In a Shallow Grave

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

There are many literary variations on the motif of Beauty and the Beast. In the more traditional rendition of the theme, such as Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Beauty and the Beast are two distinct characters, with the ugliness of the one and the comeliness of the other immediately apparent. In more recent variants of the myth, such as James Purdy’s In a Shallow Grave, the distinction between beauty and the beast is blurred and ambiguous, depending on the perspective of the beholder. The figure of beauty, the traditional deliverer of the beast, is considerably more faulted, and the healing becomes a two-way process between the two of them. But underlying both treatments of the story is the Platonic assumption of some hidden beauty beneath a hideous physical surface.

Garnet Montrose, the protagonist of Purdy’s novel, is physically as grotesque as Cocteau’s Beast. He has been so mutilated during the Vietnam War that most people literally cannot bear to look at him. His skin is mulberry in color; his flesh is so fragile that it peels off to the bone when he touches something. He has frequent hemorrhages and fainting spells and requires a fulltime attendant to be on hand to rub his heart or his toes when his circulation fails. In addition, he has contracted malaria during his nine years in Indochina.

But the physical metamorphosis, like that of Gregor’s in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” functions in addition as a vehicle for a spiritual ailment: despair. Garnet, as the title suggests, flirts with a death-wish throughout the first half of the novel. His mode of life after his discharge from the army has become as grotesque as his appearance. At first, his sole reason for living is a tenuous nostalgia for the past, his life before Vietnam. Secluding himself in an old house in the backwoods of Virginia, he involves himself exclusively in activities linked with the past: an absurd one-way correspondence with the Widow Rance, his childhood sweetheart; surreptitious visits to a deserted dancehall that he knew in better days; reading old books which he does not understand but which help to remove him from the unbearable present. But no one mocks him more than he mocks himself, both for his physical condition and for his withdrawal from the world. It is not only from despair, but also a growing cynicism, that Purdy’s “beast” must be liberated.

Initially, Widow Rance is the “beauty,” but the revulsion she feels for Garnet dispels any expectation that she will save him; if anything, she reinforces his despair. That role falls, instead, to two men—primarily an extraordinary intinerant, Daventry; and, to a lesser degree, Quintus, Garnet’s valet and amanuensis. It is virtually love at first sight between Daventry and Garnet, despite some initial sparring. Although the relationship is clearly homosexual—the two men touch and embrace and even occupy the same bed—it is never sexually consummated. It becomes, instead, an intense spiritual union. First Daventry, and then Garnet, go beyond possessive cravings to a selfless concern for the other. Buddhist and occult overtones are unmistakable here. As Hesse’s Demian ministers to Sinclair, so Daventry functions as Garnet’s spiritual alter-ego—Garnet tells us repeatedly that his friend must have been sent by God to lead him out of his “shallow grave” back to the living. The deliverance is effected, not through admonitions and sermons, but through Daventry’s unconditioned love for Garnet. The first one to touch the untouchable Garnet, Daventry breaks through the walls behind which Garnet has shut himself. Daventry’s generous love precipitates, in its turn, compassion in the heretofore bitter Garnet. His potential beauty has been actualized, and he is now ready to tender help not just to his lover Daventry, but to Quintus, the Widow Rance, and, we suspect, anyone else who should ask for it. But “compassion” here must be taken in its Buddhist sense—not just as care and sympathy for others, but as a total opening-up of the self to the world. All human beings, all living things, all of reality, are linked together in harmony and oneness; even after “death,” our mortal stage, this unity is preserved. (Daventry’s ghost comes back from the other world in response to Garnet’s need.) Garnet’s transformation from beast to human is his return to life and his fellow creatures; and to...

(The entire section is 1805 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Antioch Review. XXXIV, Summer, 1976, p. 506.

Atlantic. CCXXXVII, March, 1976, p. 108.

Booklist. LXXII, April 1, 1976, p. 1090.

National Observer. XV, February 28, 1976, p. 21.

New York Times Book Review. February 8, 1976, p. 2.

New Yorker. LII, April 12, 1976, p. 142.