Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403
Thornton Wilder twice received the Pulitzer Prize for his work as a playwright (OUR TOWN, 1938; THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, 1943). However, he is also respected as a novelist. His reputation was first made by THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY, a best-selling novel that won him his first Pulitzer Prize in 1928. After the success of this work came a succession of other novels, many of which employed Wilder’s characteristic device of centering on a group of persons whose lives at some point in time are all in some way interconnected.
This is also the technique Wilder was to use in THE IDES OF MARCH, a novel whose use of “documents” to tell its story fits it into at least two major novel categories: the historical and the epistolary. Wilder’s use of these fictitious documents—only the parts from Catullus and the last entry are authentic—allows him an omniscient point of view in telling his story. He is thus able at the same time to maintain a sense of unfolding progression, as the same facts are discussed again and again from a different viewpoint and are filled in more completely by each character’s successive letter.
This technique of multiple viewpoints also allows Wilder to present a more comprehensive picture of the novel’s characters. Caesar is seen as rational, truly unvengeful, dedicated to the responsibilities he accepts as dictator, and generally superior in every way to those around him. His virtues are not understood by the other characters because they are incapable of possessing such strengths themselves. Brutus, for example, is incapable of the strong convictions, about Rome or himself, that are needed by a man in Caesar’s position. Caesar’s private character is revealed through his own letters to Lucius Mamilius Turrinus, but readers also see different and complementary sides of him in the letters of Clodia Pulcher, Julia Marcia, Pompeia, and others. These in turn are understood through their own and others’ letters, so that the reader has a sense of completeness as well as objectivity in Wilder’s characterizations.
Wilder’s scrupulous accounting of his “documents’” origins, his knowledge of Roman history and customs, and his ability to simulate the Roman epistolary style and language lend further verisimilitude to the work. His unique talent for weaving several lives and points of view into one coherent, fascinating whole is the novel’s strongest structural and stylistic asset.
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