Essays and Criticism
Psychological Masks Explored Through Characters
Not until the middle of ‘‘The Last Lovely City’’ does Alice Adams explicitly mention the word mask, but the element that holds the fabric of this story together is Adams’s implicit exposure of the masks behind which her characters hide. Beginning with the first paragraph, in which Adams has her main character, Dr. Benito Zamora, look down at his hands and describe them as ‘‘old beggar’s hands,’’ readers are forewarned that Adams is creating complex characters. How could a successful doctor consider himself a beggar?
As the story progresses, readers quickly realize that Benito wears many masks. The most obvious is his hidden longing for companionship. He is a recent widower and is driving a young, attractive woman named Carla to a party. The young woman initiated this action, calling the doctor and inviting him to a social gathering by the ocean. Her action has aroused the doctor’s curiosity. Why did she call him? He asks, ‘‘What can this girl want of me?’’ He suspects that something lies beneath the surface of her actions, and the story follows his attempt to find the answers to his questions as Benito slowly and carefully removes the young woman’s mask.
During their drive to the coast, Benito steals glances at the young woman’s hair, her legs, and her thin body, while he maintains a professional conversation with her. The woman arouses both his sexual desires and his social hopes; he fantasizes that she might want to live with him, bringing life back into his darkened home. But when he looks at his hands, he feels old. And the question returns to him: What would a young, attractive woman want with an old man? Almost simultaneously, he feels a strength surging through his body, as if the signs of aging were but a mask. Behind the mask he feels the power of his youth gathering itself around his neck and chin. His eyes, he tells himself, are still as unrelenting as ever.
In one of the brief dialogs between the doctor and the young woman, another mask is exposed. Carla has been to Oaxaca, Mexico, the city outside of which Benito’s mother still lives. Carla believes that her knowledge of Oaxaca is a connection that she can share with the doctor. Oaxaca is beautiful in Carla’s world. She has visited it, staying in a fancy hotel with room service, silver settings at the dining room tables, and probably a swimming pool. But this luxurious setting is a mask that Oaxaca wears for tourists. Benito’s mother and most of the native people of the outlying areas around Oaxaca are not familiar with this opulence. When Benito thinks of Mexico, his mother, and the people who live there, he does not think of fancy hotels. He thinks of poverty and the diseases that poverty brings. That is why he has donated much of his money to building and running two free medical clinics in Mexico. Later in the story, Benito also touches upon another mask in connection with Oaxaca, one that he wears when he visits his clinics. He questions whether the clinics really need him. He questions whether he wears the mask of ‘‘Dr. Do-Good,’’ a title sometimes jokingly given to him for his charitable work. Are his visits to Mexico just a way to feel better than everyone else? Was he wearing the mask of selfrighteousness when, in fact, all the clinics really needed from him was his money?
As the car slides down the western slopes of the coastal mountains, Benito reminisces about his youth when he often attended other social gatherings in the same seacoast town. In reflection, he sees himself as one of the more eligible bachelors. He was invited to these rich parties, because he was young, handsome, and potentially moneyed. Included in his memory is the unmasking of his hosts and hostesses. They may have invited him to their private parties but when it came down to offering him one of their daughters’ hands in marriage, their masks disintegrated rather quickly. Although he was looked at as a rising star, they could not get past his heritage. His complexion was too dark, and his name sounded too Mexican for the white people who had invited him to their parties.
It is at this point of the story that Benito remembers his wife and her death. As a physician, Benito is aware of the masks of mourners, put on to support the bereaved for the first couple of weeks after the tragedy of death but then taken off so their lives can return to a normal routine, leaving the bereaved to suffer in loneliness. He had seen it happen so many times that he was not surprised when it happened to him when his wife died. He was, however, angry and disappointed when the masks were removed, and his friends left him alone to find his own way through his misery.
