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First published: 1924

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Regional romance

Time of work: Twentieth century

Locale: Rural Wisconsin

Principal Characters:

Hannah Madoc, a primitive

Jule Bier, Hannah's lover

Selma, Jule's wife

Rosalia, Jule's and Selma's daughter

Mike, Rosalia's lover

Dan Strane, Rosalia's cousin

The Story

When her drunken father came home one night and swung at her with a broom handle, patient, hard-working Hannah Madoc pushed him off the porch in self-defense. He died a few days later, leaving his daughter orphaned and penniless, and Hannah went to work in Mrs. Boyle's store. There, she waited on customers during the day and served the men liquor in the evening.

One night, Jule Bier saw her behind the store counter. Since the death of his wife and the piling up of debts, old Mr. Bier had struggled to make enough money from his farm to give Jule a chance in life. Cold and calculating, the elder Bier had sent Jule to work as a hired hand on the neighborhood farms. Jule began to court Hannah during long walks at night; he took her to neighborhood dances, and they went for rides in his buggy. Hannah soon tired of the attentions of other men. When Mr. Boyle attempted to make love to her, she quit her job and went to work on a farm near Jule's home.

Old Mr. Bier sent Jule to court Selma Duncan, the oldest daughter of a wealthy farmer. Blindly obeying his father, Jule proposed to the girl and was accepted. Then he realized what he had done. Facing Hannah, he was bewildered by her grief, only half aware of his own.

Leaving the neighborhood of Sheboygan, Hannah went to Fond du Lac, where she became a prostitute and gradually lost her beauty and vitality. At last, Jule went to Fond du Lac to bring his former sweetheart back to her home. Hannah ended her years in bitter sterility, answering a call for help from a neighbor, nursing a sick calf, or taking care of someone's children when their mother became ill. She died, prematurely aged and broken, as the result of a fall.

Jule and Selma had one daughter, Rosalia. Selma's sister, Mrs. Strane, had a son, Dan, who was a boy of fourteen when Rosalia was in her early twenties. Mike, a young man with a keen zest for life, worked on Jule's farm. Because his mother was so tight-lipped and because she tried to instill in him a chastity of ignorance and abstinence, Dan had developed an adolescent feeling of frustration and curiosity. He longed to know what sex was and how it affected people, but at the same time, he was overcome by an inbred feeling of shame. It was Mike who clarified matters for Dan after they became friends. Mike, who believed that life should be full of experience both physical and mental, made life's processes a wonderful thing, not obscene and dirty, as Dan's mother had led the boy to believe. Breaking away from the mother who had been his idol, Dan replaced her with his new friend, Mike. Mike, in love with Rosalia, shared his deeper feelings with his young friend. Dan had grown up.

Mike loved and desired Rosalia, but at first she resisted his lovemaking. One afternoon he seduced her. Rosalia's subsequent tears frightened him, but soon she learned to hide her terror of love. She told Mike that they ought to get married to redeem their sin, but Mike's suggestion that Selma might not approve quieted the frightened girl. Mike was not certain that he wanted to marry Rosalia. When Jule quietly told Mike that he had noticed Rosalia's and Mike's love and that he would not object to the marriage if Mike wanted it, Mike felt trapped. He quit his job with Jule and left the Bier farm.

Dan was inconsolable. Having looked upon his cousin and Mike as perfect lovers, he could not understand why Mike should leave. Rosalia brooded, her sense of guilt increasing after Mike's departure. Although she hid her feelings from her parents, Dan knew enough of her affair with Mike to be curious about Rosalia's feelings; but he could learn nothing from her. Rosalia herself was not as calm as she appeared to be. The punishment for love was a child. She felt a surge of emotion within her, and it seemed permanently a part of her. She concluded that she must be pregnant. It was inevitable; she had sinned and this was to be her harvest. Deserted by her lover/husband, she could not bear to think of her shame. She told some neighbors that she was going to run off to meet Mike, and one night during a snowstorm she left her home.

No one had heard from Rosalia or Mike. Dan and Selma waited through the winter. Once, when Dan went to visit his aunt in Milwaukee, he looked for Mike, but he did not find him. In the spring, a neighbor brought the news to Jule that Rosalia's body had been found in the swamp. Fearing that the news would kill the already ailing Selma, Jule made the neighbor and Dan promise to tell no one about Rosalia's body. They buried the girl in the swamp.

All summer Dan worked on his father's farm. He had begun to hate the memory of Mike ever since he had helped Jule bury the body of Rosalia. A hundred times over, Dan killed Mike in effigy. In the fall Selma died, and Dan went to live with Jule. The kindly, patient man, who had seen so much of life, won Dan's affections.

Jule wanted Dan to tell him all he knew about Rosalia and Mike. The wonderful understanding of the old man impressed his nephew. Mike had done the best he knew how, Jule maintained. In turn, he told Dan about Hannah Madoc. If Hannah had been Rosalia's mother instead of Selma, Jule said, Rosalia would not have been destroyed through fear. Hannah knew how to handle life. Religious people were always trying to make life better than it was, but life should be accepted at its simple, natural values. Dan accepted his uncle's views.

Dan's father had never understood his son. Having completed his high school education, Dan was becoming restless. His father, realizing that Dan was not suited for farm work, suggested that he go to college. With high hopes that he would find more answers to his questions about life, Dan prepared to enter the state university.

Critical Evaluation:

THE APPLE OF THE EYE is a novel concerned with sexuality and its impact on human relationships and religious values. Written by a young man, it is a novel filled with lyrical passages and obsessed with the emergence and demands of sex.

The novel is organized in three interrelated sections. The first section, devoted to Hannah Madoc, is by far the most successful. The later sections, more philosophical and autobiographical, filled with long, abstract conversations, are less impressive.

The central question posed by THE APPLE OF THE EYE is whether a satisfactory and happy life can be achieved within the boundaries of conventional relationships. The story of Hannah Madoc demonstrates that there are a variety of fulfilling lives. She is a woman who violates conventions and who has the courage to defend herself; at the same time, however, she pays a stiff penalty for her passion.

The story of Rosalia and Mike elaborates this idea. Although Dan is initially taken completely by Mike's hedonism, Rosalia's death proves that living for the body alone is dangerous, even fatal. Glenway Wescott stresses this point in his description of Rosalia's decomposed body. Its ugliness has a tremendous moral impact on Dan. Through Dan's evaluation of his own feelings, Wescott suggests that Mike's hedonism and Mrs. Strane's puritanism are each one-sided. Neither offers, by itself, a system of values which is ultimately workable.

THE APPLE OF THE EYE does not, finally, offer a system of its own to replace these alternatives. Nevertheless, like other American novels of the 1920's, it does ask significant questions. In an era when old values were being seriously questioned, writers such as Wescott attempted to explore the implications of different systems of values. It was an effort to search for standards by which people could conduct themselves and with which Americans could lead fulfilling lives. This effort, in the case of THE APPLE OF THE EYE, is certainly worthwhile.