The Postman Always Rings Twice was Cain’s first novel and came to stand as his finest work of fiction. It is both classical Cain, with its hard-boiled, first-person narrative of a wrenching love triangle, wish fulfillment, and retribution, and classical in its tragic theme and episodic structure. A very attractive young woman, Cora, is unhappily married to Nick Papadakis, the proprietor of a restaurant. A drifter, Frank Chambers, falls in love with Cora, hires on as Nick’s employee, and enjoys Cora’s requital of his love. The adulterers successfully conspire to murder Nick, thereby gaining his restaurant business and their own life together. Much of their planning materializes through fortuitous as well as engineered accidents.
It is also an accident that finally destroys both of them, Cora as accident victim and Frank as the victim of circumstances. Having been acquitted of contriving the accident that was supposed to have taken the life of Nick Papadakis, a charge of which he was actually guilty, Frank is now ironically convicted of contriving the accident that killed Cora, despite his innocence. The structure, like that of Greek tragedy and classical literature in general, is symmetrical: Cora and Frank are denied free union by societal and economic restrictions, Cora and Frank achieve free union through their crime, Cora and Frank are destroyed precisely in the context of their achievement of free union. The symmetry is that of separation-union-separation.
Cain’s special skill is in presenting a story with the immediacy and relevance of a news item. Stories, historical or otherwise, that did not speak to his own time defeated his interest. He insisted in a Hearst newspaper column for November 11, 1933, that he could not sustain his interest in certain regarded contemporary novels—among them Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931), and Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)—because “they bear no relation . . . to the times in which I live.” He believed that “the destiny, the national purpose of the deal” had to be there before a writer could have anything to say; the destiny of the American Dream antecedes The Postman Always Rings Twice.
The “they” who throw Frank Chambers off the hay truck also give him a cigarette. He is then given a job by Nick, a businessman whose financial security Frank would like to have, but without the attendant responsibilities; he would also like to possess Cora. Frank does not understand that Nick and Cora are extensions of the “they,” reversing the process of gift giving—Nick tendering a job, Cora her body—and causing him to be thrown. The classical symmetry appears as thrown-gift-gifts-thrown.
Behind or beneath Frank’s wish for money and sex is his true wish, unrecognized until too late, for love. The establishment, moreover, as the repository of superficial wishes, always defeats the individual whom it ostensibly accommodates. The last paragraph of the novel begins with “Here they come.” (These are also the very last words of Past All Dishonor.) The “they” of the novel’s beginning have, at the novel’s ending, become Frank’s executioners. Cain makes use of appropriate names in The Postman Always Rings Twice: “Nick” and “Cora” are both Greek names, and their characters embody the money and sex that Frank Chambers, whose name is not Greek, wishes to have. Frank’s error is much the same as that of the Trojans who refused to share Laocoön’s apprehension about Greeks bearing gifts.
For years, Frank Chambers has been in trouble with the law, drifting back and forth through California and always looking for a con or a dollar. When he comes to Nick Papadakis’s restaurant, he sees the same old dreams invested in a tiny hash house just like all the restaurants...
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