Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2374
Cain, James M(allahan) 1892–
Cain, an American "tough guy" novelist, is best known for The Postman Always Rings Twice and Mildred Pierce. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)
A world immense with freedom, women hellish and infantile by turns, money, power, the tantalizing promise of adventure—these are the common elements of James M. Cain's novels. His reputation is by this time a vague one, grown generalized and perhaps sentimentally overrated (along with the reputations of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler) since he is no longer "read." We have Camus, we have the films of Jean-Luc Godard, we have any number of cryptic realists who can give us Cain's pace and excitement without Cain's flaws—and in the form of art. Though he deals constantly with the Artistic, Cain, it will be said, never manages to become an artist; there is always something sleazy, something eerily vulgar and disappointing in his work. Let us abandon all claims for Cain's "place in American literature" if it is literature only that is significant, and let us concentrate instead on the relationship between Cain's work and his hypothetical audience, America of the thirties and forties, and the archetypal rhythms of his works whether the works themselves ultimately satisfy as art.
The freedom of women and money and power, and the promise of adventure—all this is dangled before us in Cain. These are his tricks, his gimmicks, but how cynically he exploits them as "gimmicks" that lead his heroes to their deaths! The trickery, while dramatically heightened, seems somehow to grow out of Cain's dream-like landscapes; one must not criticize him as unrealistic in his plots, out of a misconception of his being realistic in his settings. Consider how casual everything appears to be in Cain's world, accidental and contingent and apropos of nothing….
Cain's world is by no means "realistic": coming to him from the great psychological realists, Joyce and Mann, one understands how barren, how stripped and bizarre this Western landscape has become. It is as if the world extends no farther than the radius of one's desire. Within this small circle (necessarily small because his heroes are usually ignorant), accidental encounters have the force of destiny behind them….
Cain's heroes have an aura of doom about them, suggested to us by the flatness of their narration, their evident hurry to get it said. They follow the same archetypal route, obeying without consciousness the urges that lead them (and their tragic ancestors) to disaster…. And what happens finally is always repentance, for the Cain hero is no more metaphysically inclined than he is morally substantial….
It is the fact that such pessimistic works are entertainment that fascinates. No happy endings, no promise of religious salvation, not even the supposition that society has been purged of evil—society is always worse than Cain's victims! Nothing is handed out to the reader; no obvious wish is fulfilled. A course of action is begun with terrifying abruptness, once begun it cannot be stopped, and it comes to its inevitable conclusion with the same efficiency criminals are usually brought to "justice," with their photographs appearing at once in the tabloid press…. The sense of confinement and doom is what makes Cain's work palatable to a popular audience, just as a more literate, conservative audience of readers can delight in the crudities of Dostoevsky's violence, and the yet more incredible crudities of his resurrections of the spirit.
Cain's heroes fight a losing battle with the forces of the unconscious (which they may describe in a number of ways). But, since they go beyond the point of self-control,...
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a vigorous and all-powerful social unit awaits them and will protect us from them. The social instruments by which justice is granted may be no more moral than the victims who are punished, but if so, this is one more element of the tabloid poetry that pleases a popular audience: the sadism of Cain's heroes will always be turned against them, and the phenomenon of an audience both identifying with and rejecting a victim is not surprising. It is the very ordinariness of Cain's heroes that make them fit victims for "justice." If they were wiser, more clever, more audacious or evil they might escape, but then they would be monsters and valueless to a reading public, which demands characters with whom one can identify. But the fact that they are non-heroic heroes, animalistic or even mechanical in their responses, even (in the case of John Howard Sharp) masculine only by effort and luck, and somehow losers in the economic struggle of America, will necessitate their total failure….
[It] is not Cain's writing so much as the success of that writing which is interesting. His works may be discussed as mirrors of the society that gave birth to them and rewarded their creator handsomely for them, but the ambiguities and paradoxes of the works bear analysis. Money is important, but it is important secondarily. Of first importance is the doomed straining toward a permanent relationship—an emotional unit which the male both desires and fears. Whether love or sex, it is certainly dominated by unconscious motives, a complex of impulses which shuttle between violence and tenderness. Thus the innocent victim of The Butterfly becomes a moonshiner and, rather abruptly, a brutal murderer because of his confused feelings toward his "daughter"; and once his power is relinquished to her, his doom is certain. To love and therefore to relinquish one's power are tantamount to being destroyed. One must remain solitary and invulnerable, yet one cannot—and so the death sentence is earned. Mildred Pierce, masculine in her determination for economic success and possession of her daughter, survives only because in her novel, Cain attempts to write a realistic story, without the structural contrivance of murder and retribution. Mildred is "destroyed" in a thematic sense, but in the suspense-novel genre she would have been killed.
Cain's parable, which is perhaps America's parable, may be something like this: the passion that rises in us is both an inescapable part of our lives and an enemy to our lives, to our egoistic control of ourselves. Once unleashed it cannot be quieted. Giving oneself to anyone, even temporarily, will result in entrapment and death; the violence lovers do to one another is no more than a reflection of the proposed violence society holds back to keep the individual passions in check. Freud speaks in many of his works of the strange relationship between the impulse of love and the impulse of destruction, how the sadistic impulse (see Civilization and its Discontents) may be an expression of Eros—but an Eros concerned with the self and its survival. The self cannot fulfill its destiny without the alter-ego or anima, but, in relinquishing its power to external agents, it becomes vulnerable to destruction from without. The highest expression of Eros, which is spiritual, is of course beyond Cain's infantile characters. Just as the soap operas and the American movies not only of the thirties and forties but of the present have played back again and again certain infantile obsessions to the great American public, so Cain's novels serve up, in the guise of moral tracts, the lesson of the child who dares too much and must be punished. And there is satisfaction in knowing he will be punished—if not for one crime, then for another; if not by the law, then by himself or by an accomplice. In any case the "postman," whatever symbol of fate or death or order in the form of a uniformed and familiar person, will "ring twice"; there is no escape.
