Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 881

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In The Cannibal, the cannibalistic processes of nature, including human nature, dominate life when institutions of order have been destroyed in war. These institutions, however, are also destructive in their efforts to repress or control the processes of life. Zizendorf’s plan to assassinate Leevey and to establish a neo-Nazi state parallels the nationalistic dream of Germany in 1914 and the Nazi goals of the 1930’s. Each past dream is destructive, resulting in war, and each is abortive, destroyed by the war it provokes.

The parallel expressions of the cannibalistic life force in nature, in human beings, and in institutions are implied when Stella wonders how cannibals “could bear, in only their feathers, this terrible sun.” She sees them, “carrying victims high over their heads, as tall vengeful creatures who sang madly on their secret rock.” Stella senses the “terrifying similarity” between the cannibalism of nature, represented by the “terrible sun,” and the cannibalism of people. Their need to protect themselves from death by feeding off the life of others parallels the need of the visible world to perpetuate itself. The cannibals secure a rock, an enclave of order, to facilitate their feeding and to protect themselves from the natural world and from other cannibals. The cannibals and their rock parallel the world’s nations and their institutions of protective-repressive order.

The disorder and the threats of destruction that confront Zizendorf and the other characters are mirrored for the reader in the apparent incoherence of the novel and in John Hawkes’s focus on seemingly gratuitous horrors. The central enormity is the butchering of Jutta’s son by the cannibalistic Duke. Hawkes’s surrealistic style contributes a nightmare quality to the novel. Like a literal nightmare, the novel is also characterized by disruption of chronology, abrupt transition in place, and fragmentation of action. The narrative of the first and third sections is interrupted by the narrative of the second section. Similar interruptions occur within each section as Hawkes carries several actions forward simultaneously.

Confronted with these disruptions, the reader attempts to order his or her experience of the novel, just as Zizendorf attempts to impose order on his experience. The success of the reader’s effort depends on the perception of parallels in image, statement, character, and action as well as the perception of historical parallels. Herman Snow is identified with Kaiser Wilhelm II, the ruler of Germany during World War I. His personal desires parallel the nationalistic aspirations of Germany in 1914. The historical counterpart to Ernst is Gavrilo Princep, the assassin of the Austrian archduke. Ernst’s desire to win Stella for himself parallels the Serbian desire for independence. His appearance at the side of Stella’s carriage corresponds to Princep’s assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the act that began World War I.

After Stella and Ernst become disillusioned with dreams of conquest and heroism, they seek protection from life in the institution of religion. Belief in another world and in the immortality of souls parallels in the novel the illusion that human beings can create a paradise of protective order in this world. Both dreams are cannibalistic: The institutions of aggression destroy life; the institutions of religion deny life. After Ernst dies, Stella abandons religion. During World War II, she sides with the Nazis and sacrifices her son to war, just as Herman and the old general, Stella’s father, are willing to sacrifice their children in 1914.

In 1914, Cromwell and Jutta are disillusioned with their parents’ dreams. Cromwell is associated with technological power and dehumanizing order. He is the prototype of Zizendorf in the 1945 sections of the novel. Jutta is imaged as an architect. She worships people “in the abstract.” Her concern with “angles and structures” associates her with Cromwell’s “Technological Revolution” and, later, with Zizendorf’s plans to “build the house” of his neo-Nazi state. It is Jutta whom Zizendorf takes as his mistress. In another parallel, Madam Snow nurses Balamir in the 1945 sections, just as she comforts Ernst on the first night of World War I. She abandons Balamir and accepts the Duke’s invitation to dinner, just as she leaves the dead Ernst to side with the Nazis in World War II.

When the inmates of the “ordered institution,” literally a madhouse symbolizing the Nazi state, are released at the end of World War II, the pattern begins again. Zizendorf believes he can succeed where those before him failed because his plans are founded on a disillusioned view of reality, on his recognition that “life is not the remarkable, the precious or necessary thing we think it is.” Zizendorf is identified with both the Duke and Balamir. His disregard for other human lives parallels the Duke’s cannibalism. Zizendorf’s belief that he can succeed mirrors Balamir’s illusion that he can rebuild the old Germany. Zizendorf fails to recognize that there is really no division between the Germany of 1914, the Germany of 1945, and his new state; there is only a continuity. One abortive system of destructive order spawns another.

Hawkes said that The Cannibal is in the future. Zizendorf writes that he has to leave the town—“a garden spot; all of our memories are there”—but he assures the reader: “I am waiting, and at the first opportunity I will, of course, return.”