, and cannot even begin to understand why it all seems so particular with others. However, for Laurel, the last link with her past is now gone. Her mother had died years earlier; and her husband had died in the war. Though but middle-aged, no-one is now left alive with whom she retains any strong emotional tie: all whom she had loved are now dead. What can she do but remember?

Her remembering is largely left till the closing parts of the novel. The earlier parts of the novel describe, with all the economy of a great writer of short stories, Laurel’s father’s last illness, and the network of relationships between the old man and his young wife, and between father and daughter. The events move swiftly, as the old man fails to recover from what had appeared initially a routine operation; and as the wife, impatient with thoughts of death, and resentful that her feelings (she had felt the operation unnecessary) were being ignored, unwittingly and thoughtlessly hastens his end. At the funeral, Laurel meets again with her old neighbours, and old family friends, but finds herself feeling distant from it all. Her childhood home will now be passing on to Fay. The past is receding quickly. And, unexpectedly, Fay’s redneck family, turn up. She had said previously that she had no family, and it is not hard to conjecture why: even with her limited intelligence, she knew that they would not be approved of.

The resolution of the novel comes when, towards the end, Laurel is left on her own for a while in the old house that she knows she must soon leave for ever. And it is here that all that had gone previously, all that may have seemed fragmentary, fall into place, and we see them in proper focus. Here, at last, Laurel can think about a past that has left nothing behind, that can now exist only in her memory. Now she can re-evaluate.

Re-evaluation of the past, contemplating on why things have turned out as they have, understanding the ground we have occupied in relation to those whom we have loved, are the themes also of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night; but the past there had been turbulent. The past here seems, in contrast, placid and happy. But, as in O’Neill’s play, love and hatred are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps all loves contain some element of hatred.

A new character, only mentioned in passing earlier in the novel, now emerges in the foreground: Laurel’s dead mother. As Laurel’s mind shifts back and forth between the present and various times from the past, she remembers how she had reacted to her mother’s long illness and eventual death; and she remembers also how her mother had reacted to her parents’ death. A chain emerges, a human chain, of departing and of remembering, stretching back over time, across generations.

Her mother, like her father, had also lost her sight towards the end (vision, and lack of it, are among the recurring images of this novel), but, unlike her father’s, her mother’s illness had been a long one. She had, one suspects, never quite managed to tear herself away emotionally from her strong attachment to her family home in West Virginia – “up home”: for all her closeness to her husband, the home he offered in Mississippi never quite matched up to what she left behind, and the breaking, one by one, of her ties with her past – the death of her father, of her mother – had been for her particularly traumatic. And during her own long, final illness, her mind had deteriorated – or, as Fay puts it, “she died a crazy”. Laurel’s mother had been, towards the end, in despair, and her husband, though loving her, could not acknowledge the nature of the tragedy they were living through:

He loved his wife. Whatever she did that she couldn’t help doing was all right. Whatever she was driven to say was all right. But it was not all right! Her trouble was that very desperation. And no-one had any power to cause that except the one she desperately loved, who refused to consider that she was desperate. It was betrayal on betrayal.

Her loving husband, Laurel’s loving father, is an “optimist”: his nature is such that he cannot even bring himself to believe that certain things are beyond the reach merely of our loving; he could not bring himself to acknowledge the essential tragedy of our lives – the losses, the pains, the passing through nature to eternity.

As Laurel goes through her mother’s things, destroying all which she does not wish to come into Fay’s possession, her mind travels back and forth in time, remembering, interpreting, trying to understand. All the while, a storm is coming; and a bird that has flown down the chimney is trapped inside the house. Symbols, certainly, but to try to pin down these symbols is reductive: better, I think, to take these pieces of imagery at face value, and allow them to resonate in our minds. The course of Laurel’s thoughts may seem random, but they are carefully structured. And finally, her mind turns to her husband, Phil, killed at war:

If Phil could have lived –

But Phil was lost. Nothing of their life together remained except in her own memory; love was sealed away into its perfection, and had remained there.

