Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2964
Thornton Wilder’s seven novels, written over nearly fifty years, show a remarkable consistency in theme and tone. His early books, contemporaneous with Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) and Sinclair Lewis’s Arrowsmith (1925), are far from the realism and naturalism that dominated American literature in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Though he joined groups active in civil rights and social justice, these themes did not find their way into his works in the manner of John Dos Passos or John Steinbeck. His later works, similarly, show none of the interest in psychoanalysis that may be found in the works of Sherwood Anderson, for example, and none of the angry intensity of a Norman Mailer.
Wilder chose not to comment on contemporary politics, social problems, psychological angst, or cultural changes, preferring instead to mine those themes he considered of utmost importance: love, brotherhood, tolerance, and faith. His faith was expressed not in strictly Judeo-Christian terms but in humanistic convictions that incorporated diverse religious beliefs. Without being didactic, Wilder wished to educate, to inspire, to allow his readers to move beyond an obsession with the individual case to a consideration of humankind and its history. His second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, is representative of the themes that recur throughout his works, and his final statement in that book well expresses his one abiding conviction: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Though Wilder drew on his memories of Rome for his first novel, The Cabala, the book is a fantasy, only incidentally autobiographical. The Cabala is an aristocratic social circle in which two Americans find themselves involved. These two, Samuele and James Blair, represent Wilder’s interest in duality of personality that recurs in later works and results in part from his having been born a twin (his sibling was stillborn). Samuele is a typical Wilder character: innocent, sensitive, stable, with a deep strain of common sense. Blair is the dry intellectual so obsessed by books that he fears real life.
Samuele is the vehicle by which a number of episodes are linked, since he is asked by various members of the Cabala to intervene in the lives of others. First, he is called in to restrain the impetuous and licentious Marcantonio, but fails: The young man engages in incest and then kills himself. Then, Samuele must console the lovely young Alix, unfortunate enough to fall in love with James Blair. Finally, he must deal with the royalist Astrée-Luce in her plot to “prop up” and empower cynical Cardinal Vaini. Samuele is baffled by these obsessed and decadent characters, and is hardly satisfied by an explanation offered to him that the group is possessed by ancient gods who have passed on their power to unsuspecting mortals. Finally, on advice from Vergil’s ghost, Samuele returns to America. For Wilder, Europe, for all its richness of culture, was too deeply mired in the past to allow the spirit to grow. Samuele could thrive only in America, a country of youth and intellectual freedom.
The Bridge of San Luis Rey
In his second novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Wilder again uses a structure of separate episodes linked by one thread, this time the collapse of an ancient bridge over a chasm in Peru. Again, he offers a religious figure, but instead of the jaded Cardinal, there is the sympathetic Brother Juniper, who searches for meaning in the deaths of those who perished: the Marquesa de Montemayor; Pepita, her maid; Esteban, a young Indian; Uncle Pio, an aging actor, and his ward Jaime. Brother Juniper finds that the five were victims of love, and those who survive are forced to a change of consciousness by the deaths of those they spurned or misjudged.
As in The Cabala, Wilder explores twinness in the tale of Esteban and his twin brother Manuel. The two are extraordinarily close, and when Manuel falls in love with a woman, Esteban becomes despondent. Yet he nurses his brother faithfully after Manuel is injured, suffering his delirious ravings until Manuel dies. Nearly mad with grief, Esteban first assumes his dead brother’s identity, then attempts suicide, only to die when the bridge collapses. A sea captain, Alvarado, had offered to sign him on his crew, and tried to console him by reminding him, “We do what we can. We push on, Esteban, as best we can. It isn’t for long, you know. Time keeps going by. You’ll be surprised at the way time passes.” Wilder was always conscious of the brevity of life and the need, therefore, to cling to love where one finds it. In The Bridge of San Luis Rey, he urges the celebration and fulfillment of love as the only meaning in the world.
The Woman of Andros
From eighteenth century Peru, Wilder moved to pre-Christian Greece in his third novel, The Woman of Andros, again dealing with love; its theme, as in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, is “How does one live?What does one do first?” Society on the island of Brynos was not essentially different, according to Wilder, from that of his own America. When Chrysis, the central character, says “Lift every roof, and you will find seven puzzled hearts,” she speaks of people’s bewilderment in the face of the unknown, their search for communion, their need for love—basic human struggles that are not rooted in any particular time or place.
In 1930, however, a number of critics were disappointed with this message. In a time of economic and social crisis, Wilder seemed to retreat into yet another esoteric setting, far removed from the urgencies of the day. One critic writing in The New Republic dubbed Wilder a “Prophet of the Genteel Christ” who wrote for a wealthy elite not interested in social problems. The article touched off a month of debate, with letters supporting or attacking Wilder appearing in each issue of the magazine. At the end of December, Wilder finally received his greatest support when Sinclair Lewis, accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature, praised his fellow writer “who in an age of realism dreams the old and lovely dreams of the eternal romantic.”
