(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,...

(The entire section is 715 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

An early section in Gardner’s novel describes the annual cycle of backbreaking labor for rural Vermonters. The passage concludes, “Now, in October, the farmwork was slackening, the drudgery had paid off. . . .” This is, however, an ironic observation: For seventy-two-year-old James Page and his eighty-year-old sister, Sally Page Abbott, the “harvest years” have brought no payoff. James, though honest, hardworking, and fiercely patriotic, can barely wrest a living from the family farm—where he has lost one son to a fall from the barn roof and another to suicide by hanging, and where cancer has claimed his wife. Sally, the widow of a prosperous dentist, may enjoy happier memories, but she is no better off than James. Her insurance money depleted, she has been forced to give up her town home and accept her brother’s grudging hospitality.

Between two persons who feel so cheated by life, and who harbor such strong and conflicting opinions (Sally is a “progressive” compared with James), life is at best an uneasy truce which is easily broken. One night, a blast from James’s shotgun destroys Sally’s television, with its “endless simpering advertising.” Soon after, furious because she defends “corrupt” government programs, James chases Sally upstairs with a fireplace log and locks her in her room “like a prisoner.”

So begins a domestic cold war that eventually involves the entire community. James’s daughter, Ginny, remonstrates with him, and for a time he is ready to relent, but it is too late; Sally has bolted her door from within and gone “on strike,” as determined as one of the Green Mountain Boys whom her brother so admires or one of the radical feminists he loathes. James repents of his momentary softening, and, thinking to starve Sally into submission, he relocks her door; unknown to him, she is subsisting on apples found in the attic above her room. She finds mental sustenance, too—in a “trashy” paperback novel that she reads when she is not reminiscing.

Even while she apologizes to her dead husband’s spirit for reading...

(The entire section is 859 words.)