Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1168
SOURCE: “Tiger Lilies,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, Summer, 1948, pp. 516–18.
[In the following review of Other Voices, Other Rooms, Young asserts that Capote exhibits “the aura of individuality, of personality, a special atmosphere of thought and style, an attitude toward reality apart from any merely practical problem, character, or situation.”]
The large number of novels, even when well written, bear no qualifications of individuality. Except as to subject matter, one can scarcely be singled out from another. Other Voices, Other Rooms, the first novel by the young Southerner Truman Capote, does bear, in the writing itself, the aura of individuality, of personality, a special atmosphere of thought and style, an attitude toward reality apart from any merely practical problem, character, or situation. This work, like the short stories, is concerned with the extra-marginal, the symbols interloping among otherwise unintelligible experiences, the dreams, memories, perceptions, the fleeting peculiarities of human nature as revelatory of the psychic underworld which all persons inhabit in daylight. Character, problem, situation are secondary to these.
As in his short stories, the author veers away from the common sense world of familiar, tried orientations, utilizing instead data of the psychic underworld, signs, symbols, derangements which, through extension, seem metaphysical, a commentary upon man in space. There is nothing literal, though there is accuracy of observation, a deceptive accuracy. The individual is never the supposed normal but is a confluence of signs. The individual is cloaked in an arabesque of disguises psychologically motivated but not always stated, moving in a world of curved mirrors and distortions from which he cannot be distinguished, as the image reflected or the image of exaggerated deceit may be the only character. The text of moral analysis is thus absent from this amoral work of strange reversals and strange proportions, where the figure of a butterfly may well blot out a man or seem equated with him. But the very absence of such analysis may have its meaning in a mosaic of revelations, contributing, for example, to the hidden thesis that the abnormal does exist and is therefore valid.
Who is the individual person of whom Capote writes methodically, yet adventuresomely? It would be only the naive, most often the purposefully naive, who could dismiss this individual as altogether alien and strange. The individual, according to Capote's view, is not an organized whole so much as he is the aberrant fragment of self, something struck off from the whole, a piece of the unconscious, a single fleeting image in a disturbing mirror and representative of the repressed forces within the human mind which do put on their masquerades in order to mingle with and be indistinct from the legitimate actors on the shadowy stage of life. Bodies are not bodies here so much as they are revelations of some sectors of the mind—as-if people, suddenly betraying impotency, living death, memory, an implausible but actual world hinging on to this—other voices, other rooms. In much writing, we see the legitimate actors and deduce the illegitimate—whereas here, without confusion, the reverse process is taking place. Exotic creatures or creations—they could be winged, but they are not, they are neither cherubim nor birds—step out of the void, are glimpsed, are gone, are melted into the ether which gave them birth. People already dead, some who are heard but not seen, others who are seen but not heard, the young who are old, the old who are young, all seem equated with a spider's tracery in the wind. Some are flesh and blood but still are snow and shadow. Some are personifications of a child's intuitions, forebodings, dreams. Some pertain more to a haunted place than to any one person. Weight is thrown upon the side of the illusory being, perhaps to suggest that there is no other. When cognizance of the real flesh is taken, it is a bitter acknowledgement.
Capote's world is a miniature world but Gothic and spacious in the futurity of its design. It can grow. It is occupied, for the most part, by little people of a delicacy which is monstrous, by children, dream children, midget fading into starlight, doll-like witch jerking as if on strings, old people who are children. Monstrous sensitivity triumphs over monstrous strength to the extent that the small are strong and that the invisible are sometimes visible. In this romantic landscape of the South, the combination of intensely regional and sur-regional occurs as a matter of course, for nature cannot help exceeding itself if closely examined. The ruby-fingered hand of a drowned gambler rising from a still pond proclaims a land of high subjectivity, no boundary between past and present, between possible and impossible, between material and immaterial, between flesh and light. All that goes on is a project of the mental. The most brutal act, rape, is dictated by weakness. Characters continually divide into two parts, either in dream or in reality. The man who was believed to be a man is an ancient belle appearing for a moment in a reality which suddenly takes on the character of a dream. Actually, the situation of Randolph, disguised in a woman's clothing, because it was thus that he wooed his first love, is not far different from that of Mrs. Miller in the short story, “Miriam”—both are schizophrenic personalities, though both are symbolic in their texts and compel a sympathy not related to clinical cases. In “Miriam,” a middle-aged woman has become both herself and a senile, white-haired child—in Other Voices, Other Rooms, a similar demon harasses another by embodying his own consciousness in space. Both emerge from the hidden psychological life as visual objects, real or imaginary.
Other Voices, Other Rooms is thus a continuation of the stories and their concerns. As in The Tree of Night, the accumulated superstitions of childhood are brought into focus and illuminated. Everywhere is a feeling of the idiocy of experience apart from the inner life. Actuality fades as the dream construct grows. Love is equated with death. There are wind movements, ballets in clouds, eyes at every keyhole, voices in empty rooms, little people who are too old, old people who are too young and whose innocence is evil. Everyone is doing, too, a disappearing act. The atmosphere is subtly explosive. Everything takes place at the intersection between two traffic lines, the real and unreal, which then reverse positions as by magic or blend in one streaming track. At any moment, there comes a crucial eruption, incident, or image showing these lines conjoined, inseparable, ever apparent, and that a terrifying potency may inhabit impotent things, and that persons must be considered in terms of images and perceptions other than themselves.
It is not accidental that we have come to “lonesome country; and here in the swamp-like hollows where tiger lilies bloom the size of a man's head, there are luminous green logs that shine under the dark marsh water like drowned corpses. …” For this landscape is also psychic, a mystery.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 888
Truman Capote 1924–-1984
(Born Truman Streckfus Persons) American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, playwright, and scriptwriter.
Capote was one of the most famous and controversial figures in contemporary American literature. The ornate style and dark psychological themes of his early fiction, including the short stories collected in A Tree of Night, and Other Stories (1949), caused critics to categorize him as a Southern Gothic writer. However, other works, including several stories based on his southern childhood, display a humorous and sentimental tone. Throughout his career, Capote's reputation as a major literary talent was rivaled by his notoriety as a flamboyant public personality.
As a celebrity, virtually every aspect of Capote's life became public knowledge, including the details of his troubled childhood. Born in New Orleans, Capote's parents divorced when he was four years old; after the divorce, his mother, Lillie Mae, boarded her son with various relatives in the South while she began a new life in New York with her second husband Cuban businessman Joseph Capote. The young Capote lived mainly with elderly relatives in Monroeville, Alabama, and he later recalled the loneliness and boredom he experienced during this time. When Capote was nine years old, his mother brought him to Manhattan, although she still sent him to the South in the summer. He began to write at an early age, and rather than attend college after completing high school, he pursued a literary career. His first short stories were published in national magazines when he was seventeen, which led to a contract to write his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948).
In the 1950s Capote adopted a more austere approach to his writing, turning his back on traditional fiction. In such work as The Muses Are Heard (1956), a series of articles originally written for The New Yorker, he made his first experiments with combining the techniques of fiction writing with nonfiction reportage, a style then becoming known as New Journalism. His experiments culminated in the 1960s with In Cold Blood (1966), a novelistic account of two psychotics who murdered a family in rural Kansas. This nonfiction novel, while critically controversial because of Capote's unorthodox approach, was a popular success, and Capote became an international celebrity. In the late 1960s, Capote began to suffer from writer's block, a frustrating condition that severely curtailed his creative output. In 1980 his final collection of short prose pieces, Music for Chameleons (1980), was not warmly received by critics. Afterward, Capote succumbed to alcoholism, drug addiction, and poor health. He died shortly before his sixtieth birthday.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Considered a novel by some critics and a novella by others, Other Voices, Other Rooms was a critical and commercial success. Reviewers praised its strange, lyrical evocation of life in a small southern town, as well as the author's frank treatment of his thirteen-year-old protagonist's awakening homosexuality. Capote's early stories, represented in his collection A Tree of Night, were written when he was in his teens and early twenties. They show the influence of such writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty, all of whom are associated to some degree with a Gothic tradition in American literature. Like these authors, as well as the Southern Gothic writers Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor, with whom critics most often compare him, Capote filled his stories with grotesque incidents and characters who suffer from mental and physical abnormalities. Yet Capote did not always use the South as a setting, and the Gothic elements in some of the tales are offset by Capote's humorous tone in others. Critics often place Capote's short fiction into two categories: daylight and nocturnal stories. The daylight stories are written in an engaging conversational style and report the amusing activities of eccentric characters. More common among Capote's early fiction, however, are the nocturnal stories. These are heavily symbolic fables that portray characters in nightmarish situations, threatened by malevolent forces. Frequently in these tales evil is personified as a sinister man, such as the Wizard Man feared by the heroine in “A Tree of Night” or the dream-buyer in “Master Misery.” In other instances iniquity appears as a mysterious figure who represents the darker, hidden side of the protagonist. In later years Capote commented that the Gothic nature of these stories reflected the anxiety and feelings of insecurity he experienced as a child. Indeed, intelligent, lonely children figure in many of the stories. During the 1950s, Capote evoked a mood of sentimentality in such works as the novella Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), which featured his most famous character, Holly Golightly, a beautiful, waiflike young woman living on the fringes of New York society.
From the beginning of his career, Capote's works have been highly publicized and widely reviewed. In order to counter what some critics considered inordinate attention and praise, many commentators, while acknowledging Capote's talent, have stressed his relatively small output and the uneven quality of much of his work. A number of reviewers regarded his early writings as skillfully written, yet somewhat insubstantial. Critics often suggest that Capote wasted his talent on trivial work and squandered his energies on travel, socializing, and high living. Assessing his impact on contemporary literature, most critics portray him as a gifted writer who left behind a small body of intriguing work, but whose potential remained largely unfulfilled.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6420
SOURCE: “The Metaphorical World of Truman Capote,” in Western Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, Summer, 1951, pp. 247–60.
[In the following essay, Aldridge provides a stylistic analysis of Capote's short fiction, contending that the characters in Other Voices, Other Rooms function as metaphors of one another.]
On the face of it, Truman Capote would seem to be just about the most promising new writer we have in America today. Not only is he the most precocious of the group of younger novelists whose first books began attracting attention right after the war, but he has already displayed an idiosyncrasy of vision and temperament which has ended, literarily, in the creation of a world unmistakably his own and, publicly, in the creation of a mythical personality of considerable charm and color. When compared with his contemporaries, Capote at once seems remarkable for his rigid adherence to his personal bias, his refusal merely to be in style. In fact, if one can set aside Jean Stafford, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and Mary McCarthy as belonging to an older literary group and Shirley Jackson and Howard Nemerov as existing somewhat apart from the group that came out of the war, it is possible to say that Capote is the only writer of the new war generation who has remained clear of the journalistic tradition and explored a genre that does not depend simply on the reportage of social manners or of events of strictly topical interest.
Having said this much, I hope I shall not seem to be taking it back if I direct attention to certain elements in Capote's work which, while they may well be attributable to the accident of his precocity, do not seem to promise for him the kind of growth beyond precocity which up to now we may have had reason to expect of him. I think first of what seems to me most distinctive of all that he has written—its quality of isolation. I do not mean the sort we ordinarily associate with Joyce, laboring in Paris to reconstruct his youth in Dublin, or even with Proust, laboring in his cork-lined chambers to reconstruct a past for himself that would justify the death with which he was about to climax it. For both these men isolation was a necessary phase of the creative act. It enabled them to retreat momentarily from the literal business of life so that they could get down to the imaginative business of reentering life through art. The important thing was that they were performing a task of synthesis and interpretation. They had always before them the image of life as they had lived it; in isolation and through a kind of suffering we cannot hope to understand they elevated that image to the highest level of artistic creation.
In Capote one feels not that life has been lived and then laboriously achieved but that life has somehow been missed. Capote's world seems to be a concoction rather than a synthesis. It has a curious easiness about it, as if it had cost nothing to make, as if, really, the parts had all been made separately at some anonymous factory and might have been put together by just anyone. Its purity is not the purity of experience forced under pressure into shape, of painstaking selection and rejection amid a thousand possibilities. Rather, it is the sort that seemingly can be attained only in the isolation of a mind which life has never really violated, in which the image of art has developed to a flowerlike perfection because it has developed alone.
This quality is revealed in the failure of Capote's work to achieve true symbolic realization, a failure which is evident throughout his novel Other Voices, Other Rooms and the stories in his collection A Tree of Night, but which in the latter, because they are stories, takes a somewhat different form than it does in the novel. One can say of the figures in the novel that, if they are not, in the true sense, symbols, they are at least metaphorically related to one another and that, within the limits of this relationship, they illuminate one another. But one can also say that, for such illumination to occur, figures of this sort must share a common context in which they may actively carry out their relations and, through a process of mutual enhancement, become part of a single structure of meaning. When they are transplanted to a series of short stories, each of which represents a distinct and separate context, they, therefore, must necessarily lose their metaphorical function and become, at best, merely images and, at worst, merely ghostly abstractions.
In such a story as “Master Misery,” for example, we encounter in the figure of the sadistic buyer-of-dreams the familiar devil-god of Capote's world. Like Randolph, in the novel, he is intended to represent a sort of power of universal evil to which the will-less individual is hypnotically compelled to give his soul, as Joel is compelled to give up his manhood. We cannot say that either he or Randolph properly symbolizes such a power. But Randolph's plausibility as at least a manifestation of this power is enhanced by the metaphorical support which Idabel, Miss Amy, and Mr. Sansom, as well as the whole haunted world of the Landing itself, are able to give him. At every stage in the development of the narrative, their accumulated meaning serves to fortify his and, finally, to give it a context from which it can never be disengaged for analysis. Master Misery, on the other hand, is eternally isolated by the form in which he is presented. Outside the novel context, with its multiplicity of characters and its thick fabric of interacting themes, he is deprived of metaphorical support and revealed as merely the inert projection of a horror whose namelessness is all too analysable.
The same is true of the terrible little girl named Miriam. She is another stock Capote type—the witch-child whose behavior is horrifying because it has behind it both the innocence of the very young and the awful cunning of a brilliant demented adult. Thousands of readers have been enchanted by Miriam as well as by her prototypes Miss Bobbit in “Children on Their Birthdays,” Appleseed in “Jug of Silver,” and D.J. in “The Headless Hawk.” They have derived such a delicious sensation of evil from her that they have willingly mistaken it for the precise schematization of evil which she is intended, but clearly fails, to become. A soberer reading discloses no evidence to indicate that she is anything more than the momentary aberration of a lonely old woman.
It is interesting to see to what a large extent the power of Capote's stories depends upon the clever use of supernatural and aberrational devices and how quickly that power is dissipated as soon as one becomes conscious of them as devices. In the title story of the collection, for example, a college girl, returning to school by train, finds herself sharing a coach seat with a pair of carnival performers. The woman is a hard-drinking, crazy-eyed witch; and the man is a professional zombie and hypnotist who lives in a perpetual trance. As the story progresses, the woman plies the girl with cheap gin and fantastic stories of carnival life; while the man, with appropriately obscene gestures, keeps holding out to her a love charm in the form of a shellacked peach seed. Finally, although she struggles frantically to escape, the girl succumbs to the evil spell which the couple have cast upon her and, as the story ends, looks helplessly on while they take away her purse and pull her raincoat “like a shroud above her head.”
Here the devices are used to give shock value to material which is without inherent dramatic or symbolic value. We know nothing about the girl beyond the fact that she becomes the victim of some hallucinatory intrigue; and we know nothing about the perpetrators of the intrigue beyond the fact that they are grotesque. But to have the sort of visceral reaction to the story which we are compelled to have if we are to have any reaction at all, these two facts are all we need to know. The girl's plight becomes a substitute for a fully motivated, truly meaningful experience; and the grotesqueness of the couple becomes a substitute for an incisive portrayal of a truly meaningful criminality.
The theme of Other Voices, Other Rooms is a boy's search for a father; but it is not Telemachus's search for Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus's for Bloom, or even Eugene Gant's for W.O. It is literally and permanently Joel Knox' search for one Edward R. Sansom or, as it turns out, for some suitable substitute. If we are prepared to accept this fact at all, then we shall be prepared to accept the novel for what it is and for all that it is and not for what we should like it on every page to become. For there can be no doubt that, viewed within these limits, the novel comes alive with metaphorical suggestiveness; and it is possible to appreciate the skill with which Capote has expanded his theme through metaphor rather than through symbol into a complex pattern of psychological and moral action.
Joel's search for Edward Sansom, the blood-father whom he has never seen, is a parallelism of his struggle to grow out of the dream-world of childhood and to enter the real world of manhood. His discovery of Sansom, lying paralysed in the center of the paralysis of Scully's Landing, and his subsequent rejection of Sansom as unreal, as literally not existing, is a parallelism of his rejection of the real state of manhood and prepares the way for his acceptance of Cousin Randolph as a homosexual father-substitute. Randolph, with his nightmare history, his obsession with dolls and dead bluejays, and his female impersonations, is as unreal as the fantastic creations of Joel's dream-world—Mr. Mystery and Annie Rose Kuppermann. But once he has rejected his true father as unreal, Joel is left with no alternative but to accept Randolph, and through him homosexuality, as real.
The novel is divided into three parts, each part corresponding to a crucial phase in Joel's development toward the moment of this acceptance. Part I has to do with his arrival at the Landing and his efforts to escape its influence; Part II with the gradual reduction of his power to escape; and Part III with his surrender to Randolph. In each part the change being effected in Joel is demonstrated in terms of concrete events; and all the parts are tied together with key metaphors that define the various shifts in theme and setting. Thus, when in Part I Joel takes leave of the real world, represented by the garishness of Noon City, and enters the unreal world of the Landing, the transition is shown to be from daylight to darkness, with Joel falling asleep in the back of Jesus Fever's wagon and entering the house as if in a dream. Then in Part III, after Joel has tried and failed to escape, the process is reversed; he loses his sense of the unreality of the Landing while lying in a coma; and when he awakens he discovers that the unreal has become the real. The transition this time is from darkness (the night of the Carnival episode) to daylight (morning in the sick room several weeks later).
The bluejay which Miss Amy kills in Joel's room on the morning after his arrival functions in much the same way. As it flutters against the window in an effort to escape, it becomes a metaphor of Joel struggling to shake off the influence of the Landing. And by the time it reappears, at the end of Part II, as merely a lifelike arrangement of feathers on Randolph's worksheet, Joel has arrived at a point where he is no longer capable of escape. Like the bird he has been changed from a living thing with a free existence in a real world into a dead prisoner in an unreal world.
A similar device is the old bell that lies in the garden outside the house. At the end of Chapter II Joel catches his first glimpse of Randolph standing at an upstairs window in his disguise of the beautiful lady. In his astonishment Joel staggers back against the bell; and it emits “one raucous cracked note” as if in derision at what is taking place. Then at the end of the book while Joel is waiting in the same spot in the garden, he sees the figure of the lady once again, knows it for what it is, and responds to its beckoning. This time there is “a sound as if a bell had suddenly tolled, and the shape of loneliness, greenly iridescent, whitely indefinite, seemed to rise from the garden. …” Now the sound of the bell is imagined; but it seems loud and serious, as if it were tolling the news of a victory; for Joel has finally put the real world and his hope of manhood behind him and accepted the comfort and love of Randolph.
The events of the narrative naturally form a literal record of all that happens to Joel. Yet most of them function at the same time as figuratively as these other devices. In fact, so thoroughly is the material of the novel suffused with thematic meaning that it becomes impossible, and probably pointless, to separate figure from event. In Part I, Joel's struggle to escape the Landing is centered in three events, each of which has a figurative significance.
The first occurs during Jesus Fever's Sunday service shortly after Joel's arrival at the Landing. As the excitement of the ceremony reaches a climax, Zoo, who has been dancing, discards the red ribbon she wears around her throat and reveals the scar left by Keg Brown's razor.
It was as though a brutal hawk had soared down and clawed away Joel's eyelids, forcing him to gape at her throat. Zoo. Maybe she was like him, and the world had a grudge against her too. But christamighty he didn't want to end up with a scar like that. … He leaped off the stump, and made for the house, his loosened shirttail flying behind; run, run, run, his heart told him, and wham! he'd pitched headlong into a briar patch. …
Joel's identification of himself with Zoo is important for two reasons: he sees in her an intimation of what is to happen to him if he remains at the Landing (they are both destined to be its victims), and because of his fright at seeing the physical evidence of her suffering he is rendered less capable than he might have been of taking action to free himself.
The second incident occurs on the evening of the same day as Joel is questioning Randolph and Miss Amy about the ghostly lady he has seen at the window. Miss Amy, knowing of Randolph's penchant for this particular disguise, is on the verge of giving away the secret when Randolph kicks her under the table. The effect on the neurotic woman is instantaneous and, to Joel, terrifying:
… she jerked back as though lightning had rocked the chair and, shielding her eyes with the gloved hand, let out a pitiful wail: ‘Snake a snake I thought it was a snake bit me crawled under the table bit me foot you fool never forgive bit me my heart a snake!’ repeated over and over the words began to rhyme, to hum from wall to wall where giant moth shadows jittered. …
Joel went all hollow inside, he thought he was going to wee wee right there in his breeches, and he wanted to hop up and run, just as he had at Jesus Fever's. Only he couldn't run, not this time. …
After the nightmare events of the day Joel is too paralysed to move. Already he has begun to slip into that state of passive receptivity which is later to send him to Randolph; although at this point he is still able to distinguish between the real and the outlandish.
