Second Nature

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 336

In SECOND NATURE, Alice Hoffman tells as inventive a story as she did in SEVENTH HEAVEN (1990) and TURTLE MOON (1992). Again, by inserting an alien element into a static society, she forces her characters to confront their world and themselves. This time the outsider is Stephen, who has been reared by wolves in the Michigan wilderness. Rescuing him from a Manhattan hospital, the tender-hearted Robin Moore takes Stephen to her nearby island home, where she conceals him until he is ready to enter local society.

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Nevertheless, Robin underestimates the power of nature, which propels the two into a passionate love affair, while at the same time beckoning Stephen back to the wilderness. The very natural passion of jealousy also motivates Robin’s estranged husband Roy Moore, a police officer, to look for something in Stephen’s past which could discredit him. If he is found to be the missing “Wolf Man,” Stephen will lose his freedom. Still another threat comes from a member of one of the island’s most respected families, who commits a series of sadistic killings and casts the blame on Stephen. Here the weakness of civilization becomes evident. Only Stephen can catch the scent of blood on the murderer, and finally, only Stephen, applying the law of the pack, can punish him. Now much wiser, Roy ignores his own law in order to help Stephen escape from the island and begin his journey to Michigan. SECOND NATURE is a joy to read, convincing, exciting, and thought- provoking. In this novel, Hoffman again admits the power of evil but optimistically asserts that even within a corrupting civilization, good can prevail.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XC, December 15, 1993, p. 723.

The Christian Science Monitor. March 14, 1994, p. 17.

Kirkus Reviews. LXI, December 1, 1993, p. 1480.

Library Journal. CXIX, February 1, 1994, p. 112.

Los Angeles Times. March 25, 1994, p. E6.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, February 6, 1994, p. 13.

The New Yorker. LXX, April 11, 1994, p. 99.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, November 29, 1993, p. 53.

The Times Literary Supplement. March 25, 1994, p. 21.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, January 30, 1994, p. 2.

Second Nature

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1947

In such earlier novels as Seventh Heaven (1990) and Turtle Moon (1992), Alice Hoffman demonstrated her belief that within everyday life exist all the possibilities of loathing and love, selfishness and self-sacrifice, degradation and redemption. As in those works, the characters in Second Nature are confronted with moral choices and spiritual possibilities. Now, however, they must make decisions not only between good and evil but also between two worlds, one simple and primitive, the other civilized, complex, and essentially corrupt.

Appropriately, the story begins in New York City, which can be considered either the pinnacle of civilization or the ultimate expression of its ills. The protagonist, Robin Moore, has driven in from the small island in Nassau County where she lives in order to talk with her brother, Stuart Aaron, about their grandfather Richard Aaron, who made a home for his grandchildren when their parents died but who now, at ninety-one, is daily becoming more difficult. At the hospital where Stuart’s office is located, Robin sees the famous “Wolf Man.” After being found in a trap in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wilderness, he was brought to New York for physical treatment and psychological evaluation. It is known that he spent his formative years with wolves. Since the Wolf Man will not respond to researchers’ questions, it has been decided that he is not fit to live in society. When Robin sees him, he is in the process of being transferred to a mental institution, where presumably he will spend the rest of his life. When Robin speaks to him, evidently the Wolf Man recognizes a sympathetic spirit, and for the first time he speaks, pleading to be rescued. Robin cannot turn her back on this strange but appealing creature; she spirits him out of the hospital and takes him home with her.

Although most of the residents of Robin’s island think of themselves as poles apart from the urbanites in New York City, in fact they are not as close to nature as they would like to think. If the city represents one extreme, the Michigan wilderness where Wolf Man grew up is the other, and as both Robin and her perceptive son Connor Moore soon realize, the island is no more than a middle ground. Except for a few free spirits, such as Robin, Connor, Richard, and Robin’s former father-in-law, the islanders are as bound by convention as anyone in Manhattan. Therefore, if the Wolf Man is to be safe among them, not only must his actual identity be concealed, but he must also learn to behave like Robin’s neighbors, lest they sense his difference and turn upon him.

Fortunately, the Wolf Man, who remembers being called Stephen, is highly intelligent. It does not take him long to learn how to dress, how to eat, how to speak, read, and write, even how to play chess. Stephen’s grasp of suburban manners is tested at a Memorial Day party, where Robin introduces him as a horticulture student serving an apprenticeship with her. To her delight, no one suspects that he is not what he appears to be. Even Robin’s brother Stuart sees nothing in this civilized young man to remind him of the wild creature who was once his patient.

Once Stephen has successfully slipped into his new identity, thus outwitting his pursuers, the focus of the novel shifts. Yet instead of being diminished once the immediate crisis has passed, the suspense is heightened, for now the major characters are shown struggling not with outsiders, who are easily deceived, but with their own primal urges.

Not surprisingly, it is Stephen who most fully comprehends the importance of what human beings call the animal side of their nature. He can recognize the conflict between his instincts, upon which the wolves base their hopes of survival, and his reason, which tells him in human society he can fulfill his desires only by masking them. When Stephen is hungry, he would like to hunt and kill; however, he cannot chase his prey but must wait patiently for meat to be killed by others, then purchased and prepared. It is even more difficult for someone reared in the wilderness to control his sexual desires. At night he is tormented by his desire to walk down the hall to Robin’s room, but again he knows that if he is ever to have her, he must hide his desperate need.

