At the beginning of the story, the narrator establishes the metaphor that identifies the summer game of croquet with the nature of the artwork. The game, he says, seems to be composed of images the way a painter’s abstraction of the game would be built of them. The wire wickets set in the emerald lawn and the colorful wooden poles stand out in a “season that was a struggle for something of unspeakable importance to someone passing through it.” The formal design of the game is like a painter’s abstraction; likewise, the characters become images and abstractions. They are not so much real people as stylized gestures pictorially woven within the lyrical narrative that is the legend of Brick Pollitt. The narrator says that the bits and pieces of his story are like the paraphernalia for a game of croquet, which he takes out and arranges once more in the formal design of the lawn. “It would be absurd to pretend that this is altogether the way it was,” he says, “and yet it may be closer than a literal history could be to the hidden truth of it.”
The narrator’s engagement in the formally controlled patterning of the artwork that one uses to control the contingency of life is the same game that Brick plays with croquet. He is drawn to Isabel because her actual encounter with the contingency and horror of flesh during the time her husband was dying reflects his own fear of flesh. To engage in the summer game is thus to run out of something “unbearably hot and bright into something obscure and cool”—to run out of the unbearable world of existential reality into the cool, ordered, deathless world of the artwork.
When Brick realizes that form must inevitably become involved and entangled with the reality of flesh, he becomes caught in an unresolvable metaphysical dilemma. Because there are other players involved in his game, human beings who have real emotional and fleshly needs, the game becomes contaminated because it must be played at the expense of Isabel and Mary Louise. When Brick realizes the hopelessness of his efforts to escape life into the romantic pattern of art, he is transformed from tragic actor to clown and the croquet lawn becomes a circus ring. His desire to live within the formalized world of art and idealization is doomed to failure, and thus the mysterious metaphysical problem that plagues Brick is left unresolved.
Near the end of the story, after Brick realizes the impossibility of his summer game and no longer comes to the widow’s house, the narrator says, “The summer had spelled out a word that had no meaning, and the word was now spelled out and, with or without any meaning, there it was, inscribed with as heavy a touch as the signature of a miser on a check or a boy with chalk on a fence.” Any attempt to spell out Brick’s problem, even the attempt the story itself makes, is inadequate to get at the truth of Brick’s ultimately romantic desire for beauty.
Brick’s tragicomic efforts reach a climax one night when he turns on the water sprinkler, takes off his clothes, and rolls about under the cascading arches. No longer a Greek statue, he is a grotesque fountain figure and a clown. This degeneration into what the narrator calls unintentional farce is suggested by a trivial conversation carried on between Mary Louise and her mother about using ice to cool her mosquito bites. An aesthetic game that begins as an effort to transform something hot into something obscure and cool takes place among frozen stylized figures on a cool lawn of a house that itself looks like a block of ice; it finally becomes a banal banter in which the ice is reduced from its symbolic function to the practical utility of cooling Brick’s drinks and easing Mary Louise’s bites.
The narrator learns that when one uses human beings in an effort to play the game of art and reach the beauty and detachment of form, the result is the loss of the human. The beauty of the artwork alone can remain pure, but only because of its inhumanness.
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