What might have been, what might have emerged from their love, cannot disrupt that perfection in which it is now sealed.

There remains only a final confrontation with Fay before Laurel leaves for ever her childhood home. Laurel had wanted to hurt Fay, but when the time comes, it doesn’t seem worth it:

She had been ready to hurt Fay. She had wanted to hurt her, and had known herself capable of doing it. But such is the strangeness of her mind, it had been the memory of the child Wendell that had prevented her.

Wendell was a child who had been with Fay’s ghastly family that had descended so unexpectedly on the funeral. And he, at least, was blameless. Laurel does not know why the memory of that child should now prevent her from hurting Fay: she puts it down vaguely to “strangeness of her mind”.

Fay ends, as she thinks, triumphant: “I belong to the future,” she declares. And Laurel lets her have her moment of triumph because she knows this is not true.

Memory lived not in initial possession, but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.

These are all old, old themes. Welty’s perspective is quiet and unassuming. She meditates, as Laurel does, on the nature of loss, and of memory, that fragile and delicate thing that is nonetheless the sole remaining link to that which has been lost. But Welty is also utterly unsentimental: she is well aware of the deep resentment and hatred that can reside even within the most selfless and devoted love; and how even the most buoyant of optimism can be a denial of our lives’ tragedies – a denial almost of life itself. Love does not conquer all, and it is mere foolishness imagining otherwise.

This is a quite exquisite novel from one of the century’s finest writers.

“Pnin” by Vladimir Nabokov

Pnin and Lolita were written at around the same time, and it is hard not to compare the titular character of the one, the academic Timofey Pavolovich  Pnin, with the principal character of the other, Humbert Humbert.  Both are European émigrés in America, and both are highly intelligent; but in everything else, they are direct opposites. Humbert Humbert is personable and good-looking: from the description given (“ ideally bald … an infantile absence of eyebrows … apish upper lip, thick neck … a pair of spindly legs …”), Pnin isn’t. Humbert Humbert deceives his wife, Pnin is deceived by his. Humbert Humbert is a predatory paedophile, who grotesquely exploits his step-daughter: Pnin is selflessly kind and generous to his wife’s son. Humbert Humbert is a monster: Pnin is a good man. Indeed, it may not be going too far to describe him as a saint. And whereas, in Lolita, Nabokov encourages a degree of sympathy, and possibly even empathy, with his monster creation, so we, the reader, can feel shocked by where our empathy has taken us, the game Nabokov plays with Pnin is quite different: he depicts him throughout as an absurd and laughable character, so that we, the reader, find ourselves shocked that we could even think of laughing at so good and so selfless a human. He was one for games, was Nabokov.

In Lolita, Nabokov allowed the vile but deeply seductive voice of Humbert Humbert to tell us his story.  Here, the narrative voice belongs to someone else, and it is not entirely obvious to begin with who this someone else is. What this narrative voice gives voice to is highly individual: there are pot shots at various aspects of academia, for instance; there is also a dislike of fashionable psychiatric ideas (“Victor was a problem child insofar as he refused to be one”), and, frequently, a waspish sense of humour that often descends into outright sneering; and there is an openly expressed dislike of such literary figures as Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Dreiser, Mann. And all this is expressed a razor-sharp, precise, glinting prose. It is hard, given all this, to escape the notion that this narrator is Nabokov himself. Certainly, it is the same voice I hear in my mind when I read his fascinating (though highly idiosyncratic) literary criticism. But if the narrator is Nabokov, why is he so cruel and so unfeeling to Pnin? Do we put this down to yet another of Nabokov’s games?

But it’s not that the narrative voice misleads us. What this voice depicts is so clearly at odds with its sneering tone, that we learn very quickly not to take that tone of voice at all seriously. It would take a deeply insensitive reader, after all, to share the narrator’s obvious amusement when Pnin breaks down in tears in his landlady’s presence (“I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing!”)

