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James M. Cain

James M. Cain Essay - Critical Essays

James M. Cain American Literature Analysis

The substance of Cain’s fiction coincides with the undercurrents of Greek tragedy—violently satisfied ambitions, incest, hubris, adultery, murder, betrayal, and nemesis. Greek tragedy also comprises drama and music, the two modes of artistic expression to which Cain vainly aspired. Cain’s work is best approached in this context of tragedy and auctorial frustration, even if one agrees with W. M. Frohock that the tragedy is “bogus” or “tabloid.” (Frohock judges all Cain’s work to be “trash” yet recognizes in it a readability to which many first-rate writers are drawn.) Like the major figures in his stories, Cain never got what he truly wanted; yet, in creating those figures, he wrote what he truly wanted to write and, although he did not become a dramatist and creator of high literature, he fathomed the currents of truth that may be the consciously or unconsciously sought goal of all art.

Cain’s antiheroes mainly achieve, not their true desires, which may or may not remain unknown to them, but the surfaces of their dreams; the coalescence of the dreamer with the surface of the dream is the guarantee of disaster. Cain appears to have detected the fallacy of the American Dream, which rises brightly but upon unseen and unadmitted props of crime, violence, promiscuity, and sexual waywardness. The first sentence of The Postman Always Rings Twice encapsulates the quality and direction of Cain’s fiction: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” In addition to arresting the reader’s interest with perfect verbal economy, the sentence connotes the alienation of the unsettled individual (“me”) from the establishment (“they”), those who have harvested the fields of the American Dream at the temporarily shadowless (it is “about noon”) surface of a society that has been wounded by the dream-destroying reality of the Depression of the early 1930’s.

The story that follows is, at the literal level, the working out of Cain’s fictional formula: A man and a woman seek sexual gratification and monetary profit from the murder of the woman’s husband. At the emblematic level, it presents the American Dream as a sublimation of the quest for sex and cash.

The hard, lean, unembellished, and fast-paced narratives of Cain’s characteristic works earned for his fiction the epithets “tough-guy” and “hard-boiled.” He objected to these terms both because they placed him in a specific category, which placement as a critical device he abhorred, and because they were also associated with Ernest Hemingway, whose works Cain admired but whose influence upon himself he sternly denied in his preface to The Butterfly. In that preface, Cain, differentiating himself from Hemingway, says, “I . . . write of the wish that comes true, a terrifying concept.”

The terror derives from the fact that it is chiefly the materialistic surface of the wish that comes true, not the true wish. There are precedents in Greek tragedy. The wish of Sophocles’ Oedipus for material success, for example, comes true, but only by way of patricide and incest, the factors which ultimately defeat him; his true wish, unknown to himself until he is brought down by his wish come true, is for spiritual peace, which he learns, at last, is found in love. Cain’s antiheroes fulfill their wishes for sex and money but, in doing so, must contend with the destructive forces loosed by the woman—the equivalent of “the first woman,” as Cain says in the preface to The Butterfly, naming the Greek mythical Pandora.

The woman in Serenade murders a man’s homosexual lover and restores to the man, through his heterosexual relationship with her, the fine singing voice which readers are given to understand his homosexuality had flattened. Then the basis of the man’s successful new career asserts itself as the very destruction of that career. The man learns, after his singing voice reveals his identity and the law then finds and kills his fugitive woman, that his love for the woman was the real meaning of his life.

Love for a woman whom a man mistakenly assumes to be his daughter is the nexus of the tragedy in The Butterfly. Here the true love is incestuous, although to himself the man does not acknowledge it as such. His love increases in direct proportion to the strengthening of the unadmitted assumption that she is his daughter.

A virtual companionpiece to The Butterfly is The Moth (1948), in which a man’s love for a twelve-year-old girl is as true as it is conventionally exceptionable. The Moth antedates Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) by seven years. Oddly, Nabokov’s comic novel about a middle-aged man in love with a twelve-year-old girl ends unhappily, while Cain’s novel is one of the few to which he gave a happy ending.

The happy ending is not Cain’s specialty. His murder mysteries, Sinful Woman (1947) and Jealous Woman (1950), end happily and are both among Cain’s least effective accomplishments. Sinful Woman is representative of another of Cain’s infrequent devices, third-person narration. Mildred Pierce and Love’s Lovely Counterfeit carry the device creditably, but the same cannot be said of either Sinful Woman or The Magician’s Wife (1965). Departures from the techniques of The Postman Always Rings Twice were, except in the composition of Mildred Pierce, not felicitous for Cain. He is essentially a master of the short, brisk, unsentimental, first-person narrative tragedy of people pulled to destruction by the inevitable consequences of their fulfilled material wishes, which at first obscure and then either delay or preclude the experience of their true subjective wishes.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

First published: 1934

Type of work: Novel

Adulterous lovers who get away with murder cannot escape their fate.

The Postman Always Rings Twice was Cain’s first novel and came to stand as his finest work of fiction. It is both classical Cain, with its hard-boiled, first-person narrative of a...

(The entire section is 2546 words.)