What is Book Two of Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March about?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Best known for his plays Our Town and The Matchmaker and his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder produced an epistolary novel that takes place in ancient Rome, during the rule of Julius Caesar.   An epistolary novel, of course, is one comprised solely of documents such as correspondence and journal entries that provide the continuous narrative while also injecting the myriad perspectives represented by those documents.  The Ides of March: A Novel, is Wilder’s fictional account of the life of Julius Caesar, focusing, as the title suggests, on the events surrounding that Roman leader’s assassination, and is comprised of “documents” that establish context and that, as noted, propel the story forward.  It is not, however, a linear narrative.  Rather, it is divided into four “books,” the second of which, Book Two, in the words of Wilder himself, “contains material relevant to Caesar’s inquiry concerning the nature of love, begins earlier [than Book One] and traverses the whole of September and October.” In fact, Wilder’s novel is not even close to presenting a linear, chronological history, as that is not his focus.  Wilder was drawing a parallel or offering a metaphor for more recent events from the period in which he lived and in which he was writing.  That period included the rise of fascism in Italy (and, later, in Germany) in the person of Benito Mussolini, like Caesar, an Italian leader of marked autocratic tendencies, and the global conflagration that resulted directly from the emergence of such dictators.

Wilder’s purpose in writing The Ides of March was to explore the inner sanctum of the mind of the dictator who viewed himself as benevolent and essential to the very liberties bestowed upon the population while, at the same time, retracting those liberties while becoming consumed by growing megalomania.  As he wrote pertaining to this novel regarding Caesar, “[t]he world was in his hand. But he was so free himself that he forgot to allow the exercise in freedom to others.”  Specific to Book Two, as noted, however, Wilder’s construct explores Caesar’s approach to the subject of love, the very human emotion, within the context of Cleopatra’s visit to Rome, where the two lovers present a more immediate threat to the second of Caesar’s three wives, Pompeia.  This section of Wilder’s novel, then, provides the “backstory” involving triangular relationships and jealousies and rivalries that characterized Rome’s political and social atmosphere.  Caesar’s discovery in this section of Marc Antony’s sexual interlude with Cleopatra helps set the stage for the animosities that will, eventually, lead to the increasingly autocratic leader’s assassination. 

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