The third incident is a logical development of the first two: as they have paralysed Joel emotionally, so this one makes it clear that he is paralysed physically. He has written letters to his Aunt Ellen expressing his hatred of the Landing and asking her to help him get away. He has put the letters in the mailbox and then gone to visit Idabel and her sister. Upon his return he stops at the box and discovers that the letters are gone. The postman has not taken them because the postage money is lying in the dust under the box. Joel realizes for the first time that he is being kept a prisoner at the Landing and has been cut off from all contact with the real world outside. As he starts back to the house, he hears the sound of gunfire as someone shoots at the chicken hawks circling overhead. Like the bluejay and himself, they are free beings who must be drawn down into the paralysis of the Landing and destroyed. They are also, like his letters, potential agents of interference which constitute a threat to the security of those who depend on the imprisonment of others.
In Part II the emphasis shifts from Joel's struggle to preserve himself from the Landing to his struggle to preserve his masculinity. Interestingly enough, although it is in this section that his masculinity becomes identified with the idea of his father and its loss with his rejection of his father, Joel's conflict is really with the tomboy Idabel. With an evil innocence comparable to that of Henry James's terrible children, she begins to undermine the confidence on which Joel's manhood rests some time before he brings himself to commit the act of paternal denial that is to release him to Randolph.
The process begins shortly after Joel has seen his father for the first time and realized that the hopelessly paralysed invalid can be of no help to him. As if to erase the shock of the encounter from his mind, he goes with Idabel to fish and swim in the creek. There, as they lie in self-conscious nakedness on the bank, Idabel confesses her loneliness; and Joel suddenly sees that her tough exterior is merely a defense and that beneath it she is really very much like himself. Overcome with tenderness for her, he kisses her on the cheek. Instead of responding to his mood, Idabel reverts at once to her old self, grabs him by the hair, and throws him on the ground. As they struggle together, he falls back on her dark glasses and crushes them. At this Idabel's anger quickly subsides; and when she speaks again, it is as if nothing had happened. “And, indefinably, it was as if nothing had; neither of course would ever be able to explain why they had fought.”
The reason is obvious, however, if we relate the incident to all that has led up to it. Idabel has fought to regain the defenses which she let down in her moment of confession and which she must have if she is to dominate her environment and survive within it. Joel has fought to regain his masculine position which was threatened, first, by Randolph, second, by the paralysis of his father, and now by Idabel. The breaking of the glasses ends the struggle for Idabel because the glasses have been an essential part of her defenses—“everything looks a lot prettier” through them—and she is temporarily lost without them. It ends the struggle for Joel not only because the broken bits of glass have cut him but because he realizes that, by having caused the breakage, he has somehow seriously wronged Idabel and, by having fought with her, has somehow defeated himself.
A similar incident occurs a short time later. Joel is reading to his father when he hears Idabel whistle for him to come outside. Although he is supposed to go on reading, he has become so convinced of his father's unreality—“Certainly this Mr. Sansom was not his father. This Mr. Sansom was nobody but a pair of crazy eyes.”—that he leaves him and, stopping just long enough to buckle on the sword Zoo has given him, hurries down to Idabel. Perhaps because she has lost her glasses, Idabel seems oddly feminine—“all the rough spirit seemed to have drained from her voice. Joel felt stronger than she, and sure of himself as he'd never been with the other Idabel, the tomboy.” With her defenses gone, she has lost her dominion over her environment: at home she has had trouble with her sister Florabel; and her father has threatened to shoot her dog Henry because “Florabel … says Henry's got a mortal disease. …” As they walk toward the creek, she proposes that they run away; and Joel is struck once again by the change in her—“if it had been anyone but Idabel, Joel would've thought she was making up to him.” For the first time their relationship seems almost normal; and Joel has a sense of masculine power he has not had since just before their fight on the creek bank. But it is to last only for a moment. As they start across the creek on an old board with Joel leading the way, they suddenly see directly in front of them a huge snake lying coiled and ready to strike. Once again Joel is too paralysed to move. He stands there wavering, holding his sword helplessly in his hand, the imagined sting of the snake's bite already hot on his body. But Idabel acts. She pulls the sword out of his hand, swings it, and “the cottonmouth slapped into the air, turned, plunged, flattened on the water: belly up, white and twisted, it was carried by the current like a torn lily root.”
The scene is important for several reasons. It is, first of all, another instance of humiliation for Joel. Secondly, it makes explicit the identification of his manhood with his father: the snake's eyes are like Mr. Sansom's; and it is because of this that Joe is so frightened, for the eyes remind him of his sin. He has deserted his father to come with Idabel; and he has gradually come to deny the existence of his father as his attraction toward Randolph has grown stronger. Thirdly, there is the metaphorical use of the sword and snake images. Because of his failure to use the sword, Joel has disgraced not only his own manhood but that of his ancestor, the original owner of the sword. And because Idabel has killed the snake in the midst of his fear, she has figuratively killed his manhood, his father, and, as is later evident, all maleness in her world.
Viewed in these terms the climaxing scene of the novel—the Carnival episode and the encounter with Miss Wisteria—can be taken as a dramatic presentation of the sexual paralysis Idabel has induced in Joel. The Carnival itself, with its whirling ferris-wheel lights and bursting rockets, is a nightmare catalyst that destroys Joel's sense of reality and prepares him to accept as real the world of the Landing and Randolph; while the midget Miss Wisteria is the embodiment of female temptation, Joel's last chance to find reality in a normal sex relationship. Significantly, it is his vision of Randolph standing beneath the ferris-wheel that prevents Joel from responding to Miss Wisteria's advances; just as it is the violent rainstorm coming a moment later that separates him from Idabel and prevents their escape.
In the deserted house in which he has sought shelter from the storm, Joel has a brief insight into his predicament. It is not Randolph alone that he fears, he tells himself, but Randolph in the person of “a messenger for a pair of telescopic eyes.” Once again it seems to Joel that the eyes of his father are everywhere, accusing him of shameful desertion and even, perhaps, of patricide. But what he does not realize is that his fear of Randolph as a “messenger” and his sense of having, at least mentally, destroyed his father are one and the same thing. The very fact that it was the image of Randolph and not the image of his father who came to him is evidence that Randolph has won out over his father in the struggle for Joel's love. And because Randolph has won, because Joel has chosen him to win, he must appear as a messenger of his father's anger; for his appearance is made possible only after the father has been forsaken.
And now that he has finally accepted Randolph, Joel finds it impossible to respond to the pathetic entreaties of Miss Wisteria as she searches for him through the rooms of the empty house.
… he dared not show himself, for what she wanted he could not give: his love was in the earth, shattered and still, dried flowers where eyes should be, and moss upon the lips, his love was faraway feeding on the rain, lilies frothing from its ruin.
To Joel the door leading to the real world, to manhood and the love of woman, is closed forever. He has been arrested in childhood, led back into the secret “other rooms” of the Landing, where the unreality of dream-life and the reality of life lived in a dream merge and become indistinguishable.
The awakening of Joel from a coma induced by the Carnival experience opens Part III and prepares us for two discoveries that have ironic bearing on his development through the preceding episodes. The first is that Zoo, the daughter of the ancient Negro Jesus Fever, who had left the Landing right after her father's death to find a new life in Washington, D.C., has returned during Joel's illness. When he sees her again, he hardly recognizes her for the gay and optimistic person who was kind to him when he first came to the Landing.
How small she seemed, cramped, as if some reduction of the spirit had taken double toll and made demands upon the flesh; with that illusion of height was gone the animal grace, arrow-like dignity, defiant emblem of her separate heart.
Zoo, during her brief excursion into the outside world, has had an experience as destructive and humiliating as Joel's with Idabel and Randolph. On her way to Washington she was stopped on the road by several men and brutally raped. Like Joel, she has been crucified at the very moment of salvation; and all the hope and illusion that sustained her while she waited for her father to die has been crushed out of her. Now she too has come back to the Landing and accepted its paralysis as the only possibility left to her.
The second discovery is that Idabel has succeeded in escaping to freedom. In a postcard to Joel she says:
Mrs. Collie [frac12] sister and hes the baptis prechur Last Sunday I past the plate at church! papa and F shot henry They put me to life here. why did you Hide? write to IDABEL THOMPKINS.
But Joel doesn't believe her: “she'd put herself to life, and it was with Miss Wisteria, not a baptis prechur.” This, then, is the supreme irony. Like Joel and Zoo, Idabel has fought for freedom; but even though she, alone of them all, has actually found it, she has allowed herself to become imprisoned in a relationship with Miss Wisteria that is as unnatural as that between Joel and Randolph. Joel in his search for manhood has become pervertedly feminine; Idabel in her search for a dominant womanhood has become pervertedly masculine; and Zoo in her search for the normal love of men has been pervertedly violated by them.
The really important event in Part III, however, is Joel's and Randolph's trip to Cloud Hotel, the home of the hermit Little Sunshine. The hotel, with its fantastic, haunted history and picturesque decay, is a microcosm of the entire world of the Landing. Like Randolph's house, which is slowly sinking into the earth, it represents the way of life to which all the characters, either willingly or unwillingly, are committed. Randolph, Miss Amy, Mr. Sansom, Jesus Fever, and Little Sunshine have nearly always belonged. Years before they turned away from the real world of the present and found refuge in the phantasmal world of the past—Randolph in his lost love for Pepe Alvarez, Miss Amy in the baroque manners of a dead culture, Mr. Sansom in the literal cessation of time that accompanies paralysis, Jesus Fever and Little Sunshine in misty memories of their years of aristocratic service. Joel, Idabel, and Zoo have all learned or been forced to belong. The Landing has conquered them as decay has conquered the hotel. It has even turned their struggles for freedom to its own advantage, so that they have not only been imprisoned but maimed in the process.
And as Joel follows Randolph and Little Sunshine through the hotel, seeing the crumbling furniture—“Swan stairs soft with mildewed carpet curved upward from the hotel's lobby; the diabolic tongue of a cuckoo bird, protruding out of a wall-clock, mutely proclaiming an hour forty years before, and on the room clerk's splintery desk stood dehydrated specimens of potted palm.”—imagining the scenes of long ago when the huge old rooms were alive with “the humming heel-clatter of girls, the bored snores of fat fathers … the lilt of fans tapped in tune, and the murmur of gloved hands as the musicians, like bridegrooms in their angel-cake costumes, rise to take a bow,” it seems to him that the moment which all his experience at the Landing has prepared him for has finally arrived.
… all day, after the weeks in bed, it had been as if he were bucking a whirlpool, and now lullabyed to the bone with drowsy warmth, he let go, let the rivering fire sweep him over its fall. …
The last of his resistance has now slipped away; the struggle for freedom has ended; and the Landing and the hotel have become the world, all the world there will ever be. And when, after they return to the Landing, Randolph appears once again at his window in the disguise of the beautiful lady, Joel is waiting to respond to his beckoning:
She beckoned to him, shining and silver, and he knew he must go; unafraid, not hesitating, he paused only at the garden's edge where, as though he'd forgotten something, he stopped and looked back at the bloomless, descending blue, at the boy he had left behind.
I suggested earlier that Capote's achievement, for all its brilliance, is an achievement in the skilled use of metaphor rather than symbol; and I implied that such an achievement is necessarily of smaller scope than, for instance, Conrad's in Victory. It seems to me that we have a right to ask of a novel that it stand in some meaningful relation to recognizable life; we have a right, that is, to ask that the characters resemble or in some way illuminate human beings and that their situation in some way connote or enlarge upon the human situation. It is, of course, true that Capote's novel is, by its very nature, the product of the disappearance of those common assumptions of value by which writers have traditionally been able to get such illumination into their books. It is no longer possible for a writer to take it for granted that his audience will share his view of life or even that his audience will comprehend his view of life. But it was beginning to be no longer possible when Conrad wrote Victory, Joyce wrote Ulysses, and Forster wrote A Passage to India. Yet these men were able to infuse their novels with a significance that persistently transcended the specific characters and situations about which they wrote. We read Victory and we read a chapter from the moral history of modern man; we read Ulysses and we read an ironic satire on the petty heroism of modern man; we read A Passage to India and we read a tragedy on the evil that is in all men; and we are reading, at the same time, the stories of Axel Heyst, Leopold Bloom, and Dr. Aziz. It was not black magic that enabled these writers to get such meaning into their books. It was the highly organized use of symbolism upon material specifically created to be symbolically suggestive. And it is the absence of such material in Other Voices, Other Rooms that renders it simply the metaphorically reinforced story of Joel Knox.
We cannot say that Conrad, Joyce, and Forster were appreciably nearer to value than Capote is; but we can say that they were infinitely nearer to life, and that, being nearer, they were able to make full use of all the equipment they could muster to give it meaning. All of them had to create a private world just as Capote has had to do; but they took great pains to see that it did not remain private, even if, to make sure, they had to go back in time to ancient Greece or as far from contemporary London and Paris as Chandrapore and Samburan. Their achievement, founded on the deepest insight into life and thus fortified by myth and distance, communicated insight into life and took on the universality of myth; while Capote's achievement, founded on a technical skill largely divorced from insight, communicates no insight beyond that which it affords into its own parts.
The difference between the two is essentially the difference between symbol and metaphor. A symbol ordinarily refers to a thing, a person, or, most often, an idea that exists in a context other than its own, as do the symbols in Victory. A character in a novel may symbolize mankind, evil, sin, or death; but he may not symbolize another character in the same novel. He may, however, serve as a metaphor of another character, and through ironic juxtaposition or contrast, enrich or enliven that character as he in turn is enriched and enlivened. A metaphor, this is to say, functions only within a given context; its meaning spreads horizontally through the area in which it is created, not vertically above or beneath it; and it remains in action as a live agent of meaning only so long as the material of which it is a part is in the process of carrying out and completing the idea or theme which originally set it in motion. Once the immediate requirements of the narrative have been satisfied, it ceases to function. A symbol, on the other hand, only begins to fulfill its true function after the action has ceased. It begins, then, to build outward and downward toward all those varieties of meaning which the action in its passage has suggested.
As I have attempted to make clear in my analysis, the characters in Other Voices, Other Rooms repeatedly function as metaphors of one another. Idabel, Zoo, and Miss Wisteria are metaphors of Joel; Jesus Fever and Little Sunshine of Randolph and Miss Amy; Jesus Fever and Idabel's father of Mr. Sansom; and, of course, in each case the relationship is reciprocal, so that the metaphor and the person metaphorized are mutually enhanced. The various other devices such as the bluejay, the hawks, the snake, the hanged mule, and Cloud Hotel are also metaphors. The first four are like Joel: they demonstrate his predicament. Cloud Hotel is like the Landing and the people of the Landing: it is a physical representation of the decayed past to which Randolph, Miss Amy, and the others are dedicated.
But even though, taken together, the characters and the devices produce a world, they do not produce a world of external significance. They belong to the special illusion Capote has created; outside it, they do nothing and are nothing. If we refuse to accept them on these terms, if for a moment we shake off the dream and open our eyes, then the spell is broken and the real world rushes in upon us. The real world should, by rights, be part of the illusion; but it is not and cannot be. The tennis balls, the beautiful lady, the hanged mule, the bluejay, the dwarfed Miss Wisteria, the neurotic Idabel are the phantasmal contents of the nightmare in which, for a little while, we allow ourselves to be lost. But having once awakened and looked about us, we see that, really, for all its intensity and horror, the thing was never there at all.
Capote is, of course, by no means alone in his use of this kind of deception. Shirley Jackson in a great many of the stories in The Lottery and Paul Bowles in his novel The Sheltering Sky repeatedly resort to it. It is simply one method of making fiction possible in a time when writers are finding it increasingly hard to give dramatic and symbolic importance to human behavior in social and moral terms. Miss Jackson's daemon lover James Harris is undoubtedly a compensation for the lack of a suitable means of making mere earthly love presentable; and certainly the bizarre violence of Mr. Bowles's Africa serves in the novel to replace the motivation which Bowles could not find in Kit and Port Moresby. By presenting characters in the grip of some supernatural spell, one is able to suggest that the motives behind their behavior are unknowable, irrational, and, hence, irrelevant; and by presenting them in the grip of violence, one is able to divert the reader's attention from the inadequacy of their motives to the shocking circumstances which surround them.
But Capote cannot be absolved of blame simply because he shares it with his time and some of his contemporaries. The truth is that his great dependency on these devices is indicative of one of his gravest limitations as an artist. He is capable of evoking a world of mystery and fantasy and of endowing it with grotesque creations of true imaginative splendor. But he has so far shown himself incapable of endowing it with the kind of significance which one expects to find in literature of the first order.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 91
Other Voices, Other Rooms (novella) 1948
A Tree of Night, and Other Stories 1949
Breakfast at Tiffany's (novella) 1958
Selected Writings 1963
The Thanksgiving Visitor 1967
Music for Chameleons 1980
A Capote Reader 1987
Local Color (travel essays) 1950
The Grass Harp (novel) 1951
The Grass Harp (drama) 1952
Beat the Devil [adaptor; from a novel by Thomas Helvick] (screenplay) 1954
House of Flowers [with Harold Arlen] (musical drama) 1954
The Muses Are Heard (nonfiction) 1956
In Cold Blood: A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences (nonfiction novel) 1966
The Dogs Bark: Public People and Private Places (essays) 1973
Answered Prayers (unfinished novel) 1987
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6416
SOURCE: “Truman Capote: The Revelation of the Broken Image,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 34, No. 4, Autumn, 1958, pp. 600–17.
[In the following essay, Levine perceives Capote as a writer who deftly explores “the dichotomy in the world between good and evil, the daylight and the nocturnal, man and nature, and between the internal and external manifestation of things.”]
The inclusion of Truman Capote in any discussion that pretends to be at most scholarly and at least literary is usually frowned upon by the more stern-faced of our critics. The mention of his name conjures up images of a wispish, effete soul languishing on an ornate couch, emitting an ether of preciousness and very little else. The reaction to the amazing success of his early books, Other Voices, Other Rooms and A Tree of Night, has relegated Capote to the position of a clever, cute, coy, commercial, and definitely minor figure in contemporary literature, whose reputation has been built less on a facility of style than on an excellent advertising campaign. Even an earnest supporter would have to admit that Capote's stories tiptoe the tenuous line between the precious and the serious.
Yet the attacks on Capote seem more personal than literary. Critics like John Aldridge—whose essay appears in After the Lost Generation, a book that generally has little good to say about anyone (except Mr. Aldridge)—have blatantly confused the author's private life with his literary ability. The notion—as fantastic as any of Capote's stories—that Capote's style comes too easily is an excellent example. Not only is the banner of the tortured writer rather tattered by now but in Capote's case the charge of a “natural style” is false. His first stories—“These Walls Are Cold” and “The Shape of Things”—are written in the painfully realistic prose associated with those young writers in transition from the Saturday Evening Post to the New Yorker. Moreover, Capote is really no more precocious than a number of our outstanding writers. J. D. Salinger published his first story at twenty-one and Carson McCullers had written two novels before she was twenty-four. As with the legend surrounding Fitzgerald, critics have a difficult time discerning Capote from his work, a slight not only to the author but to the critic. Mr. Capote is no more an enfant terrible than Mr. Aldridge is.
Perhaps the most frequent criticism leveled at Capote's work is that he is limited in scope and remote from life. While it is true that Capote writes fantastic and grotesque stories, it is not necessarily true that these stories, because of their genre, must be remote from life. In many ways, Capote has chosen the most universal medium in which to present his thematic material, because the genre of the fantasy, evolving from the day dream, the fairy tale, and the tall tale, is among the oldest and most elemental of fictional forms.
While we must acknowledge Capote's admission that “style is the mirror of an artist's sensibility—more so than the content of his work,” we must also recognize that there is no dearth of content in his work. To understand that content fully we must first posit some very elemental points, because Capote is to a great extent an erudite writer about primal things. At the heart of his writing is the dichotomy in the world between good and evil, the daylight and the nocturnal, man and nature, and between the internal and external manifestation of things. As Harry Levin has pointed out in a different context:
This takes us back to the very beginning of things, the primal darkness, the void that God shaped by creating light and dividing night from day. That division underlies the imagery of the Bible from Genesis to the Apocalypse, and from the word of life to the shadow of death. It is what differentiates the children of light from the children of darkness in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
… But all religions, in accounting for the relation of the earth to the sun and for the diurnal and seasonal cycles, seem to posit some dichotomy, such as the Yin and the Yang of the Orient or the twin paths of the Bhagavad-Gita.
The dichotomy of good and evil exists in each Capote character just as the dichotomy of daylight and nighttime exists in the aggregate of his stories. We might almost say that Capote's stories inhabit two worlds—that of the realistic, colloquial, often humorous daytime and that of the dreamlike, detached, and inverted nocturnal world. This double identity must be viewed with a double vision because Capote's stories can be interpreted either psychologically or as an expression of a spiritual or moral problem. In either case, whether the story be realistic or fantastic, the central focus is on the moment of initiation and the central character is either adolescent or innocent.
