Glenway Wescott’s The Pilgrim Hawk is a tapestry woven of five layers: the hawk’s intrinsic or obvious resemblance to the characters; the extrinsic significance imposed by Alwyn Tower as a young man observing the relationship between the Cullens and the hawk; Tower’s interpretations ten years later as the middle-aged narrator; the actual intentions of the author (who is very close to Tower); and the reader’s opportunities to see symbolic meaning in the hawk. With complete control, Wescott conducts the reader in and out of this labyrinth of symbols.
Wescott differentiates his characters partly by the degree of awareness with which each plucks the bird of its symbolic resemblances to human nature. Tower and Alexandra (who is normally not curious) are eager to see such correspondences. Sitting erect in a straight kitchen chair, Mrs. Cullen makes swift transitions from hawk to human until she sees that her husband, sunk into a soft easy chair, senses certain comparisons to himself.
Tower and his ambiguous responses are almost as interesting and crucial to the story as the exotic characters whose behavior he witnesses. One of the experiences Wescott creates is the reader’s puzzled effort to sift and separate the narrator’s reflections and judgments in 1929 from those he makes in 1940 as he reflects. Wescott cunningly keeps Tower’s voice out of the dialogue until the end, when he converses with Alexandra; the effect is that readers hear his mature voice at some distance, contemplating, musing, shifting back and forth in time and attitude. His tone fluctuates between intense curiosity, intellectual excitement, emotional reserve, repulsion, fascination, sadness, amusement, wit, and irony. Tower constantly sees symbols, and he seizes any pretext to express insights on love, marriage, drunkenness, the aristocracy, animals as compared with people, sports, and numerous other subjects. Out of all this, his character is distilled.
Tower’s interest in the Cullens is an extension of his interest in himself. Outdoors people, the Cullens are self-centered, nonintrospective, self-indulgent, strenuous, and emotionally idle. Tower feels a cool affinity first with Mrs. Cullen (who signals her desire for his understanding), because, like an artist, she is in control of an artificial but satisfying situation that may at any moment revert to the chaos of nature. Then, reluctantly, Tower’s sympathy shifts to Cullen, for Tower, too, is a lover, and he understands the predicament of a drunken, weak, vain, jealous, dull, mediocre, irritable, boring, conceited, childish fool who is in love with his wife.
Tower sees that Madeleine Cullen tries to create situations that will...
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