There isn’t really much of a plot, as such. Nor is there much continuity between chapters, with each chapter emerging as a sort of tableau, and not moving anything on noticeably. In one chapter we meet Pnin’s ex-wife, who had shamefully exploited him, and continues shamelessly to exploit; and while Pnin is heartbroken, the narrator invites us to laugh at his heartbreak, and at his astonishing lack of rancour. In another chapter, Pnin looks after his wife’s son, and treats him with a greater kindness and understanding than his biological parents have ever done. This, too, the narrator seems to find rather funny. In another chapter, we see Pnin at a gathering of Russian émigrés: here, he seems a bit more at home. And so on. None of these tableaux seems to be part of any particular line of development: they simply reflect different facets of Pnin’s life, of his past, and of his miserable state of exile.

It is in the chapter relating the gathering of Russian émigrés that we learn that Pnin, in his youth, had loved a young Jewish woman, Mira Belochkin, who had later been murdered in a Nazi extermination camp. In a more conventional novel, this would have been at the centre, but here, it is dropped almost as if in passing, as if it were but an incidental detail. And  afterwards, it is never mentioned again. But the few sentences given to this apparently incidental detail gives us all that is needed for our imagination to latch on to:

Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to think of Mira Belochkin … no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.

The narrator, though at other points seemingly insensitive, goes on to say:

And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burnt alive in a pit on a gasoline soaked pile of beechwood.

The narration is clearly inconsistent here: if Pnin had indeed taught himself not to think of her, Mira could hardly have died and undergone resurrection “over and over again” in his mind. (The narrator does cover his back by saying “one’s mind” rather than “his mind” – my italics – but it’s hard to imagine who this “one” could be if not Pnin himself.) And the whole thing is never referred to again. A momentary mention, and that is it. It is left up to us, the reader, to take what is presented but as an incidental detail, and put it at the centre of things where it belongs. Nabokov plays games with the reader, yes, but, at the same time, he is openly asking the reader to see through his games.

After this little detail is dropped, the narration resumes as before, but the reader now must see the new events in the context of this detail, and re-evaluate everything that has gone before. If Pnin is a man hopelessly lost, a man hopelessly out of place, this is not merely because he is an émigré: it is not merely America in which he is a fish out of water – it is the world itself, a world in which no conscience or consciousness can be expected to subsist.

The comedy, however, continues. There is one delicious scene reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 in which it is decided not to assign Pnin to French classes because he actually knows the language. And, in the final chapter, the narrator emerges, revealing himself to be a fellow academic and fellow Russian émigré: indeed, he reveals himself to be, as we had always suspected, Nabokov himself. And the various inconsistencies in his narrative compel us to consider just why these inconsistencies have been introduced. There is possibly no definitive answer to this question: certainly, all the reams of literary theory concerning the use of the unreliable narrator are of little use to us here (one suspects that Nabokov himself would have aimed some sharp and well-aimed barbs at such theories). I rather suspect that these inconsistencies point to Nabokov’s recognition, and yet, at the same time, his inability openly to acknowledge, that human goodness, and indeed, human saintliness, can still exist in a world in which no conscience or consciousness could be expected to subsist. And Nabokov recognises quite clearly this conflict within himself: his inconsistencies are quite deliberately placed.

In the end, Pnin is relieved of his post, and he disappears. And at this point, the author, Nabokov himself, suspends his game-playing, and the razor-sharp precision of his prose gives way, if only momentarily, to a vision of another world that, somewhere, may still exist:

Then the little sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle may happen.

No waspish wit here, no sneering. Just for a single moment, Nabokov has let down his defences, and has given us what is perhaps as close to a religious vision as is possible in a world in which no conscience or consciousness could be expected to subsist.

“The love that can be reckoned”

“There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned,” says Antony confidently in the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra. It is, indeed, his opening line. This theme of the immeasurability of love echoes throughout Shakespeare’s work: love, true love, is not something that can be reckoned. Rosalind in As You Like It agrees:

O coz, coz, coz, my pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love! But it cannot be sounded; my affection hath an unknown bottom…

It cannot be reckoned, it cannot be sounded, for it is bottomless. At least, its bottom is unknown: as far as our human understanding goes, it is infinitely deep.

