Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
It is not surprising that a Civil War novel should concern the theme of freedom, since nearly everyone involved in that conflict insisted that it was a struggle for freedom. The Northerners were willing to die to free the slaves; the Southerners resisted their aggression, fighting for their own freedom. Like the historians who have pointed out that the causes of the war were far more complex than the oratory of the time would indicate, however, Allan Gurganus makes it clear in his novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All that slavery was only one of the institutions that brought misery to so many lives in the period chronicled by his narrator. His characters are trapped by the expectations and customs of their society, confined in the roles which that society has formulated.
One reason for the length and complexity of this novel is that Gurganus’ narrator, ninety-nine-year-old Lucy Marsden, indeed “tells all” not only about her own memories but also about those of her husband, his mother, and a number of other characters who influence one another and illustrate the theme of the denial of freedom. Most of the novel consists of Lucy’s first-person confidences to an obviously untiring journalist, equipped with a tape recorder, who has come to interview the old woman in the nursing home where she has been confined by her final jailer, old age. Since Lucy was not born until 1885, however, she cannot give direct evidence even of life at her home in North Carolina during the Civil War, much less of the experiences in battle which permanently damaged he? much older husband. Gurganus skillfully extends the scope of his novel by having Lucy repeat the accounts of earlier events which have been told to her, for example, by her husband and by the former slave Castalia. There is even a chapter late in the book which is a first-person narrative by Castalia, addressed to Captain Marsden’s mother, Lady More Marsden; how this chapter got included in Lucy’s talk with her interviewer is not explained. Gurganus’ story is so compelling, however, his heroine so captivating, that even such an obvious departure from the framework of the novel is acceptable. As for Lucy’s secondhand stories, told as if they were eyewitness accounts, the reader has been prepared for them by the establishment of Lucy’s character. She is a natural storyteller, a superb practitioner of an art form that is traditional in the South and is as descriptive as good fiction, as dramatic as theater.
It is Lucy’s dominating voice that provides unity for the novel, and that voice cries out for freedom. Not until the end of the story do the first lines become clear:
“Died on me finally. He had to.” “He” is Lucy’s husband, Captain Marsden, who after his marriage had grown increasingly irrational, risking the lives of his wife and children in an attempt to lay to rest the ghost of his friend, dead in the Civil War, squandering the family property to feed his compulsion to acquire weapons, accidentally blinding his son on a foolish hunting trip, maliciously destroying Castalia’s beloved fur coat, and venomously attacking Lucy, whose life he had made miserable for so many years. By the end of the novel, it is clear that Lucy can never be free as long as Captain Marsden is alive; it is also clear that he himself is trapped in madness, from which he can only be released by death. He does, indeed, have to die, in order that both of them can be free.
In an epigraph, Gurganus quotes William Dean Howells: ”What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending.” For Captain Marsden, the tragedy had begun long before Lucy was born, when, as a boy of thirteen, he and his friend Ned Smythe marched off to the Civil War. An angelic boy, Ned was adored by his mother, by his comrades, and perhaps most of all by William, who never recovered from the loss of his first love. When Lucy first saw the imposing captain, she had no idea that he was so emotionally damaged. Not until after their marriage did his tragic obsession become evident, an obsession which demanded the sacrifice of everyone around him to the memory of Ned and which eventually became so consuming that the only happy ending to Marsden’s life could be his death.
If it was war which led to Marsden’s tragedy, it was the sometimes similar social institution of marriage which enslaved Lucy. Long before her wedding day, however, Lucy felt the constraint...
(The entire section is 1828 words.)