One way to distinguish the daylight from the nocturnal tales is to note the hero's position in relation to his private world and the public world. In the daylight stories the movement is out towards the world while in the darker tales the hero tends to move away from the world and in towards his inner Id or soul or imagination. In the daylight variety, there is a tension between the hero and his society which resolves itself often in a humorous and always in a creative or imaginative way. All these stories are told in the first person but none of them tries to move into the character's psyche or soul. The focus, instead, is on the surfaces, the interest and humor deriving from the situation and the action.
The realism in these daylight stories seems to evolve from Capote's early pieces, printed in Decade Magazine. But the warmth, humor, and ease of style lacking in these surface stories is picked up in “My Side of the Matter,” which closely resembles Eudora Welty's “Why I Live at the P. O.” in its colloquial use of language. This slim tale of a minor skirmish between a young, beleaguered hero and his querulous in-laws is slight in comparison to the later “Jug of Silver” and “Children on Their Birthdays.” Both of these stories are markedly similar in that they are concerned with extraordinary, almost supernatural children. The hero of the first story, Appleseed, is blessed with a kind of extrasensory power for determining the amount of money in a jar filled with silver: a power acquired from being born with a caul over his head.
Similarly, the heroine of Capote's most perfect story in the daylight genre, “Children on Their Birthdays,” is a precocious child with an uncanny power. Like Cousin Lymon in Carson McCullers' “Ballad of the Sad Cafe,” Miss Bobbit comes to a new town and disrupts its whole pattern of living with her awesome brand of animal magnetism. From her first appearance, grotesquely made up like an adult and sporting a parasol, Miss Bobbit impresses as a fantastic mixture of innocence and experience, morality and pragmatism. She sings like Sophie Tucker, dances like Gypsy Rose Lee, and possesses the business acumen of a Polly Adler. Miss Bobbit doesn't go to church because she finds the odor there offensive but she adds:
“I don't want you to think I'm a heathen, Mr. C; I've had enough experience to know that there is a God and that there is a Devil. But the way to tame the Devil is not to go down there to church and listen to what a sinful mean fool he is. No, love the Devil like you do Jesus: because he is a powerful man, and will do you a good turn if he knows you trust him. He has frequently done me good turns, like at dancing school in Memphis. … I always called in the Devil to help me get the biggest part in our annual show. That is common sense; you see, I knew Jesus wouldn't have any truck with dancing. Now, as a matter of fact, I have called in the Devil just recently. He is the only one who can help me get out of this town. Not that I live here, not exactly. I think always about somewhere else, somewhere else where everything is dancing, like people dancing in the streets, and everything is pretty, like children on their birthdays. My precious papa said I live in the sky, but if he'd lived more in the sky he'd be rich like he wanted to be. The trouble with my papa was he did not love the Devil, he let the Devil love him. But I am very smart in that respect; I know the next best thing is very often the best.”
It is necessary to distinguish here between the hero in the two worlds of day and night. Notice that the mana-laden child is the hero in the stories discussed so far, while this same figure becomes the shadowy antagonist in Capote's nocturnal stories. Instead, the protagonist becomes an impotent Prufrock, a character to whom things happen. Yet the relationship between the antagonist and the protagonist is ambiguous: one seems the alter ego of the other. The uncanny power in the daylight hero is a creative force—the manifestation of the imagination. In the nocturnal stories the hero is forced to come to grips with the destructive element—the power of blackness which resides in each of us. The confrontation of the psyche leads to the exposure of the constructive and destructive elements: the wish for death and the wish for life.
In Capote's nocturnal stories the movement out into the world becomes simultaneously the movement into the self. John Aldridge has compared Capote's novel Other Voices, Other Rooms unfavorably to Joseph Conrad's Victory. The comparison between the two writers is a just, almost obvious one when used in a different context. If we juxtapose Conrad's Heart of Darkness with any Capote twilight story, it becomes immediately apparent that the structures are the same. In Conrad's story, Marlowe moves into the heart of the dark continent at the same time he moves into the heart of his own subconscious or soul. In reality, the two movements are the same. The same idea occurs in Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky, in which two Americans move into the primitive Arab world and the primal inner world simultaneously. Similarly, each Capote nocturnal hero must face a fiendish form of mana, an external force, and his inner guilt. The relationship in all cases is the same: there is an inescapable fascination with the outer and inner faces of evil. The moment of initiation, the shock of recognition, comes when the hero discovers that the two are the same: the mana which confronted him was an external manifestation of his inner identity. The dichotomy then is not only between the two worlds but between the two faces of each world: the constructive and the destructive.
The story of initiation is the search for identity. For instance, in “Master Misery,” one of Capote's favorites by his own admission, his heroine, Sylvia, is caught between the outside world represented by her insensitive girlhood friend, Estelle, and the impersonal, mechanical Santa Clauses in store windows, and the personal world of her own dreams. In an attempt to escape the outside world, Sylvia sells her dreams to the anonymous Master Misery, only to discover that she has not escaped the outer world but only lost the inner.
Sylvia is befriended by Oreilly, a used-up clown with no more dreams to sell, who squints one eye and says: “I don't believe in Jesus Christ, but I do believe in people's souls; and I figure it this way, baby; dreams are the mind of the soul and the secret truth about us.” When Oreilly leaves her with a smile to go “travelling in the blue” where “the best old pie is whiskeyberry pie” and not “loveberry pie,” Sylvia is left completely alone, having lost her dreams and her friend:
I do not know what I want, and perhaps I shall never know, but my only wish from every star will always be another star; and truly I am not afraid, she thought. Two boys came out of a bar and stared at her; in some park some long time ago she'd seen two boys and they might be the same. Truly I am not afraid, she thought, hearing their snowy footsteps following after her: and anyway, there was nothing left to steal.
In no other nocturnal story is the reader as conscious of the tension between the individual and society. Sylvia, in attempting to escape from society, discovers that the destructive element comes from within. Master Misery is himself a bogey man that “all mothers tell their kids about”: a force outside the self and yet an extension of the self. Sylvia's surrender at the end of the story is not to society but to the dark side of her soul, the destructive element which dominates when the creative imagination is exhausted. In this lies the idea that the creative imagination of the dream world is the one thing by which the individual is identified; the surrender of identity and of the creative force is the acquiescence to the death wish.
The differences between the lighter and darker sides of Capote's writing come out more clearly in one of his most famous stories, “Miriam.” In it, an old woman, Mrs. Miller, is haunted by a striking and uncanny child who is her namesake—Miriam. The story shows how Miriam moves in and takes over Mrs. Miller's home, person, and life. The plot is similar to “Children on Their Birthdays” and “Jug of Silver”: an uncanny child upsets the equilibrium of the drab routine of living. Miriam is in many ways similar to Miss Bobbit and we may almost think of her as that remarkable child's darker sister. But in “Miriam” there are some significant differences from the daylight stories, most important of which is the withdrawal from the outside world, a movement from the relationship of self to society to a confrontation of the self by the self in which Miriam becomes an uncanny device—a result of mana and projection. In fact, Miriam stands as the primal alter ego to Mrs. Miller: an extension of her destructive, unconscious instinct. The withdrawal from the outer world is accompanied by a complementary shift in style; the clarity and realism of “Children” is replaced by a filmy and surreal style in which Miriam's fingers “made cobweb movements over the plate, gathering the crumbs.”
The hero's encounter with, and surrender to, mana is perhaps most richly stated in the inverted story, “The Headless Hawk,” in which an extraordinary young girl, half child, half adult, innocent, experienced, demented, homicidal, naïve, and primitive, invades the sterile life of a young failure on the fringes of the art world. Vincent is “a poet who had never written poetry, a painter who had never painted, a lover who had never loved (absolutely)—someone, in short, without direction and quite headless. Oh, it wasn't that he hadn't tried—good beginnings, always, bad endings, always … a man in the sea, fifty miles from shore; a victim, born to be murdered, either by himself or another; an actor unemployed.” Vincent falls under the spell of a demented young girl, D. J., whose painting of a headless hawk hovering over a headless body—a vivid symbol of his own disconnectedness—forces on Vincent “a note of inward recognition.” Vincent takes the girl as his mistress because she recalls from his past his incurable fascination with carnival freaks and because “it was true that about those he loved there was always a little something wrong, broken.” D. J. thus becomes a mirror of his own disconnected self into which he can retreat. He shuns all his old friends because he does not know how to explain his relationship with the grotesque young girl.
However, Vincent's immersion in D. J. takes a sharp turn when he discovers her obsession with a Mr. Destronelli, a shadowy figure out of her past who she is sure will kill her. When Vincent discovers her dementia he knows he must betray her in favor of his old life, just as he had betrayed his other lovers, just as “he'd betrayed himself with talents unexploited, voyages never taken, promises unfulfilled … why in his lovers must he always find the broken image of himself?” He soon turns her out of the house and on the same day symbolically stabs the headless hawk in her painting as he is trying to catch a butterfly. But, of course, he has not escaped her. D. J. haunts him night and day, convinced that he is Destronelli. Vincent, returned to his old world which he now finds “sterile and spurious,” discovers that he is held by “a nameless disorder … a paralysis of time and identity.” Vincent's fascination with D. J. is the fatal confrontation with Mr. Destronelli—the executioner in each of us: he sees in D. J. the grotesque reflection of his own broken image.
The heart of the matter—the heart of darkness—is revealed significantly enough in a dream that Vincent has on the night of D. J.'s eighteenth birthday. He is at a huge party with “an old man with yellow-dyed hair, powdered cheeks, kewpie-doll lips: Vincent recognizes Vincent.” The old man is on Vincent's back and Vincent feels out of place until he notices that he is not alone. “He notices then that many are also saddled with malevolent semblances of themselves, outward embodiments of inner decay.” The host has a headless hawk attached to his wrist drawing blood with its talons. Suddenly the host announces in a soprano voice: “Attention! The dancing will commence.” Vincent finds himself dancing with a succession of old lovers.
Again, a new partner. It is D. J., and she too has a figure barnacled to her back, an enchanting auburn-haired child; like an emblem of innocence, the child cuddles to her chest a snowball kitten. “I am heavier than I look,” says the child, and the terrible voice retorts, “But I am heaviest of all.” The instant their hands meet he begins to feel the weight upon him diminish; the old Vincent is fading. His feet lift off the floor, he floats upward from her embrace. The victrola grinds away loud as ever, but he is rising high, and the white receding faces gleam below like mushrooms on a dark meadow.
The host releases his hawk, sends it soaring. Vincent thinks, no matter, it is a blind thing, and the wicked are safe among the blind. But the hawk wheels above him, swoops down, claws foremost; at last he knows there is to be no freedom.
The confrontation of the inner world becomes the confrontation of man's innate guilt. The dark side of the subconscious reflects not only the death instinct but the Christian sense of man's depravity. The burden that each carries becomes more than the darker alter ego: it is also the sense of original sin which each of us carries like a cross. Thus even the child is heavier than she looks; and thus Vincent cannot transcend his wickedness, even among the blind, even through love. Truly, there is to be no freedom from original sin.
The ingredients in all of Capote's nocturnal stories are present in their most striking expression, “A Tree of Night.” Kay, a young college girl on her way back to her insulated environment from her uncle's funeral is intimidated by two grotesque carnival performers: a deaf mute who plays Lazarus by being buried alive in tank towns and his one connection with the outside world, a woman made freakish by her huge head. Much against her will, Kay is coerced, almost mesmerized, into buying a worthless charm which she had previously refused to buy. Like Capote's other heroes, Kay finds herself acquiescing to an uncanny power.
As Kay watched, the man's face seemed to change form and recede before her like a moon-shaped rock sliding downward under a surface of water. A warm laziness relaxed her. She was dimly conscious of it when the woman took away her purse, and when she gently pulled the raincoat like a shroud above her head.
On the one level the story may be read as a tawdry and ironic parable of Lazarus—
“I am Lazarus come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—If one, settling a pillow by her head, Should say: “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.”
—just as Carson McCullers' novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, can be read as an ironic parable of Christ. But perhaps the religious significance is being overemphasized:
[Confronted by the afflicted mute] Kay knew of what she was afraid: it was a memory, a childish memory of terrors that once, long ago, had hovered above her like haunted limbs on a tree of night. Aunts, cooks, strangers—each eager to spin a tale or teach a rhyme of spooks and death, omens, spirits, demons. And always there had been the unfailing threat of the wizard man: stay close to the house, child, else the wizard man'll snatch and eat you alive! He lived everywhere, the wizard man, and everywhere was danger. At night, in bed, hear him tapping at the window? Listen!
Fear seems the motivating emotion in these stories just as love is the motivating force in McCullers' novels. “All our acts are acts of fear,” remembered Walter Ranney, the hero of “Shut a Final Door,” and perhaps he was right. For the wizard men and the Master Miseries are all personifications of some form of mana, formalized by superstition—that primitive and perhaps honest type of religious observance. At the same time, the Master Miseries and the Destronellis are not the products of our creative imagination but the very heart of darkness, the black, destructive, guilt-ridden side of our subconscious and soul. In each of these nocturnal stories, a seemingly normal but creatively bankrupt person encounters a destructive force at once outside himself and within his depths, which is so dreadful that he is utterly vanquished by fear and surrenders his very essence—his identity. The hero is drawn towards the source of power—the primal heart of darkness—and in doing so removes himself from the public world. Like Narcissus watching his reflection, Capote's hero becomes fascinated and mesmerized by his own evil alter ego. Like Jacob wrestling with the dark angel, the hero in these stories is wrestling not only with the outside world of reality but with his own personal world, losing the former while winning the latter. For the moment of defeat, of despair, of unconditional surrender, is also the moment of revelation.
What we have discovered about the two worlds of Truman Capote's short stories is equally true in his two novels. Conveniently, one novel describes each world: The Grass Harp seems the daylight metaphor of Other Voices, Other Rooms. And yet both novels exhibit a deepening of perception, a widening of scope, and an enrichening of the dense thematic material found in the stories. On the other hand, neither novel is entirely successful, whereas some of his stories—notably “Children on Their Birthdays” and “A Tree of Night”—are striking examples of their medium. Even Capote admits he is most at home in the short story.
Still, no piece of Capote's fiction has elicited as much comment, criticism, and bewilderment as the gothic and complex first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms. Indeed, the dust jacket picture of the sensitive reclining face staring out from beneath boyish bangs was perhaps as great a cause for the excited confusion as anything in the book. But the difficult and fantastic remoteness of the book has been exaggerated by the mistaken identification of the hero with his exotic and precocious creator. Basically, Other Voices resembles Capote's twilight stories in that it concerns an adolescent's initiation into the private and inverted adult world, full of danger and evil. John Aldridge has called it essentially a search for the father and Carvel Collins has likened it to the quest for the Holy Grail: both are right. Yet Joel Knox's search for his father, which leads him from the realistic daylight of New Orleans to the fantastic twilight of Skully's Landing, can be considered as a search for identity. Joel moves from the outside world towards the personal, just as he moves from the bright afternoon heat of Noon City to the dream-like darkness of his new home—Skully's Landing.
John Aldridge has accused Capote of being metaphorical and remote, but his symbolic treatment of thematic material seems clear enough if examined in the same manner as we have examined his other stories. Like his other work, Other Voices can be read from either a psychological or a moral, perhaps Christian, viewpoint. Basically, Joel “was trying to locate his father, that was the long and short of it,” for the discovery of his father's identity would cast some light on his own essence. But when Joel discovers the horrible truth that his father is a helpless, paralyzed invalid, he must look elsewhere for help in his search for identity. Joel stands as a stranger at Skully's Landing, poised between going further into the private world with his fascinating, witty, cynical, and homosexual cousin, Randolph, and moving out into the real world with the adolescent tomboy, Idabel. Joel's initiation can be seen as a straight-line development from the outside world of Noon City through the decadent limbo of Skully's Landing to the private, dreamlike ruins of the Cloud Hotel—and back again.
In order to tell his story, Capote has expanded the technique of metaphorical use of characterization seen in “Miriam” and “The Headless Hawk.” Each character in Other Voices is a metaphor or alter ego of another. The tomboy, Idabel, has a twin sister, Florabel, because, as Florabel says, “the Lord always sends something bad with the good.” Similarly, the dwarfish Miss Wisteria, “weeping because little boys must grow tall,” is a grotesque reflection of Randolph's hopeless, homosexual quest for completion. Little Sunshine, the hermit who inhabits his own private world at the Cloud Hotel, mirrors the old negro servant, Jesus Fever. And, finally, Joel himself is reflected in Jesus Fever's daughter, Zoo: both must reject their fathers in an effort to escape from the Landing.
Joel's first test comes when he is not allowed to meet his father. In his mind the illusions he had built around his father are confused with the reality of his father's absence. “He couldn't believe in the way things were turning out: the difference between this happening, and what he'd expected was too great.” With the confrontation of his father's impotence, Joel must look elsewhere for the key to his identity. Randolph offers him one possibility: the narcissistic immersion in the self.
“They can romanticize us so, mirrors, and that is their secret: what a subtle torture it would be to destroy all the mirrors in the world: where then could we look for reassurance of our identities? I tell you, my dear, Narcissus was no egotist … he was merely another of us who, in our unshatterable isolation, recognized, on seeing his reflection, the one beautiful comrade, the only inseparable love … Poor Narcissus, possibly the only human who was ever honest on this point.”
But even in the personal world Randolph cannot escape his own guilt for “it is easy to escape daylight, but night is inevitable, and dreams are the giant cage.” Like Vincent, in “The Headless Hawk,” Randolph is “a victim born to be murdered, either by himself or another.” He remains a broken figure hopelessly committed to, and castrated by, the destructive side of his personal vision.
Caught between a loyalty to his father and a need to escape his stultifying influence, Joel at first rejects his father for Idabel, with whom he plans to run away. But the final act of initiation—the revelation of his own guilt that smashes the tinted glasses of childhood—renders Joel powerless to escape. In leaving his father, Joel, like Zoo, is judged guilty by his father and must act as his own executioner. Both he and Zoo can never really leave the Landing; their dreams of escape from limbo are shattered. When Randolph takes Joel to the Cloud Hotel—the private world which Randolph never left—a revelation of identity comes to Joel in a flash of insight:
(He looked into the fire, longing to see their faces as well, and the flames erupted an embryo: a veined, vacillating shape, its features formed slowly, and even when complete stayed veiled in dazzle; his eyes burned tar-hot as he brought them nearer: tell me, tell me, who are you? are you someone I know? are you dead? are you my friend? do you love me? But the painted disembodied head remained unborn beyond its mask, and gave no clue. Are you someone I am looking for? he asked, not knowing whom he meant, but certain that for him there must be such a person, just as there was for everybody else: Randolph with his almanac, Miss Wisteria and her search by flashlight, Little Sunshine remembering other voices, other rooms, all of them remembering, or never having known. And Joel drew back. If he recognized the figure in the fire, then what ever would he find to take its place? It was easier not to know, better holding heaven in your hand like a butterfly that is not there at all.)
Unable to live in either the private or the real world, Joel makes the compromise of the artist: finding his identity by walking the tenuous line between the illusory and the tangible, between the imaginative and the real:
“I am me,” Joel whooped. “I am Joel, we are the same people”…
And Joel realized then the truth; he saw how helpless Randolph was: more paralyzed than Mr. Sansom, more childlike than Miss Wisteria, what else could he do, once outside and alone, but describe a circle, the zero of his nothingness? Joel slipped down from the tree; he had not made the top, but it did not matter, for he knew who he was, he knew that he was strong.
Yet Joel's search for his identity contains another and perhaps more significant level of meaning. At the very beginning of the book, while riding to Skully's Landing, Joel passes a sign—a sign for him and for the reader: “The Lord Jesus is Coming! Are you ready?” But the Christ figure we meet is one we are not prepared for: the paralytic father, Mr. Sansom, who drops red tennis balls like drops of blood, an ironic, afflicted Christ similar to the deaf-mute, Singer, in Carson McCullers' The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Joel's search for his father leads to the confrontation of his innate guilt—guilt symbolized in the desertion of his father and manifested in his sudden awareness of the disparity between illusion and reality and his perception of the impossibility of escape from the Landing. His situation is mirrored by Zoo, who leaves her father's grave to escape the Landing only to find that she has taken “the wrong road” to salvation. She is crucified by assaulters just as Joel, like Christ, is condemned and abandoned by his father and crucified by surrendering to Randolph. But in the act of crucifixion are the seeds of redemption: Joel is crucified a boy and resurrected a man.
Every Capote character is scarred permanently just as Zoo bears the marks of a razor slashing on her neck. They are all marked men, marked perhaps by original sin. Even the artist—like Joel—is afflicted: “the feeble-minded, the neurotic, the criminal, perhaps, also, the artist, have unpredictability and perverted innocence in common.” But Capote's nocturnal hero remains essentially the failure. And in Randolph he has created his most fascinating and grotesque failure, who speaks for Vincent and Sylvia, Mrs. Miller and Walter Ranney, when he says:
“But we are alone, darling child, terribly, isolated each from the other; so fierce is the world's ridicule we cannot speak or show our tenderness; for us, death is stronger than life, it pulls like a wind through the dark, all our cries burlesqued in joyless laughter; and with the garbage of loneliness stuffed down us until our guts burst bleeding green, we go screaming round the world, dying in our rented rooms, nightmare hotels, eternal homes of the transient heart.”