Juliet, naturally, is of the same mind:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,
My love as deep; the more I give to thee
The more I have, for both are infinite.

Infinity is not a number like any other number. Take a number away from infinity, and it still remains infinite. A whole new set of mathematical rules must be developed if we are to encompass the concept of infinity.

Even Orsino, in Twelfth Night, who has little reason to praise love given how much he suffers for it, compares love to the incalculable infinity of the sea:

O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute!

That which may be reckoned or sounded, no matter how large, becomes as nothing when it enters the sea, which can neither be reckoned nor sounded. The infinity of love is beyond reckoning, beyond understanding.

A very conspicuous example in Shakespeare of someone who does not understand the nature of love, who feels it can be reckoned, is Lear. In the very opening scene, he declares he will divide his kingdom to his daughters on the basis of how much they love him. Not only does he think love is something that can be measured, he plans to settle the future of the kingdom itself on the basis of this measurement:

Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.

Love, for Lear, is something that can be reckoned, can be sounded: it is a measurable parameter, weighting factors in a mathematical equation.

Later, he measures love in proportion to the number of personal attendants he is allowed:

I’ll go with thee:
Thy fifty yet doth double five and twenty,
And thou art twice her love.

Here is obviously a man who is spiritually blind, one of those who, as Gloucester later puts it, “will not see because he doth not feel”. But this is where this seeming dichotomy – between, on the one hand, whose who think love can be measured, and those to understand it to be unfathomable – becomes complicated. For Cordelia, the very epitome of selfless and self-sacrificing love, speaks the same language as her father:

I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.

Love here is most certainly reckoned, and by the terms of a legally binding bond: and once it is measured, she is prepared to give it precisely, neither more, nor less. A few lines later, she speaks of love as something that can mathematically be divided:

Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.

What a far cry this is from Juliet’s contention that the more love she gives, the more she has, “for both are infinite”.

I must confess that I have a problem understanding Cordelia. It is no doubt true that she is irritated, insulted even, by her father’s antics, and is determined not to play his game. There is in her a sense of stubborn pride that actually marks her out to be indeed her father’s daughter. But need she express her disapproval so bluntly? And in open court? She has grown up in this court, after all, and knows the ropes: she knows that a king cannot be humiliated in his own court without severe repercussions. She knows that if she is disowned – as is the most likely outcome of crossing her father so publicly – her beloved father (for he is beloved) will be in the hands of her sisters, whom she knows well. So why does she speak in this manner? And why does she adopt Lear’s language?

Cordelia appears three more times in the rest of the play – that is, apart from her final appearance as a corpse. The first of these appearances is a brief scene in the French camp, and is mainly expository in nature. The next scene she appears in is the famous recognition scene, where Lear recognises his daughter, and, more importantly, recognises her inestimable worth, the inestimable worth of love itself. In this scene, Cordelia seems at first too diffident even to speak to her father (“He wakes; speak to him,” she says to the doctor); and when her father does awake, she speaks very few words (although these very few words include the almost unbearably moving “No cause, no cause”). She does weep, though (“Be your tears wet?” asks Lear.)

Similarly when Lear and Cordelia are imprisoned. Once again, it is Lear who does almost all the talking, while Cordelia is silent. And once again, she weeps (“Wipe thine eyes,” Lear tells her). Cordelia had probably wept in the very first scene also: “With wash’d eyes Cordelia leaves you,” she tells her sisters, although I suppose it can be argued that Cordelia means “with a clear sight” rather than “with tearful eyes”: I think she means both.

So a picture seems to emerge of Cordelia as someone who cannot, as she herself says, “heave [her] heart into [her] mouth” – who lacks the words when most she needs to speak, and who weeps instead. But yet, in that first scene, she isn’t inarticulate: she articulates very clearly indeed. And, strangely, what this paragon of selfless love articulates is articulated in Lear’s own language: she speaks of love as something that can be reckoned, measured, parcelled out, as if it were but a finite number. It’s all very puzzling.

