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October Light Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Published in 1976, October Light was in one sense Gardner’s bicentennial novel, a symbolic retelling of the American Revolution through the lives of two elderly Vermont residents, James Page and his sister, Sally Page Abbott. The struggle between the two recapitulates, in miniature, the conflict between the colonists and Great Britain, while the small New England community where they live comes to represent the United States—its past and its promise.

On another, deeper, level the novel focuses on a theme which Gardner found compelling and which is the basis for his pastoral novels: the power of nature to act as a moral force and become the positive center for human life, strengthening that which is best and serving as a guide. Nature cannot accomplish this alone but needs to be mediated by art, and that art, as October Light makes explicit, must be moral art—moral fiction.

Fiction must be moral because fiction is powerful, capable of affecting lives and societies. In October Light this power is displayed in two fashions. First is the hostile, visceral reaction James Page has to modern media, especially television. The feud between Page and his sister starts when he blows apart her television with a blast from his shotgun. Later, enraged by the shows he sees in a bar, Page gets drunk, violent, and destroys his truck in a crash on a winding mountain road.

The second fashion through which Gardner shows the power of literature is by his device of a novel within the novel, a cheap crime/science-fiction thriller called The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock. Sally finds this trashy paperback after she has taken refuge in her room, and as she reads its tawdry tale of sex, violence, and crime, her view of life and her perceptions are coarsened and debased. Eventually she plans, with cold-blooded but fortunately inept determination, to kill her brother. This attempted murder, Gardner implies, is caused as much by the book she was reading as by the situation in which Sally finds herself.

The conflict between James Page and his sister operates on several levels simultaneously. On one, as noted, there are the parallels between them and the American Revolution. Some of these are specific, as when James Page destroys his sister’s television, thereby depriving her of freedom of speech. Numerous other connections, more or less explicit, are scattered throughout the book. There is also the struggle between the old America and the new, in which the older sibling (Sally, who is eighty) ironically represents the future: She watches television, approves of nuclear power plants, and supports the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution. James finds all these abhorrent, perversions of traditional American values. Through careful modulation of his plot and a gradual softening in the positions of these two characters, Gardner suggests that there is room—and need—for compromise.

The “immoral fiction” of the antinovel embedded within the book rejects this, for it represents a United States where compromise has been rejected and all values, past and present, have been rejected as well. Quoting an imaginary review, The Smugglers of Lost Souls’ Rock is “a sick book, as sick and evil as life in America.” Gardner believes that such indeed would be the state of an America that could neither maintain its worthy traditions from the past nor recognize new strengths of the future.

Finally, there is the resolution of the conflict between James and Sally, past and present, America and Britain, through the power of nature as interpreted by art. October Light contains some of Gardner’s most lyrical and evocative descriptions of the landscape and the patterned order of rural life, and this sets the characters within a world where healing is possible through nature’s power and within the confines of a shared community of human beings. This community is symbolized in the novel by a party held to reconcile Sally and James. Although neither attends in person, the...

(The entire section is 1,574 words.)