The Sunlight Dialogues Summary
by John Gardner Jr.

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The Sunlight Dialogues Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Sunlight Dialogues was Gardner’s first major success in his writing career—a best seller for a number of weeks and a critically acclaimed serious novel of ideas. A long novel, it has a considerable amount of action, but it also contains extensive passages of discussion and debate on moral and philosophical issues, which is characteristic of Gardner’s fiction, always deeply concerned with how abstract matters translate into the everyday human situation.

The novel centers on the confrontation between representatives of two differing points of view. One is a chief of police, the other a “magician,” and their dispute concerns law and order, the universe, and humanity’s place in that universe. The police chief, Fred Clumly, and the magician, known for most of the novel only as the Sunlight Man, thus are not only individuals but also representatives of much more.

The Sunlight Man is actually Taggert Hodge, member of a prominent local family now in decline. Taggert, who had fled the town of Batavia, New York, sixteen years previously, has returned for his own version of revenge and redemption. Clumly is drawn into this against his will, but once entered into the pursuit of the Sunlight Man, he becomes caught up in an even larger chase, that of the elusive truth. In a sense captive to his strange relationship with the Sunlight Man, Clumly allows his life and work to collapse, worrying his blind wife, Esther, and angering the mayor and city council, who eventually fire him. He joins the Sunlight Man for a final meeting at Stony Hill, the family home of the Hodges, now in decline, and the two men come to a half-spoken agreement. Later the Sunlight Man tries to surrender to the police; by mistake he is killed, shot (significantly enough) through the heart.

To express the search for meaning and order in which the Sunlight Man and Clumly engage, Gardner fashions his work around four dialogues between Clumly and the Sunlight Man in which far-ranging moral and philosophical issues are discussed. Using the contrast between ancient Babylonian and Jewish cultures, Gardner outlines the differences between justice and law, freedom and order, the individual and society. While Clumly and the Sunlight Man seem opposites, they actually have much in common. Both are disfigured physically (hairlessness for Clumly, fire burns for the Sunlight Man), each has a handicapped wife (the sheriff’s is blind, his opponent’s, mentally ill) and both are isolated from their fellow human beings, cut off from the larger community. The dialogues between the two are partially their fumbling, only partially conscious attempts to break through this isolation.

A vast novel with a multitude of characters, The Sunlight Dialogues is carefully constructed, filled with parallels of character and plot. The main supporter of order, Chief Clumly, pursues a criminal and has discussions with him; Will Hodge, another proponent of law, has a series of his own “dialogues” with a counterculture character named Freeman. Walter Boyle, a small-time thief who has an alternate identity (and thus is in one person a contrast between law and outlaw, order and disorder) has another set of confrontations with the boarder who seduces his wife. In this fashion, Gardner reemphasizes the impact that ideas and ideals can have on actual human life.

Two themes are emphasized in The Sunlight Dialogues. The first is one Gardner uses in several of his novels, the need to establish meaning for life in the face of death. This theme flows from his first published novel, The Resurrection, through his last, Mickelsson’s Ghosts (1982), and is a central component of The Sunlight Dialogues. Here, as in the other works mentioned, Gardner resolved the conflict by the union, or at least acceptance, of seeming opposites through the power of love.

A second theme is the conflict between order and anarchy, society and the individual, law and justice. Clumly champions the first, a heritage Gardner identifies...

(The entire section is 1,762 words.)