Heaven’s My Destination
Throughout the controversy, Wilder remained silent. He was sensitive to the criticism, however, and in his next novel he attempted to find a setting and characters that would appear relevant to his own time. Heaven’s My Destination concerns the misadventures of George Marvin Brush, a salesman of religious textbooks who travels across the Depression-ridden United States preaching, moralizing, and interfering in the lives of ordinary citizens. Converted to Bible Belt Christianity by a woman evangelist at Shiloh Baptist College, he has proceeded to spread his own fundamentalist version of the Gospel wherever he goes. Wilder returned to the episodic structure of his first two novels in presenting George’s adventures in picaresque form. Unlike Don Quixote, however, with whom George has been compared, Wilder’sprotagonist is rarely endearing, more often exasperating.
George is different from the “normal” Americans with whom he interacts, yet Wilder is satirizing not only his earnest hero but also those who spurn him. George, after a while, becomes depressed by his society and exclaims, “It’s the world that’s crazy. Everybody’s crazy except me; that’s what’s the matter. The whole world’s nuts.” Why, asks this ardent believer, is God “so slow” in changing things?
For all his misconceptions, George does act on truly humanistic beliefs. He takes a vow of poverty and occasionally of silence, refuses his interest from the bank and dislikes raises in pay. “I think everybody ought to be hit by the depression equally,” he says, as he gives away his money. Like Samuele, George maintains his integrity in an environment that threatens to corrupt him and is selfless in his efforts to aid those who need him—even if they protest against his interference.
George was Wilder’s answer to the critics who dismissed his previous works, and in a sense, he gave them what he thought they deserved—a priggish, monomaniacal American overreacting to mundane occurrences. Even with such a cartoon-strip character, however, Wilder could not help but imbue him with gentleness and humility, and for Edmund Wilson, George emerged as a “type of saintand therefore a universal character.”
In part, it was George’s earnestness, his reluctance to see evil and his determination to do good, that caused Wilder to exclaim, “I’m George Brush.” Certainly his persistent faith in humanity unites him with his character, but there is further correspondence in Brush’s essential isolation, the loneliness that causes him to reach out for companionship. For Wilder, such isolation was characteristically American; solitude was to be treasured, but loneliness was threatening. He once noted an adage that he thought well expressed the American spirit: “If you can see the smoke from your neighbor’s chimney, you’re too near.” In his next novel, thirteen years later, he created yet another lonely, questing character, but this time Wilder eschewed satire and humor to deal seriously with people powerful before the world, yet powerless before death.
The Ides of March
The Ides of March, written just after World War II, deals with an archetypal dictator, Julius Caesar. Here, Wilder aimed to revive the spirit of the man from a palimpsest of historical and fictional treatments. The novel, therefore, becomes a study in identity and a technical challenge in creating for readers a believable reality. In structure, The Ides of March differs sharply from Wilder’s previous work. He assembles fictionalized letters, diary entries, messages, and documents in an effort to offer a vibrant picture of Roman life. Caesar himself is obsessed not only with power but also with death, and he must learn how to celebrate life faced with a dark world and an uncaring universe.
Wilder contrasts Caesar with his friend and counselor Lucius Turrinus, who offers a philosophy that was by then familiar to Wilder’s readers: “The universe is not aware that we are here,” Lucius tells Caesar. “Hope has never changed tomorrow’s weather.” Yet love could change the world, and Caesar comes to exclaim, “I wish to cry out to all the living and all the dead that there is no part of the universe that is untouched by bliss.”
Caesar’s urge to seize life and live it to the fullest causes his companions to label him rash and irreverent; but he feels himself to be above them because he has clearly envisioned his own death, and in so doing believes himself “capable of praising the sunlight.” Wilder transfers to the Roman dictator much of the sentiment expressed in his play Our Town, where Emily Webb dies and is allowed to return to Earth for one day. Only then does she realize how wonderful life is, how desperately she wants to live, and how foolish most people are in squandering their brief existence. Caesar refuses to be foolish; perhaps he will be ruthless, impetuous, temperamental, passionate—but he will live each moment.
The Ides of March had two major inspirations: the war itself, with its focus on the use and misuse of power, the character of a dictator, and the death of innocents; and Wilder’s personal confrontation with death—first that of Wilder’s friend and mentor Edward Sheldon, a playwright whose character informs Lucius Turrinus and on whose wisdom Wilder often relied, and then, and most important, the death of his mother, his most ardent supporter and admirer.
