(Masterpieces of American Literature)

For Gardner, art, and in particular literature, was more than a career: It was, in almost the religious sense, a vocation, a calling of a chosen individual. He believed that art has a profound and lasting impact on those who receive it, whether they are watchers of plays, listeners to music, viewers of paintings, or readers of novels. For these reasons, reinforced by his personal experience, Gardner felt that art was essentially serious—although it could be playful—and that true art, art that is valid and lasting, must therefore be moral art.

By moral art he meant art that affirms and reinforces all that is best in human nature. Literature in particular has a special place, because among all the arts it has the possibility of being the most vivid and closely felt, and so has the greatest impact. In his own novels and short stories, Gardner sought to embody this artistic philosophy, and his book of criticism, On Moral Fiction, is an outspoken and uncompromising defense of the kind of writing he considered worthwhile and an unsparing assault on that which he considered merely facile, trivial, or downright harmful.

Gardner’s touchstone of good writing was a standard easy to articulate but difficult to execute: It must create a “vivid and continuous dream” for the reader. Mere verbal dexterity, adherence to fashionable but pointless literary trends, or any technique or device that obscured the artist’s ability to perceive and re-create the truth of human existence destroyed such a dream. In his brief book On Becoming a Novelist (1983), Gardner gives a summary of the characteristics of true writing:It is “generous” in the sense that it is complete and self-contained: it answers, either explicitly or by implication, every reasonable question the reader can ask. It does not leave us hanging, unless the narrative itself justifies its inconclusiveness. It does not play pointlessly subtle games in which storytelling is confused with puzzle-making. It does not “test” the reader by demanding that he bring with him some special knowledge without which the events make no sense. In short, it seeks, without pandering, to satisfy and please. It is intellectually and emotionally significant.

In his own novels, Gardner attempted to achieve such goals by concentrating upon his characters and by entering into the mind and heart of each of them so that he could present their points of view to the reader. These presentations were made without overt judgment, even with characters whose moral nature might be questionable or whose motives and ends were warped or distorted. Such intrusive judgments would, Gardner felt, have prejudiced the reader’s vision and interrupted the dream. His view was summed up in the quotation from the I Ching found at the beginning of The Sunlight Dialogues: “The earth in its devotions carries all things, good and evil, without exception.”

So, in Grendel, Gardner tells the story from the point of view of what most would call a monster, an inhuman beast who yet, when seen clearly, has something of a soul and the aspirations of a poet. In his two “pastoral novels,” Nickel Mountain: A Pastoral Novel (1973) and October Light, Gardner moves among the various characters, filtering the story through each of their perceptions in turn, and so allowing a comprehensive and generous vision, not only of individuals but also of a community, to emerge. No single person has a monopoly on the truth, so the only valid vision—other than God’s—must be a communal vision.

This sense of community is a powerful and recurrent theme in Gardner’s fiction, and characters who find themselves in despair, without purpose, or acting in ways that even they sense are evil, are those who have cut themselves off from their societies. Thus James Page, in October Light, descends into bitterness, drunken rage, and nearly murder when he rejects his community. In a similar but not quite as dramatic fashion (although she does attempt to kill her brother), Sally Page Abbott, James’s sister, suffers significant moral decline when she locks herself in her room, literally isolated. Significantly, Sally’s moral deterioration is hastened by her reading a cheap, trashy novel, the kind whose bleak and cynical vision Gardner despised as being truly immoral art.

The positive power of community, on the other hand, is pervasive in Gardner’s novels, where it is frequently linked with the concept of the natural world as a kind of moral center; the two, community and nature, are joined by the power of art. For Gardner, art does not necessarily mean the creation of beautiful objects but includes the honest observation and appreciation of the world. Henry Soames, the central character of Nickel Mountain, becomes such an artist during the course of the novel, discovering the enduring values of the Catskill Mountains and the people around him. In doing so, Henry actually saves his own life, drawing away from a self-imposed early death from compulsive overeating and resulting heart problems.

In Gardner’s novels, a condition such as Henry’s weakened heart is both actual and symbolic. Gardner’s fiction is crammed with images and situations that carry far more than their literal meaning and create a multilayered and complex structure which suggests more than it states. Gardner is also a master of metaphor (for Aristotle, the supreme test of an artist) and uses it in very effective fashion, making the natural world a vast array of symbols without detracting from its concrete presence or tangible existence—without disturbing what the philosopher William James called, in words Gardner often cited, “the buzzing, blooming confusion.”

High moral seriousness, a deep interest in philosophy and its relationship to everyday life, and everyday life itself as lived by fully realized, completely human characters: These are the hallmarks of Gardner’s fiction. In his novels, he has re-created a world where the individual and the community exist in the special order of nature, mediated by the saving power of true art.


First published: 1971

Type of work: Novel

The Beowulf legend is retold by the monster, who muses on the meaning of human life and art.

In Grendel, Gardner takes one of the mainstays of Western literature, the Old English epic Beowulf, and gives it a dramatic new vision by telling it from the point of view (and through the words) of the monster. In this way Gardner is able to present the story anew but also to make telling comments on his enduring theme, the place and power of art in human life.

