Kay Boyle Long Fiction Analysis
Perhaps more consistently and tenaciously than any other twentieth century American writer, Kay Boyle sought to unite the personal and the political, the past and the present, the feminine and the masculine. Recognized in both literary and popular realms, her rich oeuvre unites the American and the European experiences of twentieth century history.
Helpful though it may be as an outline, the conventional division of Boyle’s achievement into an aesthetic period before 1939 and a polemical period after may obscure Boyle’s constant focus on the dialectic between subject and object. In the exploration of personal experience, her intense imaginative reconstruction posits the integration of conflicting aspects of the self, the struggle between self-abnegation and self-assertion, and the liberation of the individual from repressive aspects of personal or family relationships. Usually presented as a union of archetypally masculine and feminine characteristics in an individual or in a couple, often a pair of same-sex friends, Boyle’s image of the completed self is one of growth beyond confining roles.
In her exploration of the self as a political creature, Boyle asserts the life-affirming potential of the individual and the community against destructive authoritarian or absolutist constructs, whether within the family or in the larger society. In her intense evocation of personal awakening to political morality, Boyle’s synthesis reaches beyond the narrowly ideological to affirm the human search for tenderness in a landscape that, although distorted by repression, gives hope for regeneration. Like Thomas Mann, Ignazio Silone, and André Malraux, Boyle seeks to integrate the individual psyche into the larger social milieu, to make the self meaningful in history, exercising the responsibility that Mann called for when he said that had the German intellectual community remained accountable, Nazism would have been prevented.
Using modernist techniques to refute contemporary nihilism, Boyle restores perspective to the confrontation between the individual sensibility and a complex, often hidden, social reality. Her decision to address a broad audience on political as well as personal themes, sometimes seen as a “betrayal” of her talent, might be understood more fully as a commitment to the exercise of moral responsibility through literature. Exploring the need to unite discordant psychic and political elements and to assert the life-affirming, Boyle provides in her work a model of balanced wholeness in the larger as well as the smaller world.
Plagued by the Nightingale
Boyle’s first novel, Plagued by the Nightingale, which Hart Crane admired, introduced an expatriate American bride to her husband’s family in their decaying French provincial seat. A crippling congenital disease afflicting all the family males, an emblem of general social decay, prevents the young husband, Nicole, from asserting independence, and requires the family to be always on the lookout to perpetuate itself. Bridget, the young wife, and Luc, a family friend whose energy and vivacity have earmarked him for marriage to one of Nicole’s three sisters, are alternately drawn into and repelled by the patriarchal family’s power to protect and engulf. By making the birth of an heir the condition upon which the young couple’s inheritance depends, Nicole’s father threatens to bring them entirely within the control of the patriarchal family. Freeing both herself and Nicole from the grasp of this decaying culture, Bridget chooses to bear a child not by Nicole, whose tainted genes would continue the cycle, but by Luc, a vigorous outsider whose health and vitality promise liberation and autonomy.
Although ostensibly a narrative of personal life, this first novel becomes political in its exploration of the relationship between the self and the family, the will to immerse oneself in the group or to aspire to self-determination. The decaying and yet compelling power of...
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