There is perhaps no writer more faithful to the mythologies of America than Cain, for he writes of its ideals and hatreds without obscuring them in the difficulties of art.
Joyce Carol Oates, "Man Under Sentence of Death," in Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden (© 1968 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968, pp. 110-28.
The twenty-minute egg of hard-boiled writers is James M. Cain; and the quintessence of the tough-guy novels is The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)…. Cain and other hard-boiled writers wrote not only about but mainly to the masses, giving violent impetus to their forbidden dreams, dramatizing their darkest temptations and their basic physical drives. (pp. 17-19)
Cain has never written a detective story—not even in the Hammett-Chandler vein. Double Indemnity and The Embezzler have been cited as borderline novels…. Cain is more interested in making action suggest an explanation of the crime as it is being perpetrated than in constructing a solution out of the swamps of mystification. In several novels, he even departs from the "pure" tough-guy type. (pp. 21-2)
Cain … is preeminently a man of the 1920's and 1930's whose fiction somehow evokes a sense also of the early 1940's; but he has less to say, directly or indirectly, to the 1950's and 1960's in his novels of those decades. His early works continue to be relevant, but his new ones do little to enrich his contribution to the tough-guy vision of American land, character, and dream. (p. 59)
Cain has … taken the essentially masculine cliché of the "pipe-dream" and transformed it into a universal action which, he feels, bears repeating. The pipe-dream metaphor is appropriate for Cain's heroes; they seem to move in a state of narcosis, oblivious to the world beyond their circle of black enchantment. Yet few get literally drunk; none take narcotics. High on sex, often apotheosized into homebrewed mysticism, drugged with orgasmic optimism, and gorged on food, they set out from their caves, make the kill, and consummate the ritual with another orgy of sex and food. (p. 66)
Beating at the heart of every Cain novel are basic, simple, universal elements, presented baldly in bold action: sex, love, evil, religion, food, money, violence, the lure of the forbidden, among others…. One of the most obvious elements in Cain's simple, melodramatic, terse fables of sex, murder, and money is violence. It takes many forms: sexual, physical, verbal, violence of nature, and even, we might say, violence of literary technique, perpetrated upon the reader. He satisfies the average American's inexhaustible craving for details of crime and punishment. Cain's characters commit robbery, embezzlement, graft, bribery, assault, fraud, perjury, treason, and other crimes. Many men wish to commit a crime, if they can get away with it; his characters do, for a while, and we live their success…. The typical rhythm of violence in Cain is from crime climax to sex climax to the fall of one or both of the lovers…. Cain's works reflect a vision of popular culture, based on assumptions which his observations of society have encouraged. Without deliberately attempting to depict the world of his times, Cain does evoke it. Though he may criticize it and his own tastes may turn elsewhere, it is out of this culture that Cain writes and to this culture that his novels belong. That American readers have blessed his novels with their approval is in itself a comment on society. Even in his less violent novels, Cain depicts a world produced by violent conditions, revealing a vision that sees "American tragedy colored by American farce." (pp. 75-91)
It is easy to understand his appeal to the average reader; for, when Cain is at his best, there is little difference between author and reader. His characters are not far removed in status or aspiration from the average reader Cain envisions. Thus, his knowledge of what his reader wants is phenomenal. But it is fallacious to call his work "popular" in the negative sense. Part of his ability lies in the way he mingles serious and popular fictive elements. Even the serious reader becomes so involved that he is unaware, until after finishing a Cain novel, of ways in which the author's achievement may be examined technically as literature. Sophisticated literary elements operate in Cain, but so "naturally" that they neither tax the popular reader's patience nor, at first, impress the sophisticated reader. (p. 120)
Encountering the prevalence of clichés—of situation, theme, character, and style—in Cain, we may wonder whether he uses at least some of them intentionally. Cain testifies that he does: "My clichés are more or less deliberate. I hate narrative that is one hundred percent distinguished, like Cabell's. To me, it evokes utter unreality. Many of life's most moving things are banal—what more banal than a steak? What more beautiful, when you're hungry?… The failures of Cain's style are seen mainly in the third-person works, in which he is sometimes as bad as a writer can be. Sometimes even in the first-person narratives, the neat phrase turns into embarrassing cuteness…. A few purple passages mar the essays slightly, but they are rampant in the third-person novels, particularly in Love's Lovely Counterfeit and in Sinful Woman. He seems to be consciously trying, with style alone, to appeal to the reader in terms of artificial and separable tools of rhetoric…. [But] the sense of authority we feel in Cain is in large measure a triumph of style. Style seems to flow from an absolute command of all the elements which style should serve. Though sometimes his style sounds more impressive than what it expresses, and thus "hoodwinks" him, Cain manages usually to infuse every moment with apparent urgency. (pp. 138-39)
Certainly Cain's art, more than anything else, moves even the serious reader to almost complete emotional commitment to the traumatic experiences Cain renders; and this artistic control convinces me that without his finest novels—The Postman, Serenade, Mildred Pierce, and The Butterfly—the cream of our twentieth-century fiction would be thinner. Straddling realism and expressionism, he often gives us a vivid account of life on the American scene as he has observed and experienced it; and, in his best moments, he provides the finer vibrations afforded by the esthetic experience. Cain the entertainer may fail to say anything truly important about life, but he takes us through experiences whose special quality is found in no other writer's work. (p. 176)
David Madden, in his James M. Cain (copyright 1970 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with permission of Twayne Publishers, Inc.), Twayne, 1970.