Oresteia redux: “Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugene O’Neill

This post is going to be a short one. I know I’m a bit loquacious: when I’m writing about a book, I rarely post less than a thousand or so words, even when I have little to say. But this one, I promise, will be short: Eugene O’Neill has, after all, written Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a work that for many years now has resonated with me most powerfully; and it is frankly painful to have to say anything too detrimental about a writer one of of whose works, at least, has meant to me so much over so many years. So I’ll keep this one short.

Mourning Becomes Electra is a trilogy of plays set in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and is based upon the three surviving Oresteia plays of Aeschylus. Of course, these great myths are capable of renewing themselves for different generations, but the problem here is that O’Neill doesn’t renew anything at all: he merely takes the outline of the story, and dresses it in modern clothes. He dutifully plods through the major events – a general returning triumphantly from war murdered by his adulterous wife, his son and daughter revenging their father’s death, and so on – but, apart from a rather lumbering Oedipal relationship between mother and son, he adds nothing at all. The psychology is crude, the drama plot-driven, the dialogue lumbering and, at times, ludicrously sensational and melodramatic … and it all leaves me shaking my head and wondering how a writer who could have produced that infinitely moving and poetic masterpiece that is Long Day’s Journey Into Night could even conceive of something so ham-fisted as this.

The above paragraph contains merely assertions: I have provided, I am aware, no analysis. The purpose of this post is merely to record my reactions rather than to account for them. I could, I suppose, spend some time analysing these three plays, but such an exercise would, I fear, prove too depressing. I haven’t yet read all of O’Neill’s plays, but of what I have read, The Iceman Cometh seemed to me a fine (though highly idiosyncratic) work; Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a play of searing intensity and of emotions almost too raw to be expressed, but also the work of a profound poetic sensibility; and the rest I have found unremarkable. This trilogy of plays seemed to me even less than merely unremarkable: it is so depressingly ordinary and uninspired – especially given the lofty dramas of Aeschylus that inspired them, if “inspired” is really the word I’m looking for here – that I really can’t see myself returning to them. Not even to check if I have been mistaken.

But Long Day’s Journey Into Night remains as fine a monument as any literary artist could hope to leave behind. It is a work that moves me beyond words. So why dwell on the rest?

“Smoke” by Ivan Turgenev

Smoke by Ivan Turgenev, translated by Michael Pursgove, published by Alma Classics

*** SPOILER WARNING: This post inevitably reveals some details of the plot ***

I actually remember well the first time I read Turgenev’s Smoke: it was shortly before the UK release of Woody Allen’s Manhattan in 1980. I remember watching he film and being struck by how similar the storylines were. In both, there’s a male protagonist (aged around thirty in the novel, but a bit older in the film); a very young lady to whom he is attached; and a far more sophisticated lady, who is closer to his own age, with whom he falls in love, and for whose sake he turns his back on his younger love. And the storylines develop in much the same way. I suppose it is a fairly standard storyline, and I am certainly not accusing anyone of plagiarism. And it is the sort of storyline one comes to expect from Turgenev: the flowering of love, innocence betrayed, the vagaries of the heart, regret, missed opportunities, sorrow, unhappiness brought upon one’s own self by one’s foolishness and lack of moral purpose … it’s all present and correct. What matters, of course, is not the storyline as such, but what is made of it.

What Turgenev makes of it seems to me a gentle, charming love story, nostalgic and melancholy, and aching with wistfulness. Yes, we’ve all been there before. Possibly, after the greater depths broached in his previous novel Fathers and Sons, we may have been entitled to expect something a bit more thematically ambitious. But, then again, art is not to be judged on its novelty alone: there’s always room for yet another wistful love story.