In The Grass Harp, Capote again moves to the daylight style. Essentially, it is the story of a group of innocents, alienated from society because of their innocence, who move into a tree house to escape the world and discover their true selves. The theme is again the search for true identity. For the tree dissolves all of society's restrictions and replaces them with a beatific feeling of freedom; it is a realm where wish becomes fulfillment. The tree becomes the refuge for the outcasts from society: the saintly Dolly, the most innocent of all, who, like J. D. Salinger's misfit hero, Seymour Glass, loves people so much she hides in corners for fear of scaring them with her love. With Dolly is her constant companion, Catherine, a zany mixture of Negro and Indian, harshness and loyalty, who brings to the tree house a sense of hard-headed reality, and Collin Fenwick, the adolescent narrator, who lives with Dolly and her brutish sister, Verena. These three have left home after a quarrel over Dolly's home-remedy dropsy cure: Verena wants to mass produce it and Dolly refuses to commercialize it. They are soon joined by a retired judge, Judge Cool, whose sons feel has outgrown his usefulness. “I sometimes imagine,” he says, “all those whom I've called guilty have passed the real guilt on to me: it's partly that that makes me want once before I die to be right on the right side.” The fifth party is a “tense, trigger-tempered,” directionless youth, Riley Henderson, who also happens to be Collin's idol.
Like Salinger's Holden Caulfield, these five stage a “quixotic” battle against hypocrisy, materialism, and anything that takes beauty away from the world. The small revolt from society forces them to move towards the inner world of the imagination. Judge Cool sums up the whole idea nicely:
“But ah, the energy we spend hiding from one another, afraid as we are of being identified. But here we are, identified: five fools in a tree. A great piece of luck provided we know how to use it: no longer any need to worry about the picture we present—free to find out who we truly are. If we know that no one can dislodge us; it's the uncertainty concerning themselves that makes our friends conspire to deny the differences. By scrapes and bits I've in the past surrendered myself to strangers—men who disappeared down the gangplank, got off at the next station: put together, maybe they would've made the one person in the world—but there he is with a dozen different faces moving down a hundred separate streets. This is my chance to find that man—you are him, Miss Dolly, Riley, all of you.”
But this leafy retreat seems hardly the place for soul-searching; Verena soon has the authorities there to demand that they return to their homes. A pitched battle occurs between the rebels and the authorities, which, with the help of the right of creative imagination and the might of an ingenious family of gypsies, is decided in favor of the rebels. However, they do leave the tree house when Verena returns broken by the swindler of her heart and money—the bogus doctor who was to bottle the dropsy cure. Dolly returns to Verena because she is needed and the magic of the “dissolving” chinaberry tree is gone.
In the story the end of innocence is two-fold. For Collin, it is an elegiac remembrance of things past, a vicarious initiation at Dolly's own loss of innocence, and his real initiation at Dolly's death. But for Collin the act of initiation brings the discovery of love and the redemption of the identity. It now becomes clear that for Capote love is the redeeming element in life. Echoing the judge's words in an earlier part of the book, Dolly tells Collin just before her death:
“Charlie said that love is a chain of love. I hope you listened and understood him. Because when you can love one thing … you can love another, and that is owning, that is something to live with. You can forgive everything.”
Like Carson McCullers in her story, “A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud,” Capote here shows “that life is a chain of love, as nature is a chain of life.” Arching over the story of Dolly and Collin and the chinaberry tree is the grass harp, a symbol of the immutable moral order, an order of the good and the imaginative which always tells a story of the lives of the people, good and bad, with and without identity, who have lived and died there. And so the search for identity comes to rest in the shock of recognition—recognition of the primacy of the natural order of the creative instinct—of love and imagination over the death wish. Both Joel and his daylight brother, Collin, have learned the same thing: the search inward for identity must eventually turn outward if it is to reflect anything but the broken image of the grotesque self.
The world was a frightening place, yes, he knew: unlasting, what could be forever? or only what it seemed? rock corrodes, rivers freeze, fruit rots; stabbed, blood of black and white bleeds alike; trained parrots tell more truth than most, and who is lonelier: the hawk or the worm? every flowering heart shrivels dry and pitted as the herb from which it bloomed, and while the old man grows spinsterish, his wife assumes a mustache; moment to moment, changing, changing, like the cars on the ferris-wheel. Grass and love are always greener; but remember Little Three Eyes? show her love and apples ripen gold, love vanquishes the Snow Queen, its presence finds the name, be it Rumpelstiltskin or merely Joel Knox: that is constant.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 313
Stanton, Robert J. Truman Capote: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980, 287 p.
Comprehensive bibliography featuring works by and about Capote.
Barry, Iris. “Short Stories of Truman Capote.” Herald Tribune (27 February 1949): 2.
Favorable assessment of A Tree of Night.
Garson, Helen. Truman Capote. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980, 210 p.
Comprehensive critical survey.
———. Truman Capote: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992, 186 p.
Analyzes Capote's short fiction and presents other critical reaction to his work.
Harriss, W. E. A review of Other Voices, Other Rooms, by Truman Capote. Commonweal 47 (27 February 1948): 500.
Contends that Other Voices, Other Rooms “must be reckoned with as a fascinating experiment in symbols and images by this young but mature and skilful writer.”
Nance, William L. The Worlds of Truman Capote. New York: Stein and Day, 1970, 256 p.
First full-length study of Capote's work.
Nicholson, Geoffrey. “Goodbye to New York.” Spectator 201 (28 November 1958): 787.
Positive review of Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Pugh, William White Tison. “Boundless Hearts in a Nightmare World: Queer Sentimentalism and Southern Gothicism in Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms.” The Mississippi Quarterly 51, No. 4 (Fall 1998): 663–82.
Considers the role of Gothicism and sentimentalism in Capote's work.
Reed, Kenneth T. Truman Capote. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981, 145 p.
Full-length critical survey of Capote's work.
Rosenfeld, Isaac. “Twenty-Seven Stories.” Partisan Review 16, No. 7 (July 1949): 753.
Negative assessment of A Tree of Night.
Additional coverage of Capote's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941–1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5–8R, 113; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 18, 62; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 8, 13, 19, 34, 38, 58; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 185, 227; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Vols. 80, 84; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1 and 2; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 2; Something about the Author, Vol. 91; and World Literature Criticism.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8123
SOURCE: “The Daydream and Nightmare of Narcissus,” in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring, 1960, pp. 5–21.
[In the following essay, Hassan identifies the Narcissus theme as the unifying motif of Capote's work.]
The name of Truman Capote is already legend, and the picture of his boyish face—the famous bangs, the wide, mysterious eyes—is on the cover of all his books to give the legend credence. To some, Capote is the sprite with a monstrous imagination, the lonely child—“I had the most insecure childhood I know of. I felt isolated from all people”—living with his aunts in Alabama, painting flowers on glass and tap-dancing on the Mississippi boats. To others he is simply the ephebic purveyor of Gothic extravaganzas, the fashionable opportunist of a mid-century madness. Whatever the faults of Capote may be, it is certain that his work possesses more range and energy than his detractors allow—witness the clear ring of The Muses Are Heard, the crackling impressions of Local Color, the crazy humor of his filmscript, Beat the Devil—and it is equally certain that no faddish estimate of his work can suggest his real hold on the contemporary imagination.
Yet it is, of course, as a Southern and Gothic writer that we insist on knowing Capote. Southern he is by accident of birth more than natural affinity; he once said, “I have lived in many places besides the South and I don't like to be called a Southern writer.” He is right. We are quick to sense that the elemental quality in the fiction of Faulkner, Warren, or McCullers is consciously poeticized in his fiction, and their loving adherence to the manners of Southern life often vanishes before the surrealist appearance of his romances. Romance, as practised by Capote and defined by Henry James, is “experience liberated … experience disengaged, disembroiled, disencumbered,” and as such it remains open to the Gothic impulse which is one of its elements.
The idea of romance, about which Richard Chase has ably written, is informed by the modern techniques of symbolism and analysis, and defines the general character of Capote's work. We begin to perceive the specific concerns of Capote's fiction when we note the division between his “daylight” and “nocturnal” styles, and when we understand both as developments of a central, unifying, and self-regarding impulse which Narcissus has traditionally embodied. The impulse brings together dread and humor, dream and reality, insight and experience. The difference between “Miriam” (1945) and “House of Flowers” (1951), between Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) and The Grass Harp (1951) distinguish the two styles of Capote; the chronological development suggests a deepening awareness of the tensions between self and world, a redistribution of love between ego and object, a movement towards light which retains the knowledge of darkness. Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) carries these developments a step farther, and though it appears to elude some of the distinctions we make, is confirms the emergent patterns of Capote's work.
The nocturnal style of Truman Capote—and it is the style we are likely to identify with his achievement—makes the greater use of uncanny trappings and surreal decors. The sense of underlying dreadfulness, which Tennessee Williams called the black root of all modern art, compels the style to discover “the instant of petrified violence,” the revelation which only the moment of terror can yield. In stories like “Miriam,” “The Headless Hawk,” “A Tree of Night,” or “Shut a Final Door,” fear seems to take the characters by their entrails and reduce them to that curious condition of insight and paralysis which is the best expression of their predicament. “All our acts are acts of fear,” Capote writes in the last story, and so man is consigned to perpetual solitude, not so much because he cannot love or be loved—these are merely the symptoms—but because his dreams must remain unsharable and his night world must rise continually against his daily actions. It is this recognition of the unconscious, and all that it holds of wish and terror, that specifies the nocturnal mode of Capote's writing. The recognition is impelled by a force which D. H. Lawrence noted in Poe's work: the disintegration of the modern psyche. Like Poe, like Carson McCullers, Truman Capote shows, in his nocturnal mood, that his image of the modern psyche is preeminently isolated and Protestant. Hence Capote's interest in the theme of self-discovery—Narcissus may have been the first Protestant—and in the technique of character doubles or alter egos—“Miriam,” “Shut a Final Door,” etc. Hence also the omnipresence of dreams in Capote's fiction. Dreams in the earlier stories do not only constitute a private and self-sufficient world, and do not only contain the destructive element of our psyche (“it is easy to escape daylight,” Randolph says in Other Voices, Other Rooms, “but night is inevitable, and dreams are the giant cage”); dreams also reveal, in the later stories, the creative element of the unconscious, and permit that release of the imagination which, as Capote implies, is the prerequisite of love. “But a man who doesn't dream is like a man who doesn't sweat: he stores up a lot of poison,” Judge Cool tells Verena in The Grass Harp when the latter derisively calls his marriage proposal to Dolly, his confession of love, a dream. If Capote's darker style seems uncanny, it is precisely because uncanny effects are produced, as Freud knew, “by effacing the distinctions between imagination and reality,” by seeing, as Rimbaud did, a mosque at the bottom of a lake.
But in effacing the distinctions between reality and imagination, the nocturnal style does not only evoke the shapeless world of our dreams; it evokes, no less, the fabulous world of myth and fairy tale. In our age, alas, dream, myth, and fairy tale are no longer allowed to drowse in their separate corners. Freud has noted the occurrence of material from fairy tales in dreams, and Geza Roheim has argued, in The Gates of the Dream, that myth, animistic thought, and in fact culture itself, find a common source in oneiric phantasies. In Capote's work, the familiar figure of the Wizard Man partakes both of dream and archetype, and it is there to remind us that our archaic fears must be forever conquered, our childish past reenacted. Such fabulous evocations must reclaim the universal symbols of human experience. Yet it is wise to remember that Capote once said, “All I want to do is to tell a story and sometimes it is best to choose a symbol. I would not know a Freudian symbol as such if you put it to me.” In the end, the nocturnal style of Truman Capote appeals to the qualities which Henry James found essential to all fiction of the supernatural, appeals, that is, “to wonder and terror and curiosity and pity and to the delight of fine recognitions, as well as to the joy, perhaps sharper still, of the mystified state.” Of these qualities, and of the human failings which these qualities silently criticize, the supernatural element in Capote's fiction is a metaphor.
But if the supernatural defines the nocturnal mode of Capote, humor defines his daylight style. The style, evident in “My Side of the Matter,” “Jug of Silver,” “Children on Their Birthdays,” The Grass Harp, and Breakfast at Tiffany's assumes the chatty, first-person informality of anecdotes. It also specifies character and admits the busy-ness of social relations more than its darker counterpart. And the scene which it lights upon is usually the small Southern town—not the big city which witnesses in abstract horror the so-called alienation of man from his environment. (The one notable exception, of course, is Breakfast at Tiffany's.) Now it is true that humor, like the supernatural, must finally rise to universal implications. But if one may judge from the differences between Twain and Poe, between the American tall tale and the native ghost story, humor is always more of this earth; it is apt to individualize rather than generalize; and it can rise to universal meanings but gradually. Humor has also a social reference. Humor—which may be called a catholic if the supernatural can be called a protestant impulse—binds rather than separates: it is as much a mode of communion as the Gothic is a mode of self-isolation.
I have suggested that humor and the supernatural, metaphors of the daylight and nocturnal styles of Capote, reflect the central and unifying motive of his fiction. The motive will be understood when the relation between the two elements which express it is further clarified. In his essays “On Narcissism” and “The Uncanny,” Freud has some interesting things to say on the subject. The uncanny, Freud believes, derives from an animistic conception of the universe occasioned by a narcissistic over-estimation of the self. Freud also characterizes humor as a triumph of the pleasure principle, and “of narcissism, the ego's victorious assertion of its own invulnerability.” His essays make it evident, however, that a humorous comment, while it begins by recognizing the threat of reality—and to that extent we are justified in seeing humor as a movement towards objectivity—ends by refusing to meet the threat. Humor, therefore, is like the uncanny in that both suggest a reactionary or regressive impulse towards the security of the narcissistic state.
This may sound more simple than art should be allowed to sound. A more sensitive observation is made by Wylie Sypher when, taking his cue from Bergson as well as Freud, he says, “The comic gesture reaches down toward the Unconscious, that dim world usually assigned to tragedy, the midnight terrain where Macbeth met the witches. The joke and the dream incongruously distort the logic of our rational life.” The bulk of Capote's work persuades us, in the same way, that both humor and the supernatural are acts of the imagination intended to question our surface evaluations of reality, and indeed to affirm the counter-reality of phantasy. The prevalence of dreams, the interest in childhood, the negative conception of adolescent initiation, the concern with self-discovery, the emphasis on homo-eroticism, and the general stasis of the mythic world of Truman Capote—all these must confirm the central narcissistic impulse of his fiction, an impulse which serves both as a critique and a crooked image of American reality. Ancient paradigm of the Artist, the Lover, and the Dreamer, Narcissus must also reconcile appearance and reality within the scope of romance, that “neutral territory,” as Hawthorne said, “somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.” This is the aesthetic burden of Narcissus. His moral burden in the contemporary world, which Tate's “Ode to the Confederate Dead” presaged some decades ago, is still self-transcendence in the moment of action or love. The former seems to us now irrecoverable, the latter, it appears, our only hope. But there is always Holly Golightly to reckon with, and the peculiar image of freedom she invokes.
The contrast between the two styles of Capote can be observed in his stories, of which the best are included in A Tree of Night and Other Stories (1949) and can be even more sharply discerned in his two novels, Other Voices, Other Rooms and The Grass Harp.
The peculiar mixture of phantasy and reality in Capote's first novel begs for allegorical interpretation. Carvell Collins has suggested the quest of the Holy Grail as a possible framework for the action, pointing out numerous parallels between the details of Joel Knox's story and those to be found in Jessie Weston's account of the Grail myth. John Aldridge, on the other hand, has seen Joel's story essentially as an archetype of the Boy in Search of a Father. Both views correspond to genuine analogues of the narrative. But Joel Knox is not only a miniature Dedalus-Telemachus in Dublin-Ithaca, or Parsifal-Galahad at the Chapel Perilous. He is also a smaller model of Castorp-Tannhauser at Davos-Venusberg, and Narcissus sitting by his pool. Above all, he is simply Joel Knox who, no matter how much or little he may resemble Capote, is still a character in a work of fiction.
Joel is in search of an image which reflects darkly his own identity, his reality, and, ironically, which becomes available to him only when reality is dispelled in the palace of pleasure, the secret house of dreams. (To call Other Voices, Other Rooms a story of initiation is to recall how shrunken the range of initiation has become since Huck Finn bounced down the Mississippi on his raft.) What Joel elects is what the enchanted world of Skully's Landing forces upon him, and what he finally accepts is beyond good and evil, as dreams are, which alone are real. Love, which used to be an anchor of reality, is set adrift in the darkness of the human heart—“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it?” is the epigraph of the novel, taken from Jeremiah. Love returns upon itself as the mirror image turns to the beholder and absents itself with his absence. The search for the Other, who may be god, sweetheart, or father, ends in the discovery of the Self, and initiation to the world amounts to regression to the world of infantile phantasy in which the father is also a lover. Such is the apotheosis of the love between Joel and Randolph at the spectral Cloud Hotel towards the end of the novel.
The novel begins with Joel's arrival at Noon City, an oasis in the busy world, less pre-Civil War than legendary, near which is the even more legendary mansion of Skully's Landing, where he expects to meet his father for the first time. He is glad to leave Aunt Ellen's house behind: “It was as if he lived those months wearing a pair of spectacles with green, cracked lenses, and had wax-plugging in his ears, for everything seemed to be something it wasn't, and the days melted into a constant dream.” But Joel does not see his father, Mr. Samson, for a long time. He roams the wild, incredible garden of the Landing which, like some lost ruin, is haunted by the enfabled past; and, true to Capote's vision, he perceives in an “instant of petrified violence,” the apparition of a strange lady in a window. This is his first glimpse of Randolph, of his own fate. Randolph, prototype of the Evil Magician, the artist, the teacher, and the criminal, whose eloquence and learning are like echoes of a spectral chorus, is the genius who dominates the Landing. Exquisite in his cultivation and irrelevance, at once languid and sinister, lucid and depraved, Randolph has all the “unpredictability and perverted innocence” which qualify him for becoming the mentor and lover of Joel. Whether he is exposed to the half-pagan Sabbath ceremonies of Jesus Fever and His daughter Zoo, or the primitive magic of Little Sunshine, the wizened Negro hermit who haunts the Cloud Hotel, or the talcumed world of invalids, lunatics, and perverts who inhabit the Landing, Joel's sense of reality is constantly subverted by his environment. Like Little Sunshine, who acts, together with Randolph, as father-substitute, Joel is drawn to the terrible Cloud Hotel: “for if he [Little Sunshine] went away, as he had once upon a time, other voices, other rooms, voices lost and clouded, strummed his dreams.” The progressive attenuation of external reality is evident as Joel moves from Aunt Ellen's to Skully's Landing to the Cloud Hotel; the movement is indeed a descent into Hades, a journey, in various stages, towards the darkest unconscious, or perhaps towards the womb of death. Dreaming of the Cloud Hotel, Joel realizes that it was not and never had been a real hotel: “this was the place folks came when they went off the face of the earth, when they died but were not dead.” And dreaming of his journey through its rooms, he sees himself “in the dust of thorns listening for a name, his own, but even here no father claimed him.”
The second part of the novel opens with a climactic incident. Joel finally meets his father, and finds him a paralytic with two glinting eyes, who can only communicate with the world by dropping red tennis balls. Meanwhile, we are apprised in a grotesque tale of love and violence that Randolph is responsible for Samson's condition. Joel's resistance to Randolph, and to all that he stands for, receives its first check when Joel discovers that his real father is nearly a zombie. His resistance is further weakened when his relation to Idabel Tompkins fails to confirm his groping manhood. When Joel attempts to kiss Idabel on a fishing trip, she fights him off viciously and overpowers him; and on their excursion to a decayed mill, it is she who kills the water moccasin with Jesus Fever's old Civil War sword. The snake has the eyes of Joel's father, and the boy fails equally in asserting his manhood with Idabel as in conquering the phantom of his father with the ceremonial symbol of the past. Thus it is in failing the traditional ordeals, which in overcoming he might have earned his manhood, that Joel makes himself eligible to the insidious knowledge of the Cloud Hotel. Three further incidents clinch Joel's failure, and therefore clinch his regression, the form that his initiation takes. An appeal he sends to Aunt Ellen in the form of a letter is intercepted by Randolph. When Idabel and Joel decide to run away, they encounter in the woods two Negroes making passionate love. The scene reawakens Idabel's hostility towards Joel; it is a firm intimation that between them no stable relation can obtain. A little later, both find themselves at a fair, and they strike up an excited companionship with a wistful midget, Miss Wisteria. They all ride a ferris wheel. Then Miss Wisteria begins to take special interest in Joel:
She placed her hand on his thigh, and then, as though she had no control over them whatsoever, her fingers crept up inside his legs … and Joel, disturbed but knowing now he wanted never to hurt anyone, not Miss Wisteria, nor Idabel … wished so much he could say: it doesn't matter. I love you, I love your hand. The world was a frightening place, yes, he knew: unlasting, what could be forever? or only what it seemed? rock corrodes, rivers freeze, fruit rots; stabbed, blood of black and white bleeds alike; trained parrots tell more truth than most, and who is lonelier: the hawk or the worm?
