Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Aldous Huxley is one of the most gifted stylists in English literature, producing a clear prose that has subtle modulations in biting, even savage, satire that spares none of his characters or their illusions. “The Gioconda Smile” is a supreme example of that style, which is careful to maintain a cool, even indifferent distance between the characters and the readers. As with the figures in the works of William Makepeace Thackeray (a suave author with whom Huxley has many similarities), Hutton, his wife, Miss Spence, and Doris are clearly puppets to be manipulated by the author through their predetermined downfalls.

Irony and distance dominate the story. The title refers to the famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci that is known, alternately, as the “Mona Lisa” and “La Gioconda.” Traditionally, a good part of the fascination viewers have for that painting is the mysterious half-smile that the woman wears. The meaning and cause of that smile have occupied the minds of critics and scholars for centuries. That Hutton graces Miss Spence’s pout as “her Gioconda smile” is ironic, and doubly ironic is her adoption of it, for in her spinsterly earnestness she renders it grotesque. As Huxley describes it, “a little snout with a round hole in the middle as though for whistling—it was like a penholder seen from the front.” So is one of the great works of Western art rendered ridiculous and trivial, just as the story takes themes of love and death into the territory of the mundane and banal.

To emphasize this triviality, the characters speak and behave as figures in a fiction. Hutton, vain and self-centered, preens himself in a mirror as the story begins, and semi-blasphemously denotes himself the “Christ of Ladies.” Doris, the naïve Cockney mistress, can summon up nothing better than “Teddy Bear” for her lover, while Miss Spence falls on her knees during a thunderstorm to declare her love for Hutton. These are familiar characters, yet through Huxley’s skillful prose and his unrelenting and unsparing presentation, he has made them and their tawdry interaction a memorable and enduring story of a pitiful, pitiable human tragedy.