Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 804
Lovers and Tyrants succeeds most pleasingly at the level of the sentence. Gray’s fine prose portraits, particularly those of her French relatives and “tyrants,” are marked by language so carefully wrought, so visual and precise, as to be almost hypnotizing in its effect. The reader is carried along by its musicality, as in the opening sentence to the opening chapter: “My childhood lies behind me muted, opaque and drab, the color of gruel and of woolen gaiters, its noises muted and monotonous as a sleeper’s pulse.” The tone is intimate, the relationship to the reader close and personal. The final simile of the sentence, “muted and monotonous as a sleeper’s pulse,” is typical of Gray’s imagery, succinct and simple in technique but also immediately accessible and powerful in its implications.
Gray is fond of using animal imagery to convey character. Her governess, nicknamed Mishka (“little mouse” in Russian) has “rodent-like” eyes, and her face is transformed by the ravages of old age into the “eyeless head of a small water animal, a newt or a slug.” Stephanie worships her mother “as silently as a rat, always fearing to be brutalized by some gesture of dismissal.” Her insensitive and physically powerful school friend Janet has a “mastifflike face,” while her self-centered lover Louis has a “powerful, mastiff-jawed head.” Her aunt Olga has jowls that “shake like two bowls of gelatine, her tiny porcine eyes . . . almost obliterated by the assault of her round glistening flesh.” Her future husband Paul follows her around with “the lowering manner of a mother cow,” and Stephanie misses his sheltering presence “as the canary misses its cage.” Louis’ pretentious and dictatorial mother leads her family on the boardwalk in a “regal file like an aged chicken.” As with this last image, Gray’s metaphor and simile always rise above the conventional, evoking a visual or sensory particularity that perfectly defines an attitude.
Above the sentence level, some metaphors recur throughout the book. Memory is “malleable, pragmatic,” and sieve-like, allowing through its selectivity an interpretive vision of the past. Stephanie creates “nests” throughout the book, indulging in traditional feminine behavior that tyrannizes her. Women are confined by society into “zoos” and “dollhouses,” often with their own cooperation, limiting their freedom in exchange for security. This imagery serves as powerful rhetoric and would be highly persuasive if it were accompanied by concrete manifestations of its themes, especially given the repetitive organization of the book, which allows the reader to watch Stephanie escape one tyrannizing influence only to replace it with another. Unfortunately, the last two chapters fail to organize these metaphors into a coherent vision. Stephanie’s sexual escapades, described in specific, Henry Miller-like terms, are apparently meant to signal her increasing liberation from traditional bonds, but their force is undercut by their compulsiveness and the joyless tone with which they are described. While one expects to see Stephanie on an upward spiral toward freedom, she seems less free from her own demons in the latter stages of her life, and one is forced to compare the trivial limits imposed by her governess and other “tyrants” of her youth with the “manacles” all humans create for themselves.
By titling the last chapter simply with Stephanie’s name, Gray suggests that her heroine is finally close to finding herself at the end of the novel; she is ready to act freely, having “exorcised” the tyranny of others which began with “The Governess.” Her attempts to keep her relationship with Elijah nonsexual and the narration’s focus on the androgynous trapeze artist at the end are symptomatic of her release from her obsession with sex. The slender ties that bind her to Elijah and their free wandering about the Southwest suggest a new liberation from “zoos,” “nests,” and “dollhouses.” Stephanie’s interrogation of Gregory about life’s meaning and her instruction of Elijah in the same topic, all taking place in the desert surroundings, are resonant of the classic search for understanding in the wilderness, here ironically cast among the self-convinced folk at the Lake Powell hotel and the compulsive gamblers of Las Vegas.
The final dissatisfaction of the novel, however, lies in the lack of specificity about Stephanie’s search: What, besides a blank future, has she found? What precisely will the search discover? The suggestions of a return to her husband’s “nest” and “dollhouse” takes the reader backward. If Stephanie’s new freedom is to create a novel like Gray’s about Stephanie, then the reader is trapped in a philosophical conundrum. Stephanie has found the freedom to write about her struggle for freedom but not to exercise it in any particular way. True freedom is potential, but the reader is given no examples of Stephanie living freely, and thus the novel ends with an oddly muted optimism.