There are masks to be found everywhere in this story, even in some of its simplest words. For instance, in another dialog between Carla and Benito, Carla describes the people who will be attending the party toward which they are heading. She uses the word marvelous. This word is a key word for Benito, a word that arouses unpleasant feelings. It is a cover word, used to...
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A Story of Moral and Spiritual Transformation
Adams’s ‘‘The Last Lovely City’’ is a story with many themes. Through its aging protagonist, Dr. Benito Zamora, it touches on emotions connected with loss, regret, loneliness, isolation, guilt and the longing for love. It is also a story about the past, about looking back and remembering. It shows how deeply the past exerts a hold on the present. Ultimately, though, this is a story about moral and spiritual transformation, the possibility that even an old life, deformed by many years of living by an ethical double standard may, yet give itself a fresh start.
At first glance, Benito seems an unlikely candidate for transformation. He is old and much of his life is now behind him. The portrait Adams presents in the opening paragraph is of a man set in a certain groove in life, strongly attached to his chosen mode of being: ‘‘Some new heaviness around the doctor’s neck and chin makes him look both strong and fierce, and his deep-set black eyes are powerful, still, and unrelenting in their judgmental gaze.’’
However, Benito has plenty to regret, plenty to feel unhappy about, and dissatisfaction is always a potent spur to change. His wife died only five months previously. He is lonely. He is also angry that his friends have deserted him and that his life appears to be on the decline. Once famous, he is no longer asked by the media to give interviews. He is sometimes on the verge of self-pity. He also allows himself to entertain unrealistic romantic fantasies about Carla, the woman forty years his junior who has invited him to the party.
As the story develops through flashbacks triggered by people Benito meets at the party, it transpires that there is a deeper chasm in his life, an unresolved conflict stemming from his past actions. His considerable success and fame has been at the expense of his personal integrity, which means that he has gone through much of his life divided against himself. Adams gives an early clue to this when Benito confesses that the epithet by which he is known, Dr. Do-Good, is replete with irony.
Benito’s problem is that the money that allowed him to finance the clinics on which his reputation rests was gained by unethical and illegal means. He gained the money when he bought a series of rundown hotels in San Francisco and allowed them to be used for child prostitution. Benito is in the position of a man who allows himself to benefit from practices that if applied in his own life would fill him with abhorrence. This is revealed by the flashback that shows him and Dolores Gutierrez in bed together when they were both young. Dolores confesses that what she would really like him to do is pay her for sex. For some reason, she appears to find this prospect exciting. Benito declines. It is clear that he is disgusted by the idea—and yet he is willing to make himself rich as the owner of hotels in which preteen Asian girls were most likely used to sell sex for money. Even now in old age, he cannot fully shake the guilt he feels over this practice. His life is tainted.
Benito’s moral and spiritual transformation comes at the climax of the story, triggered by his encounters with the ghosts of his past. In this process, the conscious, rational side of his mind breaks down, creating an opportunity for forgotten or repressed aspects of his psyche to surface, with dramatic consequences for the future course of his life.
The process happens in four distinct stages, as Benito walks on the beach in the evening. He has escaped from the oppressive party, but he is feeling confused. The encounters with people from his past have unsettled him. He feels the past rearing up at him. This is, in a sense, a moment of self-judgment; looking back at his life is not a comfortable experience for him. When he realizes that there may be even more ghosts from the past in the house, his rational mind can no longer bear to contemplate it. The result is that he becomes disoriented. For a moment he does not know where he is, even what country he is in, or how old he is. Present and past seem to merge. He loses his bearings in time and space. It is as if all the elements of his life have suddenly been tossed up in the air; to his conscious mind they no longer have recognizable form or shape and appear in no recognizable sequence. His moorings have been destroyed.
Benito recovers for a moment, but there is more to come. Below the surface of the controlling mind lies the realm of the heart, of feeling and emotion, the realm of life that men such as Benito often keep on a tight rein. But now he can no longer...
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