But what surprises nowadays is that a novel so seemingly inoffensive as this should, at the time, have caused such a political storm. Fathers and Sons had done the same, of course, but there, many of the themes had been explicitly political. How is it, one wonders, that a book so apparently innocuous, written by a writer who insistently aligned himself with moderation in all things – moderation not out of indecisiveness or pusillanimity, but because he felt it his moral duty to avoid extremes of all sorts – should have caused such controversy? Perhaps my inability to answer that question indicates my inability to understand adequately the Russian mind of the nineteenth century, and the fury of the entrenched battle lines then drawn between West-looking liberalism, and the Slavophilism that rejected the West, and looked for salvation within the traditions of the Mother Russia. No-one seemed to deny that salvation, of some sort of other, was needed: but there was no agreement on where it was to be found. Turgenev’s gigantic contemporaries, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, went their own extreme ways: Dostoyevsky rejected the idea of a brotherhood imposed from above, and seemed to favour a brotherhood that could only spring spontaneously from below, in the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church – although, given the multiplicity of voices to be found in his novels, no single idea seems able to keep its shape intact for very long; Tolstoy, meanwhile, seemed to turn towards a sort of Christian anarchism. Both geniuses were touched with madness. In contrast, Turgenev seems the most level-headed of them all – no mean feat given the untrammelled lunacy all around him. Perhaps this is the very reason why his works attracted such opprobrium.

But what seems particularly strange, given the intense controversy of the time, is how small a part politics seems to play in Smoke in the first place. In Fathers and Sons, the whole thing did turn on the conflict between different perspectives on the world, and, by implication, different politics: but here, even that seems to be absent. Turgenev does, it is true, introduce some reactionary aristocrats, and satirises them; but he introduces a group of radicals also, and similarly satirises them. These are not, frankly, the most memorable sections of the novel: Turgenev’s gifts for satire, certainly compared to, say, that of Gogol or Dostoyevsky, seem distinctly limited. And, indeed, so little a part do these scenes play in the novel, and so far are they from what I take to be its central themes, one can’t help wondering whether it would have been better without these scenes. For Turgenev was at his best, it seems to me, with smaller canvases – in his short stories and novellas: why expand the size of the canvas for no particular reason?

For the central themes of this novel is neither liberalism nor conservatism: indeed, it is not politics at all. It is about the mistakes one makes in life; it is about being led astray by one’s emotions, by the weakness of one’s moral purpose, by the inability to perceive matters truly, as they are. And with these themes, which I used in my Dostoyevsky-and-Tolstoy-obsessed youth to dismiss as slight, Turgenev was very much on home ground: no other author has ever conveyed with such delicacy and lyricism the sadness of it all. Of course, Turgenev had dealt with themes before, and, in his late novella, The Torrents of Spring, he addressed them again: but, despite what I may have thought in my youth, these themes are not slight, and are worth revisiting. We do not, after all, criticise Monet for painting those waterlilies so endlessly.

The action takes place in a spa town in Germany, and the drama is played out amongst expatriates. The protagonist, Litvinov, is betrothed to Tatyana, a name that to any educated Russian would instantly conjure up Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. And, like Pushkin’s Tatyana, Turgenev’s Tatyana is young and inexperienced, but also perceptive and intelligent, and possessed of a moral purpose that Litvinov clearly lacks. The third point of this triangle is Irina, whom Litvinov had loved some ten years earlier, but who had been married off to a wealthy aristocrat. (As ever, Turgenev fills us in on the past with a quite leisurely flashback.) Irina is still married, to a husband she does not care for, and, despite his feelings for Tatyana, Litivinov’s old love for Irina again wells up. Turgenev, as ever, conveys these subtleties of the heart with the most delicate of touches. He introduces another character, Potugin: he, too, is in love with Irina, but he is resigned to his passion remaining unfulfilled; and he follows round Irina and her husband wherever they go, asking for nothing, and receiving nothing. He is, I suppose, an image of what Litvinov may himself one day become: no matter how much we may extol love, there is no reason or logic in human passion, and it could, Turgenev knew, be deeply humiliating.

Once we strip away the politics from this novel – and it is easily stripped away – what remains is another sad and gentle love story. It would be easy to mistake this as slight, as I did once, but it isn’t. The vagaries of the human heart are always important, and always worth revisiting.



“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.