Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1027

The famous 1922 obscenity trial over Jurgen has probably drawn away too much attention from literary issues of the novel’s style and organization, but the attempted censorship does provide a clue to the book’s continuing importance. Like James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), published only three years after Jurgen and also the subject of an obscenity case, Jurgen dares to lampoon all the sacred beliefs of Anglo-American ideology. It mocks human beings’ belief in their own importance, romantic notions of male-female relationships, belief in an afterlife, faith in cosmic justice, idealistic ideas of human motives, and the well-meaning idea of literary censorship. It mocks, however, in an upbeat, comic, and sometimes wistful tone. Cabell’s “Gallantry” is the most lighthearted form of cynicism ever conceived.

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Cabell agreed with his critics that he opposed the prevalent naturalism of his time. It is true that Cabell diligently avoids realistic detail in his narrative, yet in one respect—his cynical treatment of human motives—he is in fact naturalistic. The novel is characterized by psychological realism while maintaining a veneer of romanticism in its incidents and motifs, which are drawn mostly from myth, folklore, and medieval romances. Because Cabell refuses to lie about the human heart, Jurgen, again like Ulysses, remains contemporary. Cabell’s honesty ensures that it does not appear dated.

The gaily disillusioned and cynical tone of the book is mainly a result of Cabell’s view of the sordidness of human motives. Because Jurgen is portrayed lying to himself about his own character and motives, Cabell’s irony and satire apply as much to the title character himself as they do to the characters he dupes and uses.

The ironic tone is also a constant reminder that this is a satirical farce, an artifice of words, and that Cabell in no sense believes in the world he has created. In this respect, he contrasts with those fantasy writers who maintain a serious tone and, by pretending to believe in their creations, lay claim to a transcendent importance that Cabell calls into question. His skeptical modernism is the opposite of Christian Neoplatonism.

The author’s tone should not divert attention from his staggering inventiveness and his ability to adapt and to develop characters and motifs from myth, legend, and folklore. Cabell, who was familiar with a wide range of sources, was surely one of America’s most learned authors.

A first-time reader, even if familiar with some of Cabell’s source material, is apt to become confused because of the multitude of the characters, settings, and incidents in Jurgen. The allegorical point of the rather episodic plot is simple, however. Jurgen learns to abandon his regrets because his forays into his past reveal that his youthful ideals, especially about people, were all illusions and his dreams therefore impossible to fulfill, even when he is given a second chance with the advantage of foreknowledge.

The plot revolves around three excursions Jurgen makes into a cave in search of his lost wife. In the second excursion, he relives a year of his youth, which he spends mainly in three realms: Glathion, Cockaigne, and Leuke. Glathion is modeled on Arthurian romance, Cockaigne on medieval legends of a land of plenty, and Leuke on Greek mythology. Because medieval romance often served as a vehicle for religious allegory, Guenevere, the woman he seduces in Glathion, becomes a symbol for the beauty of simple religious faith. When Jurgen loses Guenevere, he seeks solace in the arms of another woman of Arthurian legend, Anaïtis, the Lady of the Lake, who is symbolic of passion and with whom he journeys to the land of sensual delight. Continuous sexual overstimulation soon becomes cloying, however, and he tricks Anaïtis into sending him to Leuke, where he hopes to come face to face with the ideal of perfection, symbolized by Helen of Troy.

In the central chapter—entitled “Economics of King Jurgen”—Cabell suggests a metaphor through which the governing principle of the novel can be understood. Just as Helen is within his grasp, Jurgen refrains from attempting to possess her, because he now understands that perfection (and, by implication, fulfillment) is an illusion created by temporal and physical distance from the object of desire. Rather than risk disillusionment, he withdraws, preferring to remain in the comfort of his unattainable dreams.

In deliberately declining to face truth, Jurgen necessarily chooses a kind of double-think, clinging to beliefs that at the deepest level he knows to be false. Disturbingly, Cabell seems to be suggesting that this is the nature of all cherished human beliefs about a universe that ultimately refuses to be explained coherently by any philosophy or model. Cabell presents Jurgen’s double-think as a compromise between reality and the comforting illusions used to maintain sanity. Compromise is the basis of Gallantry. Jurgen proceeds through an allegorical series of dissatisfactions. He seeks to replace his lost faith with sensual pleasure; when that proves cloying, he seeks after ideal beauty, but he eventually abandons that quest, too.

Like most allegories, Jurgen is heavily laden with symbolic objects. The phallic symbols of Jurgen’s sword, lance, and scepter were the offensive elements that occasioned the obscenity trial—though only a sophisticated reader already attuned to such possibilities would actually notice them. In other words, people already had to be “corrupt,” by the censors’ definition, in order to be “corrupted” by the material. The earthiness of the novel is less interesting and less profound than the two central objects that reinforce Cabell’s philosophy: the shirt of Nessus and the shadow of Mother Sereda, both of which Jurgen wears for the duration of his one-year excursion into the past, and both of which he loses when his odyssey ends. The shirt, which in the classical myth of Hercules was supposed to ensure Hercules’ devotion to his wife but which turned out to be poisonous, represents the youthful charm Jurgen uses to deceive and seduce women. The ominous shadow, which prevents Jurgen from entering wholeheartedly into any of his enterprises, seems to represent his awareness of the impossibility of recovering the past or reaching fulfillment, effectively summing up the novel’s theme.

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