The characters in Outer Dark are drawn in broad surface strokes. The reader rarely enters their minds, and he is often left to guess at their motivations, which may be quite different from their stated purposes. For example, Culla Holme is ashamed of his incestuous coupling with his sister. When Rinthy is in labor, Culla refuses to summon outside help, even that of an old witch, a “midnight woman,” because “She’d tell.” “Who is they to tell?” Rinthy asks. “Anybody,” Culla answers. Although he himself helps with the birth, he does so only at the last minute, after his sister has undergone great pain. Clearly he is giving her a chance to die, hoping that she will take the proof of their sin with her.
Culla’s attempt to rid himself of the child after its birth is also marked by a combination of cruelty and cowardice. Rather than simply murder the child, he leaves it to die in the midst of the night swamp and flees in dread and panic from the sight and sound of his wailing son. Yet in his flight he becomes lost and circles unknowingly back to the scene of his guilt, where the baby still howls in outrage and accusation.
The pattern is repeated after Rinthy takes off in search of the child. Culla comes after, perhaps to find Rinthy, although he never asks of her from the strangers he meets on the way. Indeed, it is possible that Culla’s following his sister is more a matter of fate than intent, and that his movement is still flight rather than search. Moreover, his journey continues to circle, and the book ends as he walks along a road leading to a swamp, likely the very one in which he was lost at the beginning.
Rinthy Holme owes much of her characterization to William Faulkner’s Lena Grove in Light in August. Like Lena, Rinthy is, despite her obvious sexual experience, an innocent in the alien world. She has true love for her child, who causes her neither shame nor regret. When Culla tells her that the child is dead, she wants to see the grave, to lay her baby in the earth. When Culla confesses that the child is still alive, she simply sets out after it. Her breasts continue to make milk months after she begins her search; to her the milk is a sign that the child still lives. As she tells the skeptical doctor who examines her, “I don’t live nowheres no more. . . . I never did much. I just go around huntin my chap. That’s about all I do any more.”
Again like Lena Grove, Rinthy Holme illustrates a deep yet simple faith in life. Because she does not lie or dissemble, she is met with general kindness by the strangers she encounters. They constantly offer her food, shelter, security. Only her love for her child keeps her on the road. Culla, however, is always held in suspicion. He is once arrested for trespassing, once threatened with hanging, always pursued by the possibility of punishment.
The third character to be considered in this novel is the tinker, an ambiguous figure at best. In some ways he is reminiscent of the archetypal Wandering Jew, doomed to roam without end. He straps himself in harness to pull his cart like an animal. He is associated with evil, enticing Culla with liquor and obscene books. Later he refuses to return to Rinthy the child he has found. Yet he is also the victim of evil. “I’ve seen the meanness of humans till I don’t know why God ain’t put out the sun and gone away,” he tells Rinthy, and later he is murdered by the three strangers, who in turn take the child away from him. There is the suggestion that, in the end, Culla has taken the tinker’s place as the eternal wanderer on nameless roads.
The most disturbing figure in the novel, however, is the bearded leader of the dark murderous trio. On two occasions Culla stumbles into his company. All others who encounter him are killed, but Culla, in a perverse way, is almost welcomed, as if he were expected. “We ain’t hard to find,” the man tells Culla. “Oncet you’ve found us.” At the first meeting around their...
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