Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473
This novel is organized around the character of Elizabeth Costello, who is virtually an alter ego for the author himself. While a famous and successful writer, she is also a lonely, confused, and sad old woman who knows that other people find her infuriating, which further isolates her. As she travels from Amsterdam to South Africa, Massachusetts, and to what appears to be the gates of Heaven, she gives readers what are described as lessons, eight in toto. The first two chapters of this novel, “The Philosophers and the Animals” and “The Poets and the Animals,” argue that the slaughtering of animals is a crime that leads to moral corruption and spiritual disaster. Related to this is the overvaluation of human reason, which Costello suggests is simply the mask that power wears and which has made it impossible for humans to empathize with the situation of animals. She suggests that human beings have forgotten their own animal natures, especially their shared mortality. In contemplating her own death she feels she shares the existential situation of animals, and at the end of her two lessons on this issue, her son, John, indeed comforts her as if she were a miserable suffering creature approaching death.
A second topic concerns the issue of evil and is organized around Costello’s reaction to a novel written about Nazi Germany. She concludes the author may be too pleasurably involved with his subject, as a result becoming demonic; Costello suspects this demonic presence in herself as well. In the next section, the voice of Costello gives way to that of her sister, a Catholic nun, who denounces the study of the humanities, art, and the privileging of reason. When her sister suggests that the humanities have lost their spiritual dimension, Costello agrees that if art is to survive, it must respond to the human craving for salvation.
Eventually, Costello’s final destination is a strange prison camp; here she must make a case for herself before a mysterious panel of judges in order to get past the gate into the next world. She finally produces an enigmatic statement that deploys the situation of the common frog as a metaphor not just for death but also for redemption.
A final chapter also takes readers into a more phantasmagoric reality. It is inspired by Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “Letter of Lord Chandos to Lord Bacon” (1902) but imagined from the perspective of Lord Chandos’s wife. She appears to mediate the rationality of Bacon and the mysticism of her husband, but whether it is possible for her to successfully accomplish this mission is open to question. Beginning with the body, both animal and human, Costello’s lessons move through considerations of good, evil, death, sexuality, and art to a more fantastic mode of consciousness that never absolutely reveals its purposes or meanings.