Stephen does not at first realize, however, that the human beings among whom he lives may be just as strongly influenced by their instincts as he is. Admittedly, Robin has no interest in hunting; indeed, she has managed to conquer her taste for meat and is now a vegetarian. It is not so easy, though, for a human being to deny the need for a mate. In her lonely bed, the civilized female is suffering no less than the primitive male. Not surprisingly, in time Robin does indicate her feelings for Stephen, and the two, who already enjoy each other’s company, move easily into a physical relationship.

This new bond, however, does not make things easier for Stephen. Before falling in love with Robin, Stephen knew that if he returned to Michigan, as he had always intended to do, he would miss Robin and Connor. Now, however, Stephen will lose much more; if he returns to his old life in the wilderness, he will be losing his mate. Ironically, for him this prospect is more heart-wrenching than it would be for a human being, since unlike the civilized, wolves make a lifetime commitment.

There seems to be no doubt that in her new lover Robin has found the kind of mate with whom she could spend her life. Probably because she herself is quite independent, Robin has no difficulty accepting the fact that she can never possess either Stephen or his past. She is contented only to be with a man who is totally trustworthy; even in a few short months, she feels closer to Stephen than she ever did to her husband, the deceitful, philandering Roy Moore, who seemed to want her only as a possession and a convenience, not as an equal and a partner.

The failed marriage of Roy and Robin points to a major theme in Second Nature, the seeming inability of civilized human beings to establish effective family units. Because, unlike Stephen, Roy could not or would not control his sexual urges, Connor has, in effect, lost his father, who in a more primitive society would have functioned as his son’s role model and tutor. Clearly, education is not the answer to civilized society’s difficulties with the family; even an expert in human behavior such as Robin’s psychiatrist brother has not been able to hold his marriage together. It almost seems that civilization is inimical to lasting love; too often love dwindles to polite indifference or is even transmuted into active loathing. As Hoffman shows, what language terms “love” is frequently merely the desire for power over another person. Roy wants his wife back initially because she has defied him, later because he knows that another man has her. One cannot read affection or nostalgia into his insistence that Robin return to him; all Roy really cares about is winning over her and over Stephen.

What the institution of marriage can be at its worst is demonstrated in the story of Ginny Thorne and her abusive husband, whom she finally killed. That episode also illustrates the unnaturalness and the actual immorality of many of the laws by which society is governed. To make sure that Ginny will not be prosecuted and thus further victimized, Richard must tell a lie. It is Ginny’s good fortune that he is independent enough to do so.

Even the most idyllic relationship, however, has difficulty surviving in a society that while pretending to hold human love in high regard, sets all sorts of obstacles in the way of its expression. In a state of nature, Connor and Lydia Altero would simply mate, since they are biologically mature. Yet society sees them as too young to become physically involved. Lydia’s mother is so horrified when she finds that the two are making love whenever they get a chance that she turns on Connor, whom she has known for years, and even breaks off her long-standing friendship with Robin. It seems that civilized life is designed to make what is only natural a source of shame.

Nevertheless, the author does not blame society for all the unhappiness in what the residents like to think of as an island paradise. Human beings have reason to guide them in making moral choices, along with the will to stand by their decisions. If Stephen, reared in the wilderness, is able to control his sexual desires, there is no excuse for Roy to succumb to his own, especially since he knows that by doing so he is destroying his marriage. Similarly, no one has forced Stuart to remain in a life he hates; as he discovers, it is easy to walk away from his New York hospital and to live, if not in nature, at least much closer to it, on the island where he is happy.

The author does not even use her society’s usual lame excuse to explain Matthew Dixon’s sadism. After years of pursuing other creatures for food, Stephen adheres to the rules of his new society and stops cold; in contrast, Matthew, a privileged college boy, kills not for food but for pleasure. When he progresses from pets to people and there seems no possibility of catching him, Stephen breaks his own rule and kills Matthew, just as if he were a rabid wolf threatening the survival of the pack.

Like Ginny’s killing of her husband, the murder that Stephen commits illustrates another of Hoffman’s themes: While civilization assumes that all human behavior can be classified as that which is permitted and that which is not, those categories may not correspond neatly to actual good and evil when they are encountered in everyday life. As a police officer, Roy has always gone by the book, enforcing the laws of society without examining them. Late in the novel, however, he begins to think for himself, and he comes to the startling conclusion that not everything in his world can be seen in terms of black and white. It is a new, redeemed Roy who lets Stephen escape from the island, who for the first time in his life attempts to understand how Robin feels, and who resolves to be the father that Connor needs.

Robin’s choice, too, is a selfless one. Understanding that Stephen can never be truly happy on the island, she enables him to return to his wilderness and his wolves. The ending of Hoffman’s novel is not a conventionally happy one. The lovers are separated forever, each living in a different world, and their little girl is deprived of a father. If one sees human life in moral and spiritual terms, however, Second Nature must be viewed as a statement of faith. Human beings can find redemption, the author suggests, even within the hypocritical and corrupt society that they define as civilized.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XC, December 15, 1993, p. 723.

The Christian Science Monitor. March 14, 1994, p. 17.

Kirkus Reviews. LXI, December 1, 1993, p. 1480.

Library Journal. CXIX, February 1, 1994, p. 112.

Los Angeles Times. March 25, 1994, p. E6.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, February 6, 1994, p. 13.

The New Yorker. LXX, April 11, 1994, p. 99.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, November 29, 1993, p. 53.

The Times Literary Supplement. March 25, 1994, p. 21.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIV, January 30, 1994, p. 2.

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