Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1117

Eric Poole and Lori are about as nasty a pair of characters as one is likely to find in literature. Poole is a psychopath—he feels nothing for anyone and lives entirely for his own self-gratification, which includes being "tender." He begins by finding "tenderness" with kittens in which he breaks their fragile bones and then slowly kills them. He takes it upon himself to rid his neighborhood of felines, killing them with his special brand of tenderness. He eventually takes to tormenting and killing other animals, and when they no longer satisfy him, he turns to killing young women. He sees this as entirely logical; when animals will not suffice then human beings must.

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He gets away with crimes of intolerable cruelty because much of society abets at least a substantial portion of his actions. Society, in many ways, conspires with the criminal in his attacks against the innocent. Even his victims help. When Poole was a little boy, people would comment on how pretty and fine-looking he was. He finds out as a young adult that his pretty face, lovely blond hair, sparkling eyes, and winning smile charm people into believing him trustworthy and good. He christens this combination of deceiving looks The Charm, and when he uses the Charm he believes he will be absolved of any crime. He seeks out young adult girls as victims-in-waiting who would see The Charm and be willing to do anything he asked. Poole avoids those unusually perceptive people who would see into his eyes past The Charm and know that there was immense evil in him. Since most people buy The Charm, he can have as much "tenderness" as he wants.

Perhaps it is how other characters respond to Poole that is most disturbing, although his lust for murderous sex is very ugly by itself. Serial killing is notorious in twentieth-century criminality. The victims are usually, but not always, young women, and the killers are usually, but not always, men—especially young men. Some criminologists now even believe that when a serial killer hits middle age he loses interest in killing people. In Tenderness, Cormier offers insights into why a serial killer murders, why he is able to find easy victims, and why he is able to get away with the killings. Some real-life serial killers become objects of affection for young adult girls who send them love notes, presents, and even offers of marriage. Cormier is not fantasizing when Pool receives these in the novel—this actually happens in prisons throughout the country. Thus young adult girls, who belong to Poole's chosen group of favorite victims anyway, actually make his "tenderness" easier to achieve. These girls, not content with just being the partial agent of their potential destruction, must also glorify Poole and his alluring dangerousness. Lori, as one such girl, makes it plain that she does not mind that he murders people for pleasure.

Lori, a troubling figure from the first, has a confused and convoluted attitude toward sex. She wants the pleasure of sex but is proud of her relative inexperience, of being almost a virgin. She uses her slim body and large breasts to get what she wants out of men; she is shown first seducing a man who picked her up while she was hitchhiking and then stealing his wallet after demanding and getting money from him. Her narrative is a distressing account of self-degradation and her manipulation of others, all seemingly motivated by a yearning for love and a secure relationship. She claims to feel remorse, but she does not act upon it; her almost complete lack of self-respect ("Sometimes I am a real bitch") results in repeated self-destructive behavior. Paired with Poole, she forms half of a nightmare couple for the 1990s—rootless, unhappy, and brutal destroyers of other people's lives. This couple is a savage masterpiece of plausibly-motivated characterizations. How truly real Cormier makes these horrifying, too-evil-to-be-pitied sociopaths whose faces and stories would flash by on television screens on the evening news without the depth given them in the novel!

Lieutenant Proctor serves as a social and emotional counterpoint to Poole and Lori, a man who seems hard-bitten but is actually sensitive—though he is neither reflexively sensitive to nor fooled by the Poole's faked suffering and phony tales of being abused. Instead, he feels for the victims. He is haunted by a string of murders that occurred in Oregon decades earlier; he thinks that he let the serial killer get away. He recognizes in Poole the same traits that he saw in the suspect in the old Oregon cases: a superior attitude, well-rehearsed alibis, high intelligence, and no sense of remorse. Lieutenant Proctor recognizes that what Poole calls "The Charm" is really the mask of a heartless murderer, someone who regards human beings as animals to be slaughtered at his pleasure. Lieutenant Proctor is too well-conceived a character to be saintly. He uses a subterfuge of doubtful legality to try to get Poole to reveal his true nature prior to release from juvenile detention so that the young murderer may be transferred to an adult prison. First, a young man tries to pick a fight in the cafeteria, but Poole has been warned by someone who owes him a debt, and he refuses to take the bait. Then a riot in the cafeteria is contrived to get Poole to reveal his lust for murder, but Poole again escapes because he is forewarned. These efforts by Proctor are underhanded to the point of enticing criminal acts, even though his motive is to save lives: he is certain that Poole will kill again once out of prison. The use of a decoy is a somewhat more commonly accepted police practice, although by having the decoy write to Poole and invite him to visit her this use of a decoy comes close to illegal entrapment.

Lieutenant Proctor faces a tough moment when Poole is finally caught after apparently killing Lori. He says, "It was an accident. The girl wasn't his type. That wasn't his method of operation." Another police officer asks, "But it's all over, right, Lou?" Proctor thinks of the girls Poole has murdered and says, "Right," even though he knows that this time Poole will go to prison for something he had not actually done. Cormier is ruthless with his characters in Tenderness, and not even Proctor is allowed escape from torment. "Maybe I can sleep again," he thinks after Poole's capture, but he cannot. He is still sleepless, still haunted by the dead Oregon girls whose murderer outwitted him: "He knew it was not all over, would never end. Like the phantom pain after a leg is amputated."

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