Beginning the novel as a brute, barely articulate figure, Grendel is exposed to art and its powers by two competing forces. On one hand, there is the human he calls the Shaper, the blind poet of the mead hall; allied with the Shaper is Wealtheow, the beautiful queen. These two are embodiments of the positive power of art to raise human beings—or even creatures such as Grendel—beyond the pointless round of mere existence. Yet Grendel is profoundly troubled by them and by the power they wield and comes to prefer their opposite number. The Old Dragon represents another aspect of art, its negative side, as he holds the universe to be meaningless, a random collection of events without purpose, its creatures without dignity.

There is thus a truly philosophical dimension to the novel—as is always the case with Gardner’s fiction—and in Grendel, Gardner has composed a satirical portrait of the noted modern philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, whose theory known as existentialism posited a meaningless world, a vision close to the Dragon’s bleak theories. In accepting this view, Grendel closes himself to the effects of what Gardner termed “moral fiction”—that is, literature that transcends limitations, makes sense of life, and is redemptive in an almost religious sense.

Lacking this view, Grendel attempts to force meaning upon the world by violence: He ravages the lands of King Hrothgar, kills his soldiers, wastes his crops, and defiles his queen, Wealtheow. In the end, however, Grendel is overcome by an unnamed hero—Beowulf—who is not only physically powerful but also morally superior, precisely because he has accepted and can use the art which Grendel fears and rejects.

The novel operates on several different levels. On the surface it is an exciting adventure, a literary tour de force. Below that it is a serious meditation on the power and place of art in human life. To signal these layers, Gardner employs numerous symbols and recurring thematic devices throughout the short book, and these give Grendel power and resonance greater than its length suggests.

Christian imagery and Norse mythology are mingled throughout the novel, most frequently in scenes where Grendel encounters trees: hiding in them, being caught in their branches, hanging from them. The chief god of Scandinavian myth, Odin, is closely associated with trees and with sacrifice by hanging from a tree; closely parallel to this are Christian beliefs in the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, often referred to as a tree. Repeated use of such symbolism gives the novel a complexity and density more like poetry than fiction, as each word is capable of having several different meanings.

The structure of the novel is ingenious as well. Each of the twelve chapters is dominated by a symbol of the Zodiac, starting with the ram (Aries) and progressing through the year to the sign of the fish (Pisces). Once again there are the references to Christianity—the lamb and the fish are both signs of Christ—and a natural movement through the year, from spring to fall. The number twelve crops up repeatedly in the novel, a unifying technique which Gardner adopted from early English literature.

In the end, however, despite the intricate cleverness with which the novel is written, its main power lies in two points: its brilliantly evocative use of language, especially in the creation of Grendel as a character, and the battle between two powerful views of art and human life—one negative, the other positive.

The Sunlight Dialogues

First published: 1972

Type of work: Novel

During the course of a police investigation, two men with greatly differing philosophies debate the meaning of human life and morality.

The Sunlight Dialogues was Gardner’s first major success in his writing career—a best seller for a number of weeks and a critically acclaimed serious novel of ideas. A long novel, it has a considerable amount of action, but it also contains extensive passages of discussion and debate on moral and philosophical issues, which is characteristic of Gardner’s fiction, always deeply concerned with how abstract matters translate into the everyday human situation.

The novel centers on the confrontation between representatives of two differing points of view. One is a chief of police, the other a “magician,” and their dispute concerns law and order, the universe, and humanity’s place in that universe. The police chief, Fred Clumly, and the magician, known for most of the novel only as the Sunlight Man, thus are not only individuals but also representatives of much more.

The Sunlight Man is actually Taggert Hodge, member of a prominent local family now in decline. Taggert, who had fled the town of Batavia, New York, sixteen years previously, has returned for his own version of revenge and redemption. Clumly is drawn into this against his will, but once entered into the pursuit of the Sunlight Man, he becomes caught up in an even larger chase, that of the elusive truth. In a sense captive to his strange relationship with the Sunlight Man, Clumly allows his life and work to collapse, worrying his blind wife, Esther, and angering the mayor and city council, who eventually fire him. He joins the Sunlight Man for a final meeting at Stony Hill, the family home of the Hodges, now in decline, and the two men come to a half-spoken agreement. Later the Sunlight Man tries to surrender to the police; by mistake he is killed, shot (significantly enough) through the heart.

To express the search for meaning and order in which the Sunlight Man and Clumly engage, Gardner fashions his work around four dialogues between Clumly and the Sunlight Man in which far-ranging moral and philosophical issues are discussed. Using the contrast between ancient Babylonian and Jewish cultures, Gardner outlines the differences between justice and law, freedom and order, the individual and society. While Clumly and the Sunlight Man seem opposites, they actually have much in common. Both are disfigured physically (hairlessness for Clumly, fire burns for the Sunlight Man), each has a handicapped wife (the sheriff’s is blind, his opponent’s, mentally ill) and both are isolated from their fellow human beings, cut off from the larger community. The dialogues between the two are partially their fumbling, only partially conscious attempts to break through this isolation.

A vast novel with a multitude of characters, The Sunlight Dialogues is carefully constructed, filled with parallels of character and plot. The main supporter of order, Chief Clumly, pursues a criminal and has discussions with him; Will Hodge, another proponent of law, has a series of his own “dialogues” with a...

(The entire section is 5545 words.)