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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