Published in 1976, October Light was in one sense Gardner’s bicentennial novel, a symbolic retelling of the American Revolution through the lives of two elderly Vermont residents, James Page and his sister, Sally Page Abbott. The struggle between the two recapitulates, in miniature, the conflict between the colonists and Great Britain, while the small New England community where they live comes to represent the United States—its past and its promise.
On another, deeper, level the novel focuses on a theme which Gardner found compelling and which is the basis for his pastoral novels: the power of nature to act as a moral force and become the positive center for human life, strengthening that which is best and serving as a guide. Nature cannot accomplish this alone but needs to be mediated by art, and that art, as October Light makes explicit, must be moral art—moral fiction.
Fiction must be moral because fiction is powerful, capable of affecting lives and societies. In October Light this power is displayed in two fashions. First is the hostile, visceral reaction James Page has to modern media, especially television. The feud between Page and his sister starts when he blows apart her television with a blast from his shotgun. Later, enraged by the shows he sees in a bar, Page gets drunk, violent, and destroys his truck in a crash on a winding mountain road.
The second fashion through which Gardner shows the power of literature is by his device of a novel within the novel, a cheap crime/science-fiction thriller called The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock. Sally finds this trashy paperback after she has taken refuge in her room, and as she reads its tawdry tale of sex, violence,...
(The entire section is 715 words.)