On the ferris wheel the vision of love, loneliness, and mutability is suddenly illuminated in Joel's mind, and it is in the name of love that he renounces the willfulness of sexual possession. At the same instant he glimpses Randolph staring fixedly at him from the ground underneath.
The discovery of reality and the search for fulfilment in heterosexual terms fail. Zoo, who dreams all her life of journeying to Washington after her father dies, does not get very far. She is raped by three white men and a Negro driving a truck and returns to the Landing crushed, her dream desecrated. Even Idabel, who makes good her escape, winds up with Miss Wisteria as companion. With Idabel away—she and Randolph, like images of day and night, are never seen together in the novel—Joel can only turn to Randolph.
Part Three opens with the return of Joel to the Landing. He returns in a coma, his world contracted, appearance and reality altogether fused, and when he recovers from his illness, he is finally at peace, fully attuned to the enchantments which await him: “lo, he was where he'd never imagined to find himself again: the secret hideaway room in which, on hot New Orleans afternoons, he'd sat watching snow sift through scorched August trees.” It is with Randolph, not Idabel, that he finally visits the Cloud Hotel, while Aunt Ellen looks for him in vain. But for Joel there is no going back to the old realities; like Randolph, like Little Sunshine, he finds at last his Other Room in the Hotel—with a hanged mule in it for effect. And strangely enough, the last acts of Joel indicate not surrender but liberation. Faithful to the Jungian archetype of the Descent into Hades, Joel re-emerges somewhat healed, possessed of a dangerous and ambiguous knowledge. “‘I am me,’ Joel whooped. ‘I am Joel, we are the same people,’” he shouts exuberantly on his way back from the Cloud Hotel. And he is suddenly wise enough to see “how helpless Randolph was: more paralyzed than Mr. Samson, more childlike than Miss Wisteria, what else could he do, once outside and alone, but describe a circle, the zero of his nothingness?” At the end of the novel, when Zoo overturns the cracked, moss-covered bell with which the old plantation owners used to summon their slaves, ancient symbol of a vanished order, and when Randolph appears in a window, beckoning in his female attire to Joel, we are not sure whether it is in triumph or defeat that Joel responds to this mute appeal. We can only sense that the traditional modes of behavior are no longer in command of life.
Mr. Aldridge has objected to the self-contained quality of evil and guilt in the novel, to the failure of the book to “stand in some meaningful relation to recognizable life,” and to the feeling that Capote's world “seems to be a concoction rather than a synthesis,” its purity “not the purity of experience forced under pressure into shape” but rather the “sort that can be attained only in the isolation of a mind which life has never really violated.” The objections appear serious; but as usual, the impatience of Mr. Aldridge is not entirely justified. We need to remember, however, that Capote's work is, in its intentions, at least, a novel-romance, and that it attempts to engage reality without being realistic. Evil and guilt in it are self-contained only in the sense that they are defined by the individual consciousness without reference to an accepted social or moral order. Evil, in other words, is mainly poetic and archetypal; its moral issue is confined to the predicament of the victim without visible oppressor, and of the beloved almost without a lover. The result is a sharp, narrow focus, a reflexive vision seeking constantly to penetrate the arcana of personality. “They can romanticize us so, mirrors,” Randolph says to Joel, “and that is their secret: what a subtle torture it would be to destroy all the mirrors in the world: where then could we look for reassurance of our identities? I tell you, my dear, Narcissus was no egotist … he was merely another of us who, in our unshatterable isolation, recognized, on seeing his reflection, the one beautiful comrade, the only inseparable love.” Experience is limited to what a mirror reveals of the beholder, and if the novel sometimes appears to be a concoction rather than a synthesis, it is perhaps because the job of dramatic resolution is surrendered to ambience and verbal magic. Here is the context of Joel's final revelation at the Cloud Hotel:
(He looked into the fire, longing to see their faces as well, and the flames erupted an embryo; a veined, vacillating shape, its features formed slowly, and even when complete stayed veiled in dazzle; his eyes burned tar-hot as he brought them nearer: tell me, tell me, who are you? are you someone I know? are you dead? are you my friend? do you love me? But the painted disembodied head remained unborn beyond its mask, and gave no clue. Are you someone I am looking for? he asked, not knowing whom he meant, but certain that for him there must be such a person, just as there was for everybody else: Randolph with his almanac, Miss Wisteria and her search by flashlight, Little Sunshine remembering other voices, other rooms, all of them remembering, or never having known. And Joel drew back. If he recognized the figure in the fire, then what ever would he find to take its place? It was easier not to know, better holding heaven in your hand like a butterfly that is not there at all.)
The recognition of Joel is, to a large extent, the event upon which the dramatic unity of the novel depends. It is characteristic of Capote's nocturnal mode that the event should be presented in the guise of a trance or hallucination, a verbal tour de force, and that its moral effect should be muffled by “atmosphere.”
Of his first novel Capote has recently said, in Writers at Work, “I am a stranger to that book; the person who wrote it seems to have little in common with my present self. Our mentalities, our interior temperatures are entirely different.” The remark accentuates our transition to Capote's second novel, The Grass Harp, which is indeed a different story. That the book contains much autobiography is evident from a later story Capote wrote, “A Christmas Memory,” in which the prototypes of Collin and Dolly are shown to be, in words and picture, young Capote (then an urchin with a happy, toothless grin) and his elderly female cousin. The narrative, written in the “daylight” style, is told in the first person by young Collin Fenwick. The story is not “strummed in dreams,” as in Other Voices, Other Rooms; it is strummed by the wind on a field of Indian grass adjoining a cemetery—the Grass Harp. To be sure, the contrast between the two novels is not as striking as if Poe had taken up residence at Walden Pond, but it suggests, nevertheless, a welcome restoration of reality to the surface of things, and an expansion in social awareness. The Grass Harp, at any rate, sings the story of all people, as Dolly Talbo says, people alive and dead, and to sing one needs more space than the Cloud Hotel affords.
The “initiation” of Collin Fenwick results less in a regression to the oneiric fastness of childhood than in a nostalgic awareness of past innocence and lost love. Collin is an eleven-year-old orphan when he comes to live with Verena and Dolly Talbo, two elderly cousins of his father. The two women are as dissimilar as cactus and violet. Verena, who represents the ruthless, practical world, is shrewd, grasping, and masterful. Her single weakness, the memory of a liaison with a certain Maudie who leaves Verena to get married, enhances her apparent toughness. Dolly, on the other hand, is shy and retiring—her “presence is a delicate happening.” She lives in a tender, wistful world, gathering herbs for her dropsy cures, feeding only on sweets, and extending her sympathy to all created things. Her devout friend, Catherine, and old Negro who claims to be of Indian descent, calls her Dollyheart, and calls Verena, That One—the Heart, the Self, versus the Other, the World. With Dolly and Catherine, Collin enters into a spiritual sisterhood dedicated to preserve everything frail, lovely, and unique.
But the trouble comes when Collin is sixteen. The world, in the person of Verena, decides to ask the unworldly trio to account for itself. Verena bullies Dolly to obtain from her the formula of the dropsy cure which has commercial possibilities. When force and persuasion fail, Verena humiliates Dolly by reminding her of her uselessness and dependency. The trio takes to the road, finding refuge in a tree-house, “a raft floating in the sea of leaves,” up an old chinaberry tree.
The tree-house, of course, is the last refuge of innocents abroad. But though it is unlike Huck's raft in that it offers limited opportunities of experience, it is not so much a vehicle of escape, Capote would have us believe, as a harbor of lost values. For Dolly teaches Collin that the tree-house is a ship, “that to sit there was to sail along the cloudy coastline of every dream.” At peace in the tree, the two women and the boy feel at one with their surroundings: “we belonged there, as the sun-silvered leaves belonged, the dwelling whippoorwills.” But most important, they feel at one with one another, and with the two “outcasts” from town whom they attract, Riley Henderson and Judge Cool.
Inspired by the enraged Verena, and led by a brutal sheriff, the representatives of Church and State attack the tree and are repulsed time and again in hilarious scenes of impotent fury and gentle mockery. The spirit of the chinaberry tree, the presence of Dolly, the insight into their separate predicaments, unite our five refugees as the sheriff's posse can never be united. “I sometimes imagine all those whom I've called guilty have passed the real guilt on to me: it's partly that that makes me want once before I die to be right on the right side,” the Judge, who is the voice, as Dolly is the heart of the group, says. He continues: “But here we are, identified: five fools in a tree. A great piece of luck provided we know how to use it: no longer any need to worry about the picture we present—free to find out who we truly are.” As usual, the search for identity in Capote's work precedes the discovery of love. But here, for the first time, both the reflexive and the outgoing impulse are caught in a single vision.
The outgoing impulse, the burden of love, is defined when Judge Cool says to Riley—and his message is identical with that of the hobo in Carson McCullers' “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.”—“We are speaking of love. A leaf, a handful of seed—begin with these, learn a little what it is to love. … No easy process, understand; it could take a lifetime.” At which Dolly with a sharp intake of breath cries, “Then … I've been in love all my life.” Yet Dolly is not so out of touch with reality that she can accept the world, like Polyanna, on immitigable faith. The persecutions of Verena, the fact that her friend Catherine is “captured” and thrown into jail, force her to ask Collin—and how ironic that an old woman should ask an adolescent questions about the world—force her to ask him in pain and perplexity, “Collin, what do you think: is it that after all the world is a bad place?” Collin is wise enough (almost too wise) to reflect: “No matter what passions compose them, all private worlds are good, they are never vulgar places: Dolly had been made too civilized by her own, the one she shared with Catherine and me, to feel the winds of wickedness that circulate elsewhere.”
We are never quite sure whether the novel portrays the disenchantment of an elderly woman or the initiation of a young man. But of this we can be more certain, that Dolly in renewing her powers of universal sympathy by drawing constantly on the resources of her inner world strikes a parable of the artist who, secure in the freedom of his imagination, reaches out to free ours. In this sense, the healing powers of Dolly can be said to extend, through the medium of the Grass Harp, not only to the fictive community of tree-dwellers but also to the real community of book-readers. The idea of the artist as healer is, of course, quite ancient. What makes the idea interesting in the works of such contemporary authors as Salinger and Capote is the particular form it acquires. In both writers the concern with lovelessness seems to have allied itself with a criticism of the new philistinism, the implication being that the poet and lover, to leave out the lunatic, are of one imagination compact. Hence Salinger's interest in Zen and haiku poetry, which bring the aesthetic and spiritual to meet at a still point, and Capote's interest in Narcissus whose adoration of beauty may be considered an act both of love and cognition.
The reaction against a grim and unlovely world, which insists that all private worlds are good and beautiful, tends to perpetrate the myth of the Noble Unconscious. It may also lead to the myth of the Noble Freak. Of this Dolly is an example, and Sister Ida, with her revivalist tribe of fifteen children all sired by different fathers, is another. Ida's wandering brood, whose slogan is Let Little Homer Honey Lasso Your Soul For the Lord, brings into the novel a good deal of bustle and folksy humor. They also reveal a certain outgoingness, an attitude which, in its vigor and acceptance, qualifies the pathos of Dolly. But the impression remains that though Dolly and Ida have suffered much, their idea of freedom is undoubtedly romantic and the form of their rebellion extravagant.
Nothing is very extravagant about the denouement of the novel. Verena, robbed and deserted by the infamous Dr. Ritzy, is utterly broken. In a candle-lit, tree-house scene, while rain pours and thunder rages, Verena, who had actually climbed the china tree, confesses to Dolly: “Envied you, Dolly. Your pink room. I've only knocked at the doors of such rooms, not often—enough to know that now there is no one but you to let me in.”
Dolly's “pink room” is a place for Collin to start from; Joel's “other room” at the Cloud Hotel is a place to which he can and must return. When Dolly dies, it is as if a ceremony of innocence and beauty had come to an end, and behind each character the Garden of Eden had clanged its gates shut. But life continues. Riley Henderson goes on to become a public figure, and Collin journeys north to study law. Reality does not surrender to the dream; it is merely redeemed by it. The childish self-absorption of a Joel yields to the wider horizon of a Collin. Seen in retrospect from Collin's point of view, the novel still appears as a pastoral elegy to irrevocable innocence. But the elegy is also mythicized; it is sung by the field of Indian grass, “a grass harp, gathering, telling, a harp of voices remembering a story.” The elegy is present and continuous; it may even affect the future. Yet Collin confesses, as Huck would never confess, that “my own life has seemed to me more a series of closed circles, rings that do not evolve with the freedom of the spiral.”
With Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958), the closed rings begin to evolve into a spiral, some open and continuous motion of the hero's spirit, or rather of the heroine's, the amazing Miss Holiday Golightly, traveling, as her Tiffany cards insist. But whether the driving motion of a spiral, so endless and implacable, possesses more freedom than a circle affords is a conundrum only Euclid may solve.
Holly, like Capote's other protagonists, is not yet out of her teens: “It was a face beyond childhood, yet this side of belonging to a woman.” But her initiation began long ago, before she became the child-bride, at fourteen, of Doc Golightly, a horse doctor in Tulip, Texas; began, probably, when she lost father and mother and was dumped with her brother Fred, half starved, on “various mean people.” The process of that initiation remains secret—there are intimations of outrage and misery beyond the limits of a child's endurance—for Holly behaves as if past and future were no more tangible than the air she breathes; but its result is nonetheless permanent: a wild and homeless love of freedom. When we see her during the war years in that New York brownstone of the East Seventies, she is fully nineteen, and she strikes us as an improbable combination of the picaro, the courtesan, and the poète maudit.
Improbability is indeed the quality she uses to criticize a dreary and truth-less round of existence, and artifice—she is an inspired liar—to transform it. “I'll never get used to anything. Anybody who does, they might as well be dead,” she cries at one point, and we realize that her rebellion against the given in life, the useful and prudential, is one of the sources of her vitality. It is as her dwarfish friend and Hollywood agent puts it, the “kid” is a “real phony,” and her specialty is presenting “horse-shit on a platter.” Screwball, phony, or saint—some will find it more convenient simply to say “sick, sick, sick”—it does not take us very long to recognize, to admire, Holly's hold on experience. Her philosophy is quite elementary—and hopelessly at odds with our times. “I don't mean I'd mind being rich and famous,” she tells the narrator. “That's very much on my schedule, and someday I'll try to get around to it; but if it happens, I'd like to have my ego tagging along. I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany's.” When Holly's dream comes true—the vision symbolized by the “ordre, luxe, et volupte” of Tiffany's which she uses to cure her spells of angst, “the mean reds”—she wants to be no other than herself. In this respect, she seems the opposite of Salinger's Holden Caulfield with whom she shares the quixotic gift of truth, and shares the ability to gamble everything on a wayward love for, say, Man O' War—Holden's ducks in Central Park—or her brother Fred—Holden's sister Phoebe. But also unlike Holden, whose stringent idealism limits the scope of his commitments, his joy, Holly's truth refers to no self-transcending concept. As she candidly admits:
Good? Honest is more what I mean. Not law-type honest—I'd rob a grave, I'd steal two-bits off a dead man's eyes if I thought it would contribute to the day's enjoyment—but unto-thyself-type honest. Be anything but a coward, a pretender, an emotional crook, a whore: I'd rather have cancer than a dishonest heart.
Her loyalty to others—the inmate Sally Tomato, for instance—is a loyalty to her own feelings for which she is willing to risk all.
Morality, we see, is still defined in the privacy of the passing moment. But privacy has many shades that we cannot afford to ignore. As the phantasmal vision of young Knox at the Cloud Hotel was followed by the elegiac insight of a more mature Fenwick; so does the latter give way to Holly's sustaining faith, belligerent almost, on the honesty of the heart. The last allows Capote's heroine to implicate herself in a wider range of experience that her predecessors could encompass; it permits her to check her code against the play of reality in manner Knox and Fenwick would have been powerless to command. But the crazy valor of Holly does not prevent her from carrying the customary burden of pain; the price of unorthodoxy, the intensity of her involvement with life, is fully paid. In this she is not unlike the hipsters whose badge, the dark glasses, she constantly wears. Holly has no possessions other than the moment requires—she is “camping out” in New York. Like the ugly tom cat she picks up by the river one day, her existence is thoroughly improvised: “I don't want to own anything until I know I've found the place where me and things belong together.” And like a wild thing she lives in the open sky; but she knows, too, that “it's better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear.” When her beloved brother, Fred, dies in the war—her brave soul goes berserk, the jaunty dark glasses are shattered, and her true piteous human nakedness is revealed—when her Brazilian lover abandons her pregnant, when she becomes involved in a narcotics scandal and the friends who fed on her emotional bounty desert her, when she jumps bail and takes off for Latin America, and thence to darkest Africa, the defiant spiral of her life, swirling into the unknown, leaves us breathless and afraid that so much light can diffuse itself into darkness, that such brave exuberance could be the product of greater desperation. And indeed Holly herself becomes afraid. On her way to the airport she stops in Spanish Harlem to let “her” cat off, admonishing it in a scene frankly sentimental to find a proper home for itself. Then she breaks down: “I'm very scared, Buster. Yes, at last. Because it could go on forever. Not knowing what's yours until you've thrown it away.”
Holly Golightly may be what we should all like to become if we could deposit comfort and respectability to an insured bank account; and her breezy excesses of fancy as of intuition may be, again, just what our stuffy age most requires. In her case the misfit hero certainly shows a fitting genius for living—rebellion here is secondary, spontaneous. But Capote himself is not entirely taken in by Holly's verve and piercing glitter. His tale, though lovingly told, has wit and sharp precision. As Holly sweeps through her zany adventures, one becomes conscious of a groundswell of gentle criticism. Mildred Grossman, the grind whom the narrator recalls from his schooldays, may be a “top-heavy realist,” but Holly by the same token must be considered a “lop-sided romantic”; and antithetical as the two girls seem, both “walk through life and out of it with the same determined step that took small notice of those cliffs at the left.” Even Holly's incorrigible tomcat finds at last a home with potted palms and lace curtains, a home and a name; but for Holly the narrator can only pray that she may be granted, sometime, somewhere, the grace of knowledge and repose. Narcissus found both in a reflected image; Holly, whimsical child of old Faust, looks for them beyond a vanishing horizon. For Holly—sooner or later we must say it—is a child too. She is premature in ways both delightful and regressive. (The latest avator of Capote's Wizard Man is the “fat woman” who haunts Holly's “red nightmares,” threatening to inflict punishment, withhold love, or destroy everything high and rare.) But does not childhood itself, to which adults wend such tortuous ways, present a criticism of maturity for which we seldom have a ready answer?
Criticism, the interplay of views, is sustained by right form. The form of Breakfast at Tiffany's approaches perfection. It has pace, narrative excitement, a firm and subtle hold on the sequence of events from the first backward glance to the final salutation. A novelette in scope, it still manages to treat a subject usually accorded the fuller scope of the picaresque novel with marvelous selectivity. The point of view, the tone, the style herald no technical discoveries in the field of fiction: they simply blend to make the subject spring to life. Capote allows the story to be told in the first person by a struggling young writer whose vantage of perception, now in the shadow, now in the light, captures the elusive figure of Holly with the aid of such minor figures as Joe Bell and O. J. Berman. The device is both revealing and discreet, for there is no doubt something about Holly's complexion that cannot bear too sharp a light. By establishing the right relation between his narrator and subject, Capote also strikes the right tone. For though the whole story is unfolded backwards in one sweeping flashback, the tone is not, like The Grass Harp's, elegiac. Elegy, where so much hope is called to question, is out of place. The tone comes closer to that of an invocation, a blessing: hail, Holly, and farewell. Criticism, as we have noted, is implied, patronage never. What keeps the tone from becoming patronizing—look at that wonderful spoiled child!—is the style. The style matches the exotic quality of the subject with its clear-headedness, matches whimsy with wit, though here and there, as in the description of the cat, Capote indulges himself in a superfluous flourish of imagery. Holly's lack of self-criticism is balanced by the searching temper of the narrator. Tension and control are maintained. This is evident in the most casual bit of description. Here is one of Holly:
She was still on the stairs, now she reached the landing, and the rag-bag colors of her boy's hair, tawny streaks, strands of albino-blond and yellow, caught the hall light. It was a warm evening, nearly summer, and she wore a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker. For all her chic thinness, she had an almost breakfast-cereal air of health, a soap and lemon cleanness, a rough pink darkening in the cheeks. Her mouth was large, her nose upturned. A pair of dark glasses blotted out her eyes.
Holly Golightly will remind a good many readers of Isherwood's Sally Bowles, and remind the greater community of movie-goers of Julie Harris' fine rendition of that role. But it is not chauvinism, we hope, that compels us to recognize her peculiarly American quality: her quixotic ideas of hope, sincerity, truth. (Sally may or may not have stood up for the gangster Tomato, while Holly could not have done otherwise.) Though Holly's life is completely open-ended, and her “initiation,” once again, brings with it no confirmation or knowledge—neither does it bring nostalgia—it is a life, like Verena's, that leaves behind it a trail of love and affection. Secret doors, which might have remained forever closed, are unlocked when she passes, and even savages commemorate her presence in carved images. She is in this, we see, like other heroes of contemporary fiction, scapegoats and liberators all, and if we refuse to emulate them or accept their painful destiny, noting in our wisdom its shortcomings, we cannot in good conscience ignore the truth their proud fate so urgently implies.
