Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 781
The specific gravity of The Resurrection is very great. James Chandler, a metaphysician living in a time of analysis, feels that he was born out of time. Because of his interests, however perverse for this age, and because he is dying from leukemia, he might be forgiven for being concerned about important questions that, as a philosopher, he is prepared to discuss at an elevated level. Since James Chandler is a philosopher who comes from the mind of a novelist, he also might be forgiven for having an interest in aesthetics, though of course it is the novel itself that is Gardner’s aesthetic response to very heavy questions.
Immediately after the diagnosis of his illness, Chandler decides to return to Batavia in western New York, the town in and near which he (and the author) grew up. He, his wife, and their daughters stay there with his mother, still alive though failing; his father, an undereducated man of intelligence who spent much of his time trying to perfect a perpetual-motion machine, has died. Also still alive are the Staley sisters, whom Chandler soon visits, all mediocrities but important in the town in their day: One was a painter, though she now is senile; one still gives piano lessons; and one, now deaf, was a singer. Their vestigial status says much about the culture of Batavia. Their niece, Viola, takes care of them and their house and, ill-used by them and by life, is bitter. She becomes much less so as she comes to love James Chandler, a pipe-smoking, fair-haired, owl-faced man with glasses, who—glasses excepted—resembles Gardner.
The sisters in their varying artistic ways are trying to order life, to make it conform to some rules. So are some students at a local institution for the blind, watched in fascination by the Chandler girls, as they try to play baseball. Of course, once the ball stops rolling, the players have no way to find it except by groping—a nice trope for the metaphysician the girls’ father is. The girls themselves do something similar by playing a game that they have invented, the rules of which they occasionally violate. Meanwhile, Chandler dreams of a wizened old woman with a face like a monkey and a mouth full of blood—in his weakened state of mind, she often is not far away from him. The mind, he decides, cannot handle the idea of personal death and thus comes up with such images.
Marie, his wife, is a caring and practical soul who takes care of her family and tries to care for her husband, whom she loves. She is always in the background, but she shares few concerns with James, who has decided in his last days to “seize existence by the scrotum.” On returning from a visit to the Staleys, he falls and is rescued, bleeding, by Viola. From then on, her concern for him grows.
When Marie visits her husband in the hospital, she meets John Horne, an attorney who never practiced as such, but rather gave himself to being a law librarian, a scholar, and a lay philosopher. He is grotesque, misshapen, probably dying, and something of a mental patient. Mainly, however, he exists as a deus ex machina to ask the same sorts of questions Chandler does, though he comes up with a different answer—nihilism—than does the associate professor.
Like Chandler, however, he cannot be “cured” by logical positivism (a doctrine that assumes that any question is invalid if it cannot be analyzed by the senses; thus “God” and “afterlife,” for example, are non-questions) from asking metaphysical questions. Horne confesses that he is in despair. He does get off some good lines—“Art is the self-sacrifice of a man incapable of sacrificing himself in real life”—a line that fits Chandler fairly well too. He repeatedly reminds himself that he has not involved himself fairly with his wife, his daughters, or, lately, Viola, and now he avoids Horne. Chandler begins his last work, “Notes Toward an Aesthetic Theory.”
A country man tells the senior Mrs. Chandler that “Everything in the world was made to go to waste” and that “the only difference between people and trees is trees don’t fret about it.” Chandler, dying, has his mother drive him to Viola, where, bleeding and able only to crawl, he grasps her foot in expiation. His wife and children, meanwhile, are at Betsy Staley’s last-ever recital, where the pianist bursts into no melody at all, “a monstrous retribution of sound, the mindless roar of things in motion, on the meddlesome mind of man.” The audience stares at their feet “as if deeply impressed.”
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