The Eighth Day
After The Ides of March was published, Wilder devoted nearly two decades to his plays; not until 1967 would he write another novel. In The Eighth Day, Wilder returned to an American setting, the turn-of-the-century Midwest, and to traditional narrative. He carefully unfolds the tale of John Barrington Ashley, tried for the murder of his neighbor, Breckenridge Lansing, and found guilty. Five days after being sentenced to death, he escapes with the help of an unknown accomplice. Five years later, Ashley is found innocent on the basis of new evidence. Ashley’s flight, which takes him to Chile, is contrasted with the life of his wife and children in a small town that barely tolerates the outlaw’s family.
Wilder’s concern, however, is not with one family’s history, but with the archetypal family, and Ashley represents not one wronged citizen, but the man of the Eighth Day, a new person with faith in humanity and a strong commitment to working toward a better future. Wilder tells his readers that faith and action can bring about a better life. Throughout the novel, he assigns several characters to speak for him, most notably Dr. Gillies, a country physician, who observes, Nature never sleeps. The process of life never stands still. The creation has not come to an end. The Bible says that God created people on the sixth day and rested, but each of those days was many millions of years long. That day of rest must have been a short one. Man is not an end but a beginning. We are at the beginning of the second week. We are children of the eighth day.
On the eighth day, people must begin to forge their own futures, and although Dr. Gillies knows there will be “no Golden Ages and no Dark Ages,” still he believes in the power of each individual to work toward the collective fate of humankind.
Because the novel is concerned essentially with imparting a message, the characters—as in The Cabala and Heaven’s My Destination—are not fully realized individuals, but instead are one-dimensional representations of predictable types. The Ashley family, ignored and rebuffed by their neighbors, never lose their aristocratic elegance. They persist in their nightly reading of William Shakespeare even when economic problems would seem severe enough to lower their morale. Here, Wilder pleads for art as the true salvation of humankind, its highest achievement, “the only satisfactory products of civilization.”
Through Dr. Gillies, who echoes the sentiments of Chrysis in The Woman of Andros and Lucius in The Ides of March, Wilder reminds his readers that they occupy only a brief span of time when contrasted with eternity and so must exhibit proper humility. They are small specks in a vast universe, and their duty is not to enhance their own egos, but to work together toward a higher good. “We keep saying that ’we live our lives,’” Dr. Gillies exclaims. “Shucks! Life lives us.” Wilder had sent this message for forty years; he insisted again, in the turbulent, self-conscious, self-indulgent late 1960’s, on attempting to awaken his readers to his own values.
Wilder was seventy years old when The Eighth Day was published, the time of a writer’s life when he or she might consider writing his or her autobiography or memoirs. Wilder, however, chose not to reveal his memories or bare his soul; instead, he wrote a last novel, Theophilus North, with a protagonist, he once told an interviewer, who was what his twin brother might have been if he had lived.
Theophilus may be Wilder’s imaginary brother, but his life bears striking similarities to that of Wilder himself. He has lived in China, attended Yale, and spent a summer in Rome; after teaching at a boys’ preparatory school in New Jersey, he leaves his job to explore life and goes to Newport, Rhode Island—a town where Wilder often vacationed—to set his new course. Like Samuele, Theophilus is gentle, well mannered, polite, helpful. These traits endear him to the Newport natives, and he is asked to intervene in several lives. The structure here, as in many previous Wilder novels, is one of loosely linked episodes.
Theophilus succeeds in such tasks as separating mismatched lovers, liberating an aging man from the manipulation of his daughter, allowing a shrewish wife to mend her ways, extricating one man from his unwitting involvement with criminals, bringing home a wayward husband, finding a lover for a maimed young man, and impregnating a woman whose husband is sterile. Throughout, Theophilus is a typical Wilder hero—a man of goodwill, of faith, of sincerity.
Theophilus North is Wilder’s only novel in which sexuality is of central importance. The sexual episodes are conducted offstage and seem unbelievable and strained. Theophilus, in his seductions and in his everyday relationships with his neighbors, is curiously unaffected and uninvolved. Although he displays emotion, he seems to lack passion.
Wilder’s characters, from Samuele to John Ashley, from the circle of Roman aristocrats to Newport society, remain thin and superficial, emblems rather than specific, rounded human beings. Such characterization was in keeping with Wilder’s conviction that each individual was, in the long history of the human race, of but little importance. His trials, anguish, suffering, and joy were not significant when placed in the context of all human suffering and all human joy. Rather than writing about individual human beings, Wilder chose to write about humanity; rather than dealing with the intricacies of individual lives, he chose to compress those lives into brief episodes to demonstrate the multiplicity of life.
Wilder, deeply philosophical and reflective, was always the teacher, the educator, with an abiding concern for the future of humanity. “Hope,” he wrote in Theophilus North, “is a projection of the imagination; so is despair. Despair all too readily embraces the ills it foresees; hope is an energy and arouses the mind to explore every possibility to combat them.” In all his works, he exuded hope and, even in dark times, urged his readers to work together in faith and in love.
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