The nocturnal style of Capote revealed a sea-green world of silence and sudden violence; characters vanished and appeared in mystery; things happened, as it were, intransitively; connectives of motive as of syntax were omitted; time was suspended; and the liquid, dreamy density of sentences absorbed the shock of action and thrust of sense. Against the former mode, the daylight style commits itself to the autobiographical stance; it feigns literalness, personal authenticity; it seeks to clarify temporal and spatial relations; and it acknowledges the external claims of reality by yielding to a kind of humorous naiveté. Here is Collin's moment of illumination to stand against the witchery of Joel's vision at the Cloud Hotel:
Sister Ida chose a place on the bank from which she could supervise the bathing. “No cheating now—I want to see a lot of commotion.” We did. Suddenly girls old enough to be married were trotting around and not a stitch on; boys, too big and little all in there together naked as jay-birds. It was well that Dolly had stayed behind with the judge; and I wished Riley had not come either, for he was embarrassing in his embarrassment.
Those famous landscapes of youth and woodland water—in after years how often, trailing through the cold rooms of museums, I stopped before such a picture, stood long haunted moments having it recall that gone scene, not as it was, a band of goose-fleshed children dabbling in an autumn creek, but as the painting presented it, husky youths and wading water-diamonded girls; and I wondered then, wonder now, how they fared, where they went in this world, that extraordinary family.
The contrasts between the two passages, style and context, are obvious. Joel is led to his insight by departed spirits, once the guests of the Cloud Hotel; Collin is led to his meditation by naked children bathing in the sunlight. Joel ends by choosing “a butterfly that is not there at all,” by embracing a qualified autism; Collin ends on a note of “objective sympathy,” wondering about the fate of “that extraordinary family.” In short, the earlier passage looks inward, the latter outward. Narcissus, having plumbed his ultimate shallowness, harks once again to Echo.
Holly's parallel insight into her situation—these are all flashes of self-knowledge—takes her even farther towards finding a dramatic correlative to private intuitions. In the crucial passage already quoted, Holly confesses her fear of perpetual homelessness in a rented car speeding towards an airport, and confesses all to a real listener. The bounds of autism, of pure self-reflexiveness or even reflection, are finally broken. Holly's voice answers both Knox and Fenwick: it insinuates that beyond the imperatives of self-discovery, beyond love itself, lie the wider horizons of freedom.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4734
SOURCE: “Other Voices, Other Rooms: Oedipus Between the Covers,” in American Imago, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter, 1962, pp. 361–74.
[In the following essay, Mengeling discusses the Oedipal theme in Other Voices, Other Rooms.]
Truman Capote's first and most widely acclaimed novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) germinated in a mind deeply concerned with the power of darkness. Heaped with dreadful psychologies and nightmare terrors, it comes near to resembling a Gothic romance, stylistically nocturnal in the best tradition. It is a complicated work of many motifs, themes and sub-themes, a work which in the fourteen years since its publication has fallen victim to a variety of critical interpretations best described as tenuous.
John Aldridge was the first critic of Other Voices to exploit the theme of a boy's search for a father. Aldridge also utilizes, and within limits he is correct, the parallel sub-theme of a boy's “struggle to grow out of the dreamworld of childhood and to enter the real world of manhood.”1 More recently, Ihab Hassan has exhumed and labeled the Narcissus theme as being the “central” and “unifying impulse,” not only of Other Voices, Other Rooms, but of the whole of Capote, literary and personal. Undoubtedly Hassan has dug closest to the primal root of meaning in his detailed elaboration of Joel Harrison Knox's search for “an image which reflects darkly his own identity, his reality.”2 But even Hassan's interpretation is not complete focus. For Hassan, like Aldridge before him, has (with typical critical impatience) clutched a handy sub-theme,3 has sincerely though mistakenly labeled it the primary theme, and been consequently led into formulating an off-center value judgment concerning the work as a whole.
It is not the intention of this writer to exercise a literary judgment in connection with Other Voices, Other Rooms. For the present he will gladly leave this labor to those critics with preconceived literary systems. He does wish, however, to exactly establish the propelling and predominant theme of this novel. For a correct understanding of theme must always precede a correct value judgment, and it is just this understanding that has eluded such Capote critics as John Aldridge and Ihab Hassan.
The primary theme of Other Voices, Other Rooms is oedipal in nature. Because this is so it would be unduly difficult, if not impossible, to establish the validity of its presence without briefly touching at times upon certain Freudian theories and terms. However, it must be emphasized that the esthetic use of such a theme need not necessitate any knowledge of Freud or Freudian theory on the part of Capote, who has said in the Paris Review: “All I want to do is to tell a story and sometimes it is best to choose a symbol. I would not know a Freudian symbol as such if you put it to me.”4 Instead, let it be sufficient to say that Truman Capote, in writing Other Voices, Other Rooms, has been consciously or unconsciously interested in the aesthetic possibilities of an archetypal process,5 and that he has exploited them in one defective way or another depending upon his dramatic purpose.
When the narrative opens Joel Harrison Knox is at the age of puberty, a time, as Freud explains, when the importance of the Oedipus complex has by no means vanished. It is at this time that the sexual instinct asserts its demands with all the strength and intensity of adolescent lust, and the parents, original objects of sexual desire, once more become the love objects of the libido. But to become a loved and loving member of a normal adult society the child must now free himself from his parents (which they help him to do) and discover a foreign object to love, one more sexually acceptable to the developing super-ego. The child must, of course, release his sexual desires from the mother. Seemingly, this break was forced upon Joel at the age of twelve when his mother died of pneumonia. Joel consequently seeks reconciliation and identification with a father he has never seen chiefly in hopes of satisfying the demands of his growing super-ego for guidance. His father, whom in absence Joel has imaginatively deified,6 he optimistically anticipates will give him the love, guidance, and understanding that had been taken from him with his mother's death. Now it must be the father, Edward Sansom, that guides Joel from the dreamworld of childhood to the adult world of reality.7
But Joel's conscious efforts to grow will prove abortive, for he has, in fact, not alienated his ego from the dominance of the dead mother. Instead, he has unconsciously compensated for her loss by establishing a somewhat spurious identification with her.
Because his mother died of pneumonia in a cold, wet, New Orleans January, Joel gradually comes to project her image into the figure of a fairy tale personality, the Snow Queen.8 Joel first hears the fairy tale “The Snow Queen” shortly after his mother's death but preceding his journey to Skully's Landing, the place where he is to meet his father:
Listening to it, it came to Joel that he had a lot in common with Little Kay, whose outlook was twisted when a splinter from the Sprite's evil mirror infected his eye, changing his heart into a lump of bitter ice: suppose, he thought, hearing Ellen's gentle voice and watching the firelight warm his cousin's faces, suppose, like Little Kay, he also were spirited off to the Snow Queen's frozen palace? What living soul would then brave robber barons for his rescue? And there was no one, really no one.9
Here, in effect, is what later proves to be a justifiable foreboding. For Joel is about to embark upon his own personal journey to the palace of a Snow Queen, there to be entombed in a frozen state of oedipal fixation, and no one, not even his father,10 will “brave robber barons” to effect his rescue. When, for instance, towards the end of the novel Joel dreams of the Cloud Hotel, a decaying manse equivalent in concept to the ice-palace of the Snow Queen, he decides that this “was the place folks came when they went off the face of the earth, when they died but were not dead.” And as he dreams of walking through its deserted and dust-filled rooms he realizes that “even here” there is “no father” to claim him.
In journeying to meet his father Joel moves away from society (Paradise Chapel) towards isolation and fixation (Skully's Landing, or as the Noon City folk call it, The “Skulls”).11 As he rides through the desolate and lonesome countryside, where “there are luminous green logs that shine under the dark marsh water like drowned corpses,” certain “sickening memories” slide through his mind:
Of these, one in particular stood out: he was at a grocery counter, his mother waiting next him, and outside in the street January rain was making icicles on the naked tree limbs. Together they left the store and walked silently along the wet pavement, he holding a calico umbrella above his mother, who carried a sack of tangerines. They passed a house where a piano was playing, and the music sounded sad in the gray afternoon, but his mother remarked what a pretty song. And when they reached home she was humming it, but she felt cold and went to bed, and the doctor came, and for over a month he came every day, but she was always cold, and Aunt Ellen was there, always smiling, and the doctor, always smiling, and the uneaten tangerines shriveled up in the icebox; and when it was over he went with Ellen to live in a dingy two-family house near Pontchartrain.
And even though he considers being sent for by Edward Sansom a “Godlike action” and a “wonderful piece of luck,” he feels “dizzy with heat and loss and despair,” not being able to keep back his tears when letting his “attention turn inward,” as he does in thinking of the dead mother. Joel is approaching the point where it will be beyond his control to direct his attention outward and as the narrative progresses he increasingly seeks to discover the reality of himself in thoughts of the mother. When asked by Zoo Fever, Negro servant at the Landing, whether he had ever seen snow, Joel composes a rather intricate and significant lie concerning himself, his mother, and her death by snow:
“It was one stormy night in Canada that I saw the snow,” he said, though the farthest north he'd ever set foot was Richmond, Virginia. “We were lost in the mountains, Mother and me, and snow, tons and tons of it, was piling up all around us. And we lived in an ice-cold cave for a solid week, and we kept slapping each other to stay awake: if you fall asleep in snow, chances are you'll never see the light of day again.”
“Then what happened?” said Missouri, disbelief subtly narrowing her eyes.
“Well, things got worse and worse. Mama cried, and the tears froze on her face like little BB bullets, and she was always cold …” Nothing had warmed her, not the fine wool blankets, not the mugs of hot toddy Ellen fixed. “Each night hungry wolves howled in the mountains, and I prayed …” In the darkness of the garage he'd prayed, and in the lavatory at school, and in the first row of the Nemo Theatre while duelling gangsters went unnoticed on the magic screen. “The snow kept falling and heavy drifts blocked the entrance to the cave, but uh …” Stuck. It was the end of a Saturday serial that leaves the hero locked in a slowly filling gas chamber. “And?”
“And a man in a red coat, a Canadian mountie, rescued us … only me, really: Mama had already frozen to death.”12
Further significance is given to this passage when Capote goes on to write: “… somehow, spinning the tale, Joel had believed every word; the cave, the howling wolves, these had seemed more real than Missouri and her long neck, or Miss Amy, or the shadowy kitchen.” In such wise, though at this point only momentarily, does a prophetic, snow-filled dreamworld connected with the dead mother seem more real and acceptable to Joel than the concrete environment of the Landing.
It is late one afternoon that Joel, while standing in the garden, observes a queer looking lady in one of the windows of the house. He is certain that she is no one he has ever known, though she “brought to mind his own vaporish reflection in the wavy chamber mirror.” She has “marshmallow features,” wears a powdered wig, and is attired in a flowing white gown. Though Joel is at this point unaware of the fact, this pale apparition is Cousin Randolph. Randolph, in one sense, is the Evil Sprite of the fairy tale, for it is through his perverted teachings that Joel by degrees comes to accept him as the concrete prototype of the Snow Queen, and therefore the image of his mother and the ego of himself. Even now he sees in this strange lady the “vaporish reflection” of his own ego.13 When the curtain is abruptly drawn and the window is once more empty, Joel, somewhat taken aback, stumbles against a dinner bell used long before to summon slaves from the fields. “One raucous, cracked note” shatters the “hot stillness” in another prophecy of enslavement.
That evening Joel is quick to establish a definite relationship between the Snow Queen and the lady in the window:
She had the eyes of a fiend, the lady did, wild witch-eyes, cold and green as the bottom of the North Pole sea: twin to the Snow Queen, her face was pale, wintry, carved from ice, and her white hair towered on her head like a wedding cake. She had beckoned to him with a crooked finger, beckoned …14
And it is only a few minutes later that Randolph whispers into Joel's ear with a cooing, childlike innocence, “try to be happy here, try a little to like me.” Joel, seeing his own round eyes in those of Randolph, somewhat pathetically replies, “I like you already.”
Randolph, in partially winning the endorsement of Joel, begins to prepare his ego for the reacceptance of a mother-image as love object of the libido. Joel can have little inkling of the hidden meaning when Randolph says: “Have you never heard what the wise men say; all of the future exists in the past.” Neither does Joel fully understand when Randolph cryptically speculates on the regressive path of love along which Joel is being led:
“… and still fewer know that happiness in love is not the absolute focusing of all emotion in another: one has always to love a good many things which the beloved must come only to symbolize; the true beloveds of this world are in their lover's eyes lilac opening, ship lights, school bells, a landscape, remembered conversations, friends, a child's Sunday, lost voices, one's favorite suit, autumn and all seasons, memory, yes, it being the earth and water of existence, memory.”15
Such an observation shows a love of things past, a dedication to the dead and the gone. Additional pertinence can be found in the fact that this observation is made in Randolph's curio-cluttered room, a chamber he refers to in “the warm blood of darkness” as being his “mother's womb.”
The second of the novel's three parts opens with what is in effect a climax. Joel, in finding his father little more than a paralytic zombie,16 a grotesque figure not possibly acceptable as a father, somewhat curbs his last feeble resistances to Randolph and all that Randolph stands for:17
If only he'd never seen Mr Sansom! Then he could have gone on picturing him as looking this and that wonderful way, as talking in a kind strong voice, as being really his father. Certainly this Mr Sansom was not his father. This Mr Sansom was nobody but a pair of crazy eyes.
A further curb to his resistances to Randolph ensues when Joel, now without the hope of father guidance, personally experiences the inability to confirm his manhood in relation to the tomboy, Idabel Tompkins. When, for instance, on a fishing expedition he attempts to kiss Idabel, Joel finds himself not only being fought off, but actually overpowered. Another instance in which Joel fails to assert his manhood occurs as he and Idabel are treading through swamplike underbrush on way to the Cloud Hotel, a place where Joel hopes to obtain a magic and protective charm from the hermit conjureman, Little Sunshine. When in attempting to cross a millstream they are suddenly confronted by a dangerous and outsized water moccasin, it is Idabel who must slay the snake, for Joel is frozen with fear. In the eyes of the snake Joel imagines he sees the accusing eyes of his father, the father he finds it impossible to accept. It is in failing such initiation ordeals that Joel is made more eligible to the advances of Randolph.
For a time Joel's primary thought is to escape from the accusing eyes of the father, for he is sure that they know “exactly what went on inside his head.” He and Idabel decide to run off, but do not do so before Joel, in a somewhat disgusting scene of childish naivete, attempts to placate his feelings of guilt:
Tenderly he took Mr Sansom's hand and put it against his cheek and held it there until there was warmth between them; he kissed the dry fingers, and the wedding ring whose gold had been meant to encircle them both. “I'm leaving Father,” he said, and it was, in a sense, the first time he'd acknowledged their blood; slowly he rose up and pressed his palms on either side of Mr Sansom's face and brought their lips together: “My only father,” he whispered, turning, and, descending the stairs, he said it again, but this time all to himself.
Necessarily, this attempt to mollify the wrath of the father proves abortive and false, being, as it is, a farewell acceptance only possible at a time of desertion.
When the two runaways stop for a time at the Noon City fair Joel meets the wistful midget, Miss Wisteria. Sitting with her on top of the ferris wheel he thinks that perhaps escape is not impossible. But as an angry thunderstorm brews overhead and the crowd disappears into shelter, Joel sees in the sudden emptiness below an apparition of Randolph. Consciously unaware of Randolph's true function Joel believes him to be the “messenger for a pair of telescopic eyes,” an envoy sent by the father to drag him back to the Landing:
Vine from the Landing's garden had stretched these miles to entwine his wrists, and he saw their plans, his and Idabel's, break apart like the thundersplit sky: not yet, not if he could find her, and he ran into the house: “Idabel, you are here, you are!”
But Idabel has disappeared, and Joel, to escape those “telescopic eyes,” seeks refuge in thoughts of the dead mother, the parent for whom Randolph is truly the envoy:
… stay awake, Joel, in eskimoland sleep is death, is all, remember? She was cold, his mother, she passed to sleep with dew of snowflakes scenting her hair; if he could have but thawed open her eyes here now she would be to hold him and say, as he'd said to Randolph, “Everything is going to be all right.”
It is at this point that the perceptive reader becomes definitely aware of Joel's fixation, for Joel, as he acknowledges, is unable to place his love in anything other than the image of the dead mother:
Miss Wisteria stood so near he could smell the rancid wetness of her shriveled silk; her curls had uncoiled, the little crown had slipped awry, her yellow sash was fading its color on the floor. “Little boy,” she said, swerving her flashlight over the bent, broken walls where her midget image mingled with the shadows of things in flight. “Little boy,” she said, the resignation of her voice intensifying its pathos. But he dared not show himself, for what she wanted he could not give: his love was in the earth, shattered and still, dried flowers where eyes should be, and moss upon the lips, his love was faraway feeding on the rain, lilies frothing from its ruin.
Joel is now ready to complete the transference of his affective mother fixation to the person of Cousin Randolph.
Part three of the narrative opens with Joel once more at the Landing. Ironically, he is desperately ill with a case of pneumonia. In a state of coma he experiences a prophetic dream of wish-fulfillment, a phantasy of the mother who will return from the grave to find her son and claim him in death. Joel, with a wizard-type magician named Mr Mystery, is riding over “snowdeep fields” on his way to the palace of the Snow Queen. Suddenly, “an ice-wall rose before them … r-r-rip, the ice tore like cellophane, the sleigh slid through into the Landing's parlor.” Gathered there, with the exception of the Snow Queen and his mother, is every figure Joel has known or thought about since coming to the Landing. As he watches transfixed, each of the black-clad figures drops an “offering” into a “gladiola-garlanded cedar chest.” Joel lies inside the chest clothed in the peculiar fashion of the Snow Queen and the lady of the window:
… all dressed in white, his face powdered and rouged, his goldbrown hair arranged in damp ringlets: Like an angel, they said, more beautiful than Alcibiades, more beautiful, said Randolph, and Idabel wailed: Believe me, I tried to save him, but he wouldn't move, and snakes are so very quick.
In psychically identifying with the strange lady and the Snow Queen Joel has accepted Randolph as mother substitute:
He did not want any more to be responsible, he wanted to put himself in the hands of his friend, be, as here in the sickbed, dependent upon him for his very life. Looking in the handglass became, consequently, an ordeal: it was as if now only one eye examined for signs of maturity, while the other, gradually of the two the more attentive, gazed inward wishing him always to remain as he was.
Capote, however, seems determined to carry Joel beyond mere fixation to the farther point of sexual consummation. Joel, therefore, must somehow be infused with the psychological strength necessary for him to assume the position of husband, not child, in relation to Randolph, the mother image.
Having sufficiently recovered from the pneumonia Joel agrees to accompany Randolph to the Cloud Hotel, the name of which evokes the vision of “a kind of mist-white palace floating foglike through the woods.” Indeed this is a journey that parallels the one of the coma-dream. The Cloud Hotel, a structure where time is frozen in the past, acts somewhat obliquely for Joel as a uniting and invigorating force. Seemingly faithful to the archetype of the descent into Hades, Joel returns to the Landing possessed of a new type of knowledge and strength.18 He knows now “that he (is) strong,” and with a “crazy elation … he ran, he zigzagged, he sang, he was in love.” Also, for the first time he “saw how helpless Randolph was,” and significantly the scene ends with Joel leading Randolph back to the Landing. Thus, during his stay at the Hotel Joel has somehow obtained the strength needed to assume the role of protector and sexual lover to Randolph.
It is in the final scene of Other Voices, Other Rooms that the father image, only remaining check to sexual consummation, is recognized by Joel as symbolically and psychologically slain. Joel, standing in the twilight garden, watches the dark clouds “coming over the sun,” and finally, the “meticulous setting of the sun.” It is then that he realizes that “Mr Sansom was the sun.” This act of patricide opens the way for Joel's sexual consummation with the mother image, Cousin Randolph, who now appears in the window wearing a flowing white gown suggestive of the Snow Queen:
… it was as if snow were falling there, flakes shaping snow-eyes, hair; a face trembled like a white beautiful moth, smiled. She beckoned to him, shining and silver, and he knew he must go: unafraid, not hesitating, he paused only at the garden's edge where, as though he'd forgotten something, he stopped and looked back at the bloomless, descending blue, at the boy he had left behind.
Concerning this final scene Hassan has written: “We are not sure whether it is in triumph or defeat that Joel responds to this mute appeal. We can only sense that the traditional modes of behavior are no longer in command of life.”19 In clarification I suggest that both triumph and defeat are inherent in this paradoxical finale. Joel's triumph lies within the framework of the oedipal process and exists in his successful destruction of the father image which had acted as a stigma to the fulfillment of his ego desires. By denying the existence of his father Joel in effect has not only psychically slain him but has also left himself in a position to extend the oedipal process to the point of sexual consummation. But naturally defeat is inherent in, and overweighs, such as “bloomless,” twisted triumph. For in the process Joel's super-ego (in ironic counterpoint to Sansom's physical paralysis) has been crippled, and must now remain forever retarded and incomplete.
John W. Aldridge, After the Lost Generation (New York: 1958), p. 203.
Ihab Hassan, “The Daydream and Nightmare of Narcissus,” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, I, (Spring-Summer: 1960), p. 5.
The sub-theme chosen is usually the one that will most readily force the novel either into or out of the critic's preconceived system of literary and cultural values.
Quoted in Hassan, p. 7.
Freud believed that each individual is born with fragments of a phylogenetic origin, or, in other words, an archaic heritage, not individual and personal, but applying to all mankind collectively. This archaic heritage includes certain dispositions, ideational contents, and memory traces of the experiences of former, primordial generations. In an abbreviated form, each individual undergoes in his psychological development a reiteration of the more meaningful events of a process so ancient that it occurred in the dawn of history. This process is Freud's scientific myth of the father-dominated, primal horde, original root of the oedipal archetype.
Further details of this theory may be found in Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, authorized translation with an introduction by A. A. Brill, (New York: 1918).
By deifying his father Joel has equated Edward Sansom with God-the-Father and all the masculine, authoritarian symbols (lightening, thunder, the sun, etc.) usually associated with such an image. In a manner of speaking, Joel is asking divine providence to guide him through the initiation rites connected with manhood, individualization, and discovery of the Self.
In this mode the literal theme of a boy's search for a father parallels the underlying, though primary, theme of a boy falling prey to an oedipal fixation.
It is for this reason that Joel, when subsequently thinking of the mother-image, invariably connects it with snow, ice, and the color white.
Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms (New York: 1948).
Already Joel feels that he is falling prey to some nebulous, demon-type spell because he is unable to dispel the anxiety brought to bear by the oedipal conflict. Because he is incapable of understanding the true origin and nature of this anxiety he ascribes its most painful aspects to external, non-human types (e.g., demons, wizards, his deified father, a malevolent God) that for some inexplicable reason have the will to do him harm. The fact that he includes Edward Sansom and God-the-Father within this group of external types is evidence of the fact that his attitude toward the father is ambivalent, and can be seen in such statements as the following: “Joel didn't much like God, for He had betrayed him too many times.” Or: “He believed there was conspiracy abroad, even his father had a grudge against him, even God. Somewhere along the line he'd been played a mean trick. Only he didn't know who or what to blame.”
To show this shift Capote also utilizes the transitional metaphor of daylight into darkness. This same metaphor, to give another example, is used in the final scene of the narrative.
In passing, it is interesting to note that the female genitals are often symbolically represented in dreams (though Joel is not in this instance dreaming) as being a cave. The male genitals, on the other hand, are often represented by mountains. On a less unconscious level, the “ice-cold cave” in which Joel is for a time imaginatively imprisoned acts as a poorly disguised version of the Snow Queen's ice palace. The tacked on reference to the “Canadian mountie” obviously acts as the idealized father-image whom Joel desires to effect his rescue and give him guidance.
It is in this way that the Narcissus sub-theme, as outlined by Ihab Hassan, parallels the primary theme.
This passage is interesting not only because of the Randolph-Snow Queen relationship, but because of the “wedding cake” image which foreshadows the symbolic marriage of Joel and Randolph at the end of the novel.
Once again it is interesting to note that such things as lilacs, ships, bells, and landscapes are primary dream symbols that represent the female genitals.
By a simple inversion of the letters n and m in the name Sansom we arrive at the name Samson, a biblical hero shorn of his strength by the hands of a woman. The ineffective Edward Sansom was shorn of his strength to act as a true father by the hands of the effeminate, homoerotic, Randolph.
Among other things, Randolph stands for homosexuality, though this is on the most literal level of the book's meaning. It is because Randolph must assume the role of mother-wife to Joel that Capote finds it of dramatic necessity for Randolph to be of the effeminate variety.
It is during this stay at the Cloud Hotel that the mule John Brown (acting here as a symbolic and sterile counterpart to the father, Edward Sansom) accidentally hangs itself.
The John Brown of historical fame had tried unsuccessfully to free the slaves and was hung for his efforts.
Hassan, p. 12.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1139
SOURCE: “From Gothic to Camp,” in The Critical Response to Truman Capote, edited by Joseph J. Waldmeir and John C. Waldmeir, Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 95–7.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1964, Malin contends that Capote's fiction has descended from Gothic supernaturalism into camp.]
Perhaps the best clue to Capote's talent is one line from “Shut a Final Door”: “All our acts are acts of fear.” In such early stories as “A Tree of Night,” “The Headless Hawk,” and “Master Misery,” he presents characters who are afraid to stare at their furious shadows. Why are they afraid? What causes their exaggerated, childish reactions? We don't know. Capote refuses to analyze his characters—it is hard to call them people—he takes their fear as a psychological axiom, not grounding it in classic Freudian theories. In a way this is his most significant insight: he realizes that fear, never completely understood, simply lies with us—waiting, like Henry James' Beast, to spring at our throats.
Of course, we can label Capote “exotic,” “infantile,” or “primitive.” But there is no doubt that he disturbs us. He weakens our daylight control by means of his ability to image fear—even to celebrate it. The high point of his Gothic art is probably “The Headless Hawk.” Here is one striking passage:
Here is a hall without exit, a tunnel without end. Overhead, chandeliers sparkle, and wind-bent candles float on currents of air. Before him is an old man rocking in a rocking chair, an old man with yellow-dyed hair, powdered cheeks, kewpie-doll lips: Vincent recognizes Vincent. Go away, screams Vincent, the young and handsome, but Vincent, the old and horrid, creeps forward on all fours and climbs spiderlike onto his back. Threats, pleas, blows, nothing will dislodge him.
This passage deliberately distorts reality; it marries the normal and the fantastic. Consider, for example, the use of “kewpie-doll lips” or the “artificial” sparkles of the chandelier. The hero—it is his dream—is as “unnatural” as his surroundings. He, too, is unstable; his identity is not fixed. Vincent is so broken, all his acts remain only acts of fear—that he becomes two creatures locked in never-ending, destructive embrace.
It is obvious that we cannot surrender to Capote's fiction unless we “suspend our disbelief.” Although we have grown up, we must believe once more in goblins and witches. Such belief is “religious.” Capote forces us to recognize the other world—as Vincent recognizes Vincent. We cannot remain here and now; we must go through this “hall without exit.” The Gothic supernaturalism is our substitute for traditional religion—our primitive ritual to ward off fear. It has not been noticed before, but Capote deals often with archetypal situations. “A Tree of Night” has a “false” Lazarus, risen from the dead. “Master Misery” has ironic confessions to a Christ-like figure. These stories may invert Christianity—they are superstitious, pagan, and nihilistic—but they also affirm the miraculous danger of life.
After his first two books—Other Voices, Other Rooms, and A Tree of Night—Capote fled from his true muse. He decided to become cute and glib. (Of course, he displayed these tendencies earlier, but he did not yield to them.) Instead of dark, “headless” truths he gave us sunny reportage. It is certainly surprising that various critics—including Mark Schorer and Alfred Kazin—applauded this transformation. They actually liked Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Muses Are Heard!
When we reread these works, we realize that Capote has joined the yea-sayers. He preaches LOVE. Holly Golightly may inspire others—she is wild and pathetic—but I think she is more artificial than Vincent. She says the oddest things and loves funny cats. The charming cast of our Porgy and Bess troupe in Russia is also excessively picturesque.
Can we account for the change? If we assume that Capote once believed in fear as the “aboriginal demon”—D. H. Lawrence's phrase—we can surmise that he found he could no longer control it. He ran away, covering his tracks. In Breakfast at Tiffany's fear lurks in the background, but it masquerades as superficial Angst. The following exchange shows us how far Capote has descended:
“You're afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don't know what you're afraid of. Except something bad is going to happen, only you don't know what it is. You've had that feeling?”
“Quite often. Some people call it angst.”
“All right. Angst. But what do you do about it?”
“Well, a drink helps.”
“I've tried that. I've tried aspirin, too. … What I've found does the most good is just to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany's. It calms me down right away, the quietness and proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there, not with those kind men in their nice suits, and that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets.”
Childish fear has become fashionable alienation. Incomplete exorcisms have become pleasure outings to Tiffany. Capote, in other words, is giving us false religion—one which soothes our souls with glittering generalities. Thus he is “popular”—he can sell this positive stuff to Hollywood.
Or he can write scintillating gossip for Holiday and The New Yorker: interviews with Marlon Brando—does he have a demon?—or travelogues on Ischia or Brooklyn Heights. His gift for dialogue remains; his poetic phrases still have “style.” But there is little substance in these essays. Only at rare times does fear enter to save the situation, to reclaim his deep, unwilling involvement. At the end of “A House on the Heights”—even the title is annoying—Capote pictures himself walking past the “turf” of the Cobras:
Their eyes, their asleep sick insolent eyes swerved on me as I climbed the street. I crossed to the opposite curb; then knew, without needing to verify it, that the Cobras had uncoiled and were sliding toward me, I heard them whistling; and the children hushed, the skip-rope ceased swishing. Someone—a pimpled purple birthmark bandit-masked the lower half of his face—said, “Hey yuh, Whitey, lemmeseeduhcamra.” Quicken one's step? Pretend not to hear. But every alternative seemed explosive.
The passage presents fear again, without explaining it. (Is he courting attack in this scene?) The rhythms quicken; the style moves—perhaps too decorously. But, ironically enough, Capote ends the essay with his safe return to the pretty house. It would be good to see him outside again, pursued by ominous footsteps—like Sylvia in “Master Misery.”
The narrator of Breakfast at Tiffany's says at one point: “the average personality reshapes frequently, every few years even our bodies undergo a complete overhaul—desirable or not, it is a natural thing that we should change.” I hope that Capote returns to his Gothic muse, especially if he can, once again, worship fear in complex and courageous rituals.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9087
SOURCE: “The Dark Stories,” in The Worlds of Truman Capote, Stein and Day, 1970, pp. 16–39.
[In the following essay, Nance examines the defining characteristics of Capote's early short stories.]
The early fiction of Truman Capote is dominated by fear. It descends into a subconscious ruled by the darker archetypes, a childhood haunted by bogeymen, a world of blurred realities whose inhabitants are trapped in unendurable isolation. The stories set in this dark world include “A Tree of Night” (1943), “Miriam” (1944), “The Headless Hawk” (1946), “Shut a Final Door” (1947), and “Master Misery” (1948) (S).1 Deep below the surface they are really one story, and they have one protagonist. This story will be continued, and its hero will achieve a peculiar liberation in Capote's first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948). The fear and sense of captivity that overshadow these stories result from the individual's inability to accept and respond properly to reality. On the social level this means inability to love other persons. More essentially, it means refusal to accept mysterious and frightening elements within the self, for the persons encountered by the protagonist are most properly viewed as projections of inner personae. One indication of the climate of the protagonist's inner world is the fact that nearly all of these persons are grotesques.
The stories are fundamentally psychic in orientation. In at least two cases—“Miriam” and “Shut a Final Door”—the line between realism and fantasy is definitely crossed: things happen that are literally impossible. Usually, however, the settings seem realistic; we are kept in a world that is conceivably real, though strange, and the effects are wrought through manipulations of the protagonist's consciousness. The characteristic style of the early work is intensely poetic, and the meaning of the stories rests heavily on intricate patterns of symbolism. The most prominent stylistic and symbolic motif in the fiction up to and including Other Voices, Other Rooms is that of descent into a state of intensified and distorted consciousness. This happens in each story, the differences being mostly in what might be termed focal length. Sometimes the setting remains normal and the character simply becomes sleepy or drunk, or has a dream. At other times the entire setting takes on dreamlike characteristics, often through weather imagery such as darkness or snow. In the most extreme cases the reader is pulled completely into the illusion by means of apparitions or mysterious voices presented as real. This scale of reader involvement is one of several ways of looking at the stories and not, incidentally, a simple measure of their total effectiveness: Capote handles his various effects always with considerable skill.
Perhaps the most obvious thing to be noted about Capote's early work is its highly personal quality. The stories take place in an inner world almost entirely devoid of social or political concern. Because of this subjective orientation, even the treatment of human relations has about it an air of isolation, of constriction. With this qualification in mind, one may go on to observe that love and the failure of love are of central concern in Capote's fiction. The meaning of love, as it emerges in the early work, would seem to be uncritical acceptance. In each story the protagonist is given an opportunity to accept someone and something strange and disturbing, to push back the frontier of darkness both in the surrounding world and in the soul. Not until Joel works his way through Other Voices, Other Rooms does one of them manage to do so. Their characteristic kind of failure appears in simplest form in the tendency to dismiss any challenging new presence as “crazy.” Capote's impulse, from “A Tree of Night” to In Cold Blood, is to accept and understand the “abnormal” person; it has been, indeed, one of the main purposes of his writing to safeguard the unique individual's freedom from such slighting classifications as “abnormal.”
“A Tree of Night,” the earliest story included in Capote's Selected Writings, sets the pattern of the self-protective hero who lives in fear because of a refusal to accept. Compared to some of the stories which follow, this one is relatively simple. The style is unobtrusive, the symbolic structure modest. Events stay within the bounds of credibility, and yet the reader is chillingly exposed to the grotesque both in the external world and in the semiconscious mind of the young heroine.
Nineteen-year-old Kay, returning to college from her uncle's funeral, is forced to sit in a train compartment opposite two other passengers: a gin-reeking dwarfish woman with a huge head, and a corpselike man. The woman persuades her to drink some gin and goes to get paper cups. Kay is left alone with the man, unable to take her eyes off him, repelled but fascinated, especially by his eyes “like a pair of clouded milky-blue marbles, thickly lashed and oddly beautiful” (S 6).
The movement of this story is Kay's descent into a half-world of subconscious childhood fears. Already begun when she entered the compartment, it accelerates as she waits drowsily for the woman's return. When the man unexpectedly strokes her cheek, she leans forward in confusion and gazes into his eyes. “Suddenly, from some spring of compassion, she felt for him a keen sense of pity; but also, and this she could not suppress, an overpowering disgust, an absolute loathing: something about him, an elusive quality she could not quite put a finger on, reminded her of—of what?” (S 7). When Kay tries to escape, the woman seizes her wrist and shows her a worn handbill describing her companion as “Lazarus, the Man Who Is Buried Alive.” She explains that they do a traveling show featuring a mock burial.
The man begins playing obscenely with a peach-seed love charm, insisting that she buy it, and Kay finally runs from the compartment. When she steps out onto the black, freezing observation platform the immediate danger of sleep is removed but her mind begins to slip back toward a ghost-ridden childhood. The area, though new to her, is “strangely familiar.” Unable to light a cigarette, she angrily tosses it away and begins “to whimper softly, like an irritable child” (S 14). She longs to go inside and sleep but knows that she is afraid to do so. Suddenly, compulsively, she kneels down and touches the red lantern that hangs in a corner, the one source of warmth and light. A “subtle zero sensation” warns her that the man is behind her, and she finally gathers courage to look up. Seeing his harmless face in the red light, she knows that what she fears is not him but
a memory, a childish memory of terrors that once, long ago, had hovered over her like haunted limbs on a tree of night. Aunts, cooks, strangers—each eager to spin a tale or teach a rhyme of spooks and death, omens, spirits, demons. And always there had been the unfailing threat of the wizard man: stay close to the house, child, else a wizard man'll snatch and eat you alive! He lived everywhere, the wizard man, and everywhere was danger. At night, in bed, hear him tapping at the window? Listen!
Danger is still everywhere for Kay. Holding onto the railing and “inching upward,” she returns from childhood and the deepest part of her mind only to accompany the man back into a coach “numb with sleep.” She wants to cry out and waken the other passengers, but the fear of death is too strong: “What if they were not really asleep?” (S 15) Tears of frustration in her eyes, she agrees to buy the love charm, “if that's all—just all you want” (S 15). There is no answer, and Kay surrenders to sleep, watching the man's pale face “change form and recede before her like a moon-shaped rock sliding downward under a surface of water” (S 15–16). She is dimly aware when the woman steals her purse and pulls her raincoat “like a shroud above her head” (S 16).
Kay's immersion in the subconscious has not been cathartic. The wizard man she buried alive there as a child has finally come forth like Lazarus, but only to haunt her in an even more insistent shape. She has not eluded him any more than she will elude death. In fact, death seems already on her, short-circuiting her life, as the raincoat-shroud is pulled above her head. But Kay's failure is not simply her mortality. She is like a child living fearfully in the dark because, shutting her eyes against ghosts, she has shut out love and life.
Capote's next story, “Miriam,” though its materials are different, follows a pattern essentially the same as that of “A Tree of Night.” Like Kay, Mrs. H. T. Miller hides repressed fears beneath a fastidious exterior, the penetration of which provides the main action of the story. A sixty-one-year-old widow, she lives alone and unobtrusively in a modest but immaculate New York apartment. Her life is neither broad nor deep. Her interests are few, and she has almost no friends. Her activities are “seldom spontaneous” (S 17). Snow is falling lightly as she goes out for a movie one night, leaving a light burning because “she found nothing more disturbing than a sensation of darkness” (S 17). She moves along “oblivious as a mole burrowing a blind path,” but outside the theater she is agitated by the sight of a little girl with long, silver-white hair. Miriam's intrusion into Mrs. Miller's life begins gently, with a request that she buy her ticket, since children are not admitted alone. On closer examination Mrs. Miller is struck by the girl's large eyes, “hazel, steady, lacking any childlike quality whatsoever” (S 19). As they talk, it emerges that Mrs. Miller's name, until now hidden beneath her late husband's initials, is also Miriam. Disturbed by the girl's coolly self-contained manner, she leaves her and goes in alone.
A week of snow follows, progressively shutting Mrs. Miller off from her familiar world. She loses count of the days. One evening, comfortably settled in bed with hot-water bottle and newspaper, her face masked with cold cream, she is roused by the persistent buzz of the doorbell. She notes that the clock says eleven, though she “was always asleep by ten.” Indifferent to the lateness of the hour, Miriam gently forces her way into the apartment. Indifferent also to the season, she wears a white silk dress. The older woman, by now thoroughly frightened, tries to disarm this apparition by recourse to familiar categories: “Your mother must be insane to let a child like you wander around at all hours of the night—and in such ridiculous clothes. She must be out of her mind” (S 21). Miriam continues to study Mrs. Miller, “forcing their eyes to meet” (S 22). In the jewel box she finds a cameo brooch that was a gift from Mr. Miller and insists on having it. Suddenly Mrs. Miller is stunned by the realization that she is, in this “hushed snow-city,” alone and helpless. The cameo, now on the girl's breast, emphasizes the identity of the two Miriams, “the blond profile like a trick reflection of its wearer” (S 23).
Miriam leaves and Mrs. Miller spends the next day in bed. When the next morning dawns with unseasonable brilliance, the bad dream seems to be over. Mrs. Miller straightens the apartment and then goes out shopping, this time spontaneously, having “no idea what she wanted or needed” (S 25.) Then, “as if by prearranged plan,” she finds herself buying glazed cherries, almond cakes—everything for which Miriam has expressed a desire. Meanwhile the weather suddenly turns colder, clouds cover the sun “like blurred lenses” (S 26), and snow begins to fall. When, later that day, Miriam returns with the intention of staying, Mrs. Miller at first yields with “a curious passivity” (S 27), then begs her to go away, dissolves in tears, and finally runs out the door.
For the next few minutes the story seems to return to the everyday world. Mrs. Miller pounds frantically on the door of the apartment below, is courteously received by a young couple, and incoherently tells them about a little girl who won't go away, and who is about to do “something terrible” (S 28). The man investigates but finds no one, and his wife, “as if delivering a verdict,” concludes, “Well, for cryinoutloud …” (S 29). Mrs. Miller climbs slowly back to her apartment and finds it as it was before Miriam entered, but also as empty and lifeless “as a funeral parlor” (S 29).
Having lost her bearings now completely, Mrs. Miller is sinking again, this time deeper than ever. “The room was losing shape; it was dark and getting darker and there was nothing to be done about it; she could not lift her hand to light a lamp” (S 29–30). Then, sitting passively, she begins once more to feel that it has all been only a bad dream. “Suddenly, closing her eyes, she felt an upward surge, like a diver emerging from some deeper, greener depth” (S 30). Feeling her mind waiting as though for a “revelation,” she begins to reason that Miriam was just an illusion, and that nothing really matters anyway. For all she has lost to Miriam is “her identity,” but now she is confident she has again found herself, Mrs. H. T. Miller (S 30). Comforting herself with these thoughts, she becomes aware of the harsh sound of a bureau drawer opening and closing, then the murmur of a silk dress “moving nearer and swelling in intensity till the walls trembled with the vibration and the room was caving under a wave of whispers” (S 30). She opens her eyes to the dull, direct stare of Miriam.
In a 1957 interview for the Paris Review, Capote, asked what he thought of his early stories, expressed qualified admiration for Other Voices, Other Rooms and added, “I like The Grass Harp, too, and several of my short stories, though not ‘Miriam,’ which is a good stunt but nothing more. No, I prefer ‘Children on Their Birthdays’ and ‘Shut a Final Door,’ and oh, some others, especially a story not too many people seemed to care for, ‘Master Misery.’”2
Capote's judgment on “Miriam,” though it tends to ignore the story's close thematic kinship with his others, seems reasonably just. Comparison with “A Tree of Night” can highlight some of the story's limitations. Both have the same underlying theme: subjection to fear because of a failure of acceptance. But while in the earlier story a few simple and believable events are made to evoke bottomless psychological depths, in “Miriam” the machinery becomes an end in itself. The story's haunting effect, which is undeniable, comes from skillful ghost-story manipulation of a too-solid embodiment of the subconscious as alter ego. Miriam reminds one of Poe's William Wilson and Dr. Jekyll's Mr. Hyde. Today's reader wants more subtlety than that.
In the two stories so far examined, the emphasis has fallen more heavily on failure to accept oneself than on failure to love other persons. Kay would not be expected to enter into a much closer relationship with her two traveling companions, and Mrs. Miller's visitor is less a person to be loved than a haunt and a symbol. Capote's next two stories, “The Headless Hawk” and “Shut a Final Door,” deal more emphatically with love, and in this way represent at least a partial broadening of scope. Nevertheless there is an essential similarity among all these stories, perhaps most evident in the way they end. Like Kay and Mrs. Miller, Vincent and Walter wind up more conscious than ever that they are trapped.
“The Headless Hawk” begins with an epigraph that could as fittingly be applied to any of the early stories. It is from The Book of Job (24:13, 16–17):
They are of those that rebel against the light; they know not the ways thereof, nor abide in the paths thereof. In the dark they dig through houses, which they had marked for themselves in the daytime: they know not the light. For the morning is to them as the shadow of death: if one know them, they are in the terrors of the shadow of death.
The story records Vincent's affair with the enigmatic girl, “D.J.” Like Mrs. Miller's encounter with Miriam, it is a descent into a dreamlike world of uncertainty, a nonliberating confrontation with subconscious fears. For Vincent this is not the first such experience but the culmination of a long series of failures at love. Corresponding to the extent of his experience is a degree of self-awareness far beyond that of Kay or Mrs. Miller. Vincent knows, as he proceeds through the affair, what its outcome will be. So, in a sense, does the reader, for the story employs a frame chronology in which the central action appears as a flashback. The opening section finds Vincent already nervously resigned to being constantly shadowed by an unnamed, elfin girl; then comes the story of their meeting and eventual breakup, and the brief closing section simply reaffirms the finality of the first part.
As the story opens, Vincent Waters is already down at the “deeper, greener depth” (S 30) from which Mrs. Miller mistakenly thought she was emerging just before Miriam's final appearance. As he closes the art gallery of which he is manager and starts home on a humid afternoon, he feels as though he moves “below the sea. Buses, cruising crosstown through Fifty-seventh Street, seemed like green-bellied fish, and faces loomed and rocked like wave-riding masks” (S 31). He sees the girl, ghostlike in a green transparent raincoat, and she follows him through the streets. Her eyes have a shocked look, “as though, having at one time witnessed a terrible incident, they'd locked wide open” (S 33). Vincent has been oppressed lately by a sense of unreality; voices these days seem to come to him “through layers of wool” (S 32). Entering his basement apartment, he looks back to see the girl standing listlessly on the sidewalk. The rain, threatening all day, still holds back.
Part Two begins abruptly with their first meeting. On an idle winter morning at the gallery she quietly appears before him dressed “like a freak” in masculine odds and ends. She wants to sell a painting, and her few remarks hint that she painted it in an asylum. The institution was apparently presided over by a Mr. Destronelli, whom she mentions as if expecting Vincent to recognize the name. He shakes his head and, making a capsule survey of his life, wonders why eccentricity has such appeal for him. “It was the feeling he'd had as a child toward carnival freaks. And it was true that about those whom he'd loved there was always a little something wrong, broken. Strange, though, that this quality, having stimulated an attraction, should, in his case, regularly end it by destroying it” (S 36). Vincent overcomes “an intense longing to touch her head, finger the boyish hair” (S 36), as she unwraps the picture and places it before him.
A headless figure in a monklike robe reclined complacently on top a tacky vaudeville trunk; in one hand she held a fuming blue candle, in the other a miniature gold cage, and her severed head lay bleeding at her feet: it was the girl's, this head, but here her hair was long, very long, and a snowball kitten with crystal spitfire eyes playfully pawed, as it would a spool of yarn, the sprawling ends. The wings of a hawk, headless, scarlet-breasted, copper-clawed, curtained the background like a nightfall sky.
The picture is crudely done, but to Vincent it seems to reveal “a secret concerning himself” (S 37). He decides to buy it, but before he can write a check the phone rings and the girl vanishes, leaving only the address “D.J.—Y.W.C.A.”
Vincent hangs the painting above his mantel and on sleepless nights talks to the hawk, telling it about his life, which he feels has been “without direction, and quite headless” (S 38), a long series of good beginnings and bad endings both in art and in love. He is, he feels, “a victim, born to be murdered, either by himself or another” (S 38). February and March pass but he is unable to find the girl. He becomes more and more disturbed, and friends notice the change in him. On an April evening, wandering the streets slightly drunk, he finds her. At his approach she is terrified, but soon her head relaxes on his chest “like a child's” (S 41) and she agrees to go home with him.
Vincent has lighted his room with candles, and it appears to waver in their “delirious light” (S 41). He himself feels a “drugged drunk sensation” (S 42). On this occasion the girl seems to him more attractive, less abnormal. Unusually relaxed, she talks about her childhood, then about Mr. Destronelli—“Everybody knows him” (S 42). As Vincent embraces her he glances at a mirror where “uncertain light rippled their reflections” (S 43). He asks what “Mr. Whoozits” looks like, then notices that for the first time she is staring at the painting, studying a particular object, but “whether hawk or head he could not say” (S 43). Pressing closer to him, she replies, “Well, he looks like you, like me, like most anybody” (S 43). This rather intricate scene brings together several strands in the story. The initiation of their affair, it takes place in a setting of multiple distortion (Vincent's mind, the candlelit room, the mirror's wavering reflection). The girl sinks into her childhood and emerges with Mr. Destronelli, whom she identifies with both herself and Vincent, staring up at the painting as she speaks so that her words could as easily apply to the figures there, both hawk and human being. Vincent is entering not only into physical union with the girl but into a blurred identification with her, the hawk, and Destronelli. At the same time the latter two remain apart, hovering threateningly over the scene.
Next morning Vincent discovers that the girl has no sense of time and is preoccupied with a mysterious “he” who she thinks brought her here. Vincent declares his love, then remembers numerous others he has loved, female and male, all eccentric and all betrayed by him. But he tells her that there was only one, now dead, and “to his own ears this had a truthful ring” (S 45).
The affair continues for a month and ends on D.J.'s eighteenth birthday. Vincent has kept her a private experience, not mentioning her to any of his friends. He has given her money for clothes, but the things she has spent it on are, like the name D.J., more masculine than feminine. She prepares for the birthday party “with the messy skill of a six-year-old playing grownup” (S 46). Their celebration consists of dinner at the automat followed by a movie. Both are aware that they are nearing the end, and the impulse to separate comes from the girl as well as from Vincent. As they go to bed, she thanks him for the violets he has given her and adds, “It's a shame they have to die” (S 48).
Meanwhile Vincent has slipped into a dream that seems to compress his life, past and future, into a stagnant present. In an endless hall lit by chandeliers he sees a degenerate old man in a rocking chair. “Vincent recognizes Vincent. Go away, screams Vincent, the young and handsome, but Vincent, the old and horrid, creeps forward on all fours, and climbs spiderlike onto his back” (S 48). Thus laden, he is ashamed to find himself in a throng of elegantly dressed couples, all silent and motionless. Then he recognizes that many of them are similarly burdened, “saddled with malevolent semblances of themselves, outward embodiments of inner decay” (S 48). The host appears, bearing a massive headless hawk on his arm, and orders the guests to dance. Vincent's old lovers one after another glide into his arms, and he hears “a cracked, cruel imitation” (S 49) of his voice speak hypocritically to each. Then D.J. appears, bearing on her back a beautiful child.
“I am heavier than I look,” says the child, and a terrible voice retorts, “But I am heaviest of all.” The instant their hands meet he begins to feel the weight upon him diminish; the old Vincent is fading. His feet lift off the floor, he floats upward from her embrace. …
The host releases his hawk, sends it soaring. Vincent thinks, no matter, it is a blind thing, and the wicked are safe among the blind. But the hawk wheels above him, swoops down, claws foremost; at last he knows there is to be no freedom.
Beneath the Gothic stage props, the meaning of this dream is reasonably clear. In it, as in the story as a whole, Vincent is burdened with guilt and the expectation of death. With at least a potential sympathy the scope broadens to include others, many of them similarly burdened. The host, no doubt Vincent's image of Mr. Destronelli, carries the headless hawk, the two functioning as a unit like falcon and falconer. The waltz symbolizes the lack of direction in Vincent's life, always circling and changing partners, never progressing. But his affair with D.J. has given him a clearer understanding of himself. Previously he thought it “strange” that the defects in his lovers, after attracting him, destroyed the attraction. Now he blames his own want of love and is overwhelmed by his “wickedness.” Presumably it is her complete innocence that drove the lesson home, for she bears on her back a child, the opposite of Vincent's degenerate old man. He has hoped that contact with her would free him, but soon learns that his fate is darker and more inescapable than he thought. For such as Vincent and the girl (and no other kind of person has yet appeared in Capote's fiction) there is no love and no freedom. The hawk that pursues her will get him, too.
The defeat Vincent has dreamed must still be painfully acted out. When he wakes at dawn and reaches out for the “mother-comfort” of the girl's presence, the bed is empty. He finds her in the yard, and as he approaches she whispers, “I saw him. He's here” (S 50). Desperate to free himself of his dreamed guilt, Vincent finds a pretext ready. He knocks her hand away and almost slaps her. “‘Him! Him! Him! What's the matter with you?—’ he tried too late to prevent the word—‘crazy?’ There, the acknowledgment of something he'd known, but had not allowed his conscious mind to crystallize. And he thought: Why should this make a difference? A man cannot be held to account for those he loves” (S 50). It sounds like Mrs. Miller's self-deluded hope that she is rising from the depths and that “like everything else,” her meeting with Miriam was “of no importance” (S 30). Vincent, however, has been here before and knows better.
Later in the day Vincent returns from the gallery, violently ill, to learn from the superintendent's wife that D.J. has attacked the gas man with her scissors, calling him “an Eyetalian name” (S 52). Hiding until D.J. goes out, he begins to pack her things. His fever increasing, he falls to the bed and into a surrealistic nightmare in which a butterfly appears and, to his horror, perches like a ribbon bow above the severed head in the painting. He finds the scissors and stabs them at the insect. It escapes and the blades dig into the canvas “like a ravening steel mouth, scraps of picture flaking the floor like cuttings of stiff hair” (S 54). Sitting in terror he recalls things D.J. has told him. In her fantasies Mr. Destronelli has taken many forms, among them those of “a hawk, a child, a butterfly” (S 54). He was in the asylum, and after she ran away she encountered him in other men who mistreated her. One of them was a tattooed Italian; another painted his toenails. She is certain that eventually “he” will murder her. This fantasy of the girl's corresponds to Vincent's dream and knits the story's symbolism into an even more complicated pattern. Its principal function is to emphasize her role as Vincent's alter ego. Like him, she is a traveler in circles and “a victim, born to be murdered,” though her victimization has been on a much more concrete and rudimentary level than his. At the same time, Vincent sees even more clearly that as their life-patterns mesh, he is being cast in the role of her destroyer, Destronelli.
The final brief section of the story begins at the moment when D.J. follows Vincent home and stands on the walk outside his apartment. It is July, about two months after their separation. Since then Vincent has been wasted by pneumonia, and his constant haunting by the girl has resulted in a “paralysis of time and identity” (S 56). On this evening he goes out for supper just as the long-threatening rain is about to begin. There is a clap of thunder and, as she joins him in the “complex light” of a street lamp, the sky is like “a thunder-cracked mirror,” and the rain falls between them “like a curtain of splintered glass” (S 57).
It can be only a partial justification of the complexity of this story to say that it enmeshes the reader as it does the characters. Capote once said, “All I want to do is to tell the story and sometimes it is best to choose a symbol.”3 For “The Headless Hawk,” he chose too many symbols. It is the most complex and involuted of all his short stories, several of which tend toward excess in this respect. Only his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, surpasses it in symbolic density, and it is interesting to note that as his career progressed, Capote has moved first to a simpler fictional technique and finally to the “nonfiction novel.”
The symbolism in “The Headless Hawk,” too heavy to be carried naturally by the action, is concentrated principally in three focal points which are themselves intricately and arbitrarily contrived: the painting, Vincent's dream, and the girl's rambling fantasies. All of it is intended to point up meanings already more or less explicit in the dramatic action. These meanings finally come down to one: Vincent himself is the headless hawk. He is both victim and victimizer, and he is directionless and alone. Through a balance brilliantly achieved, whatever else one must say about the story, the girl becomes both a living person and a projection, a delusion of the submerged consciousness (what Miriam is for Mrs. Miller and the wizard man for Kay.) At the same time she is a profitless encounter, a test which Vincent fails by rejecting instead of loving. It is this aspect of his theme that Capote emphasizes in his next story.
Walter Ranny of “Shut a Final Door” is in many respects identical with Vincent; certainly the title of his story would fit Vincent's as well. The two stories differ mainly in perspective. Walter is viewed far more objectively than is Vincent, for the story's focus is less on the undulating consciousness than on the external world of persons, places, and events. In this respect it points toward Capote's later work—not the deeply submerged Other Voices, Other Rooms, but the later, more social short novels, The Grass Harp and Breakfast at Tiffany's. Essentially, though, “Shut a Final Door” is part of the dark fiction of fear, failure, and captivity.
The story opens on a sufficiently “social” note: “Walter, listen to me: if everyone dislikes you, works against you, don't believe they do so arbitrarily; you create these situations for yourself” (S 58). Anna's remark, for all its glib triteness, is the story of Walter's life. Too insecure for love or even friendship, he is a treacherous coward for whom the reader feels an immediate distaste, only partially removed as the story probes more deeply into his fears.
The conversational tone of the opening is appropriate, for the dominant motif in the story involves malicious and inescapable voices. That, and circles: “He said you said they said we said round and round. Round and round, like the paddle-bladed ceiling-fan wheeling above” (S 59).
The fan is in a drab side-street hotel in New Orleans, where Walter has come with “a feeling of having traveled to the end, the falling off” (S 59). He lies under the fan thinking that his life has been a circle. Trying to find the center, the explanation of it, he rejects as “crazy” Anna's opinion that it was his own doing; he prefers to blame his parents. Still looking for the center, he decides to begin with Irving, the first person he'd known in New York. Like “The Headless Hawk,” this story begins at the end, jumps back to the beginning, then progresses to the end again, completing a circle that symbolizes the protagonist's life.
Irving, delicate and boyish, is friendly to Walter during his first lonesome days in New York. He has many friends and introduces Walter to all of them. Among them is Margaret, “more or less Irving's girl friend” (S 60), whom Walter steals, hurting Irving irreparably and establishing the pattern of betrayal that will characterize his own brief social climb. Soon he realizes that he has no friends and tries to analyze his trouble:
He was never certain whether he liked X or not. He needed X's love, but was incapable of loving. He could never be sincere with X, never tell him more than fifty percent of the truth. On the other hand, it was impossible for him to permit X these same imperfections: somewhere along the line Walter was sure he'd be betrayed. He was afraid of X, terrified.
Walter meets Rosa Cooper, a wealthy heiress, and begins spending most of his weekends at her Long Island home, making valuable contacts. Among these is Anna Stimson, a horsey fashion editor with a highly irregular past. Walter makes her his mother confessor because “there was nothing he could tell her of which she might legitimately disapprove” (S 66). He asks Anna if she loves him.
“Oh,” said Anna, “when was anything ever what it seemed to be? Now it's a tadpole now it's a frog. … Flying around inside us is something called the Soul, and when you die you're never dead; yes, and when we're alive we're never alive. And so you want to know if I love you? Don't be dumb, Walter, we're not even friends. …”
The theme of deceptiveness is already a familiar one, and will be exploited most fully in Other Voices, Other Rooms. Often quite effective when woven into the plot and atmosphere of the stories, it here sounds like shallow cynicism, neither well dramatized nor adequately “distanced” from the author. It is an indication of the way Capote loses power when he tries to philosophize.
When on the same day Walter is fired from his job and dropped by Rosa, he is suddenly flooded with vivid memories of boyhood trips with his father to Saratoga. He has just decided to go there when the telephone rings. It is a long-distance call from a town he doesn't know, and after some rattlings a strange, dry voice says, “Hello, Walter.” He hears breathing as clearly as if the person were standing beside him, but when he asks who it is the only answer is, “Oh, you know me, Walter. You've known me a long time” (S 70).
On the train Walter has a dream in which he sees coming toward him a funeral-like procession of cars bearings many of his past and present acquaintances. Feeling naked, he hails the first limousine and sees his father open the door. “Daddy, he yelled, running forward, and the door slammed shut, mashing off his fingers, and his father, with a great belly-laugh, leaned out the window to toss an enormous wreath of roses” (S 71). Walter's problem is basically the same as Vincent's and this dream is reminiscent of his. Both dramatize a fear which is ultimately of death, though Walter's is couched in simpler, more clinical terms: he is a child rejected by his father.
D.J.'s counterpart in this story is the woman Walter finds looking at him when he wakes from this dream. She is a cripple with her left foot encased in a giant shoe. He helps her with her luggage, but it is only that evening, in a hotel bar, that they become acquainted. She explains that she is there because her doctor is going to lecture to a medical convention about her case. Like Walter, she is afraid. She tells him she is a domestic and takes care of a boy named Ronnie: “I'm better to him than his mother, and he loves me more” (S 73). Walter finds her depressing but is too afraid of loneliness to leave her. When the bar closes, the woman asks him, blushing, if he wants to go to her room. He goes, but, seeing her coming out of the bathroom, reeking with dime-store perfume and wearing only “a sleazy flesh-colored kimono and the monstrous black shoe” (S 73), he realizes that he can “never go through with it. And he'd never felt so sorry for himself: not even Anna Stimson would ever have forgiven him this” (S 73–74). When she is ready he comes to the edge of the bed, kisses her cheek, and says, “I think you're so very sweet, but …” (S 74). Then the telephone rings.
Walter's search for a mother, as well as his father, is made explicit and becomes one of the principal themes of the closing section. When the phone rings, the woman answers, mistakes “Ranny” for “Ronnie,” and is frightened that something has happened to the boy. Then she gets the name correct and begins to hang up, but Walter seizes the phone. The message is the same as before, and after hearing it Walter falls across the woman, crying and begging, “Hold me, please” (S 74). She calls him “Poor little boy,” and he goes to sleep in her arms (S 74). The next day he takes the train for New Orleans, “a town of strangers, and a long way off” (S 75). As he lies sweltering in the hotel room, now back at the moment at which the story began, the telephone rings. “So he pushed his face into the pillow, covered his ears with his hands, and thought: think of nothing things, think of wind” (S 75).
Walter's fixation is powerfully, if somewhat crudely, conveyed by the telephone calls, which could have no “natural” explanation. Like Miriam, the bodiless voice is a projection of subconscious fears, and it has the same kind of artificiality that she does. Essentially, of course, they are both related to the more subtle wizard and headless hawk.
The next and final “dark” story, “Master Misery,” recalls most strongly the first, “A Tree of Night.” The heroines of both are young women, and their fear contains a strong sexual element. More than any of the other stories, “Master Misery” is heavy with suggestions of sleep, dreams, childhood, and the unconscious; and while it differs from “Miriam” and “Shut a Final Door” in containing nothing that is not literally possible, it is perhaps the most bizarre story of all. It is the one that Capote said he liked especially, though hardly anyone else seemed to.
Sylvia is one of a class familiar in American fiction: the young girl from the Midwest come to work in New York. She is also a wandering spirit, confirmed in restlessness and unconventionality because she “wants more than is coming to her” (S 109). She is close kin to D.J. of “The Headless Hawk” and also to later heroines, among them Holly Golightly. As the story opens, Sylvia is returning to the apartment she shares with Henry and Estelle, an “excruciatingly married” couple from her Ohio hometown. The day has been unusual, for in a restaurant she overheard a man talking about someone who buys dreams. His companion found this “too crazy” (S 101) for him and left the address lying on the table, where Sylvia later picked it up. Estelle says it is too crazy for her, too, and asks incredulously if Sylvia really went to see “this nut” (S 101).
Though she denies it, Sylvia did; unable to get the idea out of her mind, she had gone to the man, whose name was A. F. Revercomb, and sold a dream for five dollars. He had been pleased with it and asked her to return. Unsettled by the experience, Sylvia speculated that he was mad, but finally left the question open. On the way home she walked through the park and was badly frightened by two boys who began following her. Going to bed at the end of this fateful day, Sylvia feels “a sense of loss, as though she's been the victim of some real or even moral theft, as though, in fact, the boys encountered in the park had snatched (abruptly she switched on the light) her purse” (S 101). She dreams of “cold man-arms” encircling her, and Mr. Revercomb's lips brushing her ear. The day's experiences, especially the selling of her dream, have blended in one overwhelming fear of violation.
A week later she again finds herself near Mr. Revercomb's house. It is the Christmas season, an especially lonely time, and she is drawn to a window display in which a mechanical Santa Claus slaps his stomach and laughs. The figure seems evil to her, and with a shudder she turns away.
Later, as she dozes in Revercomb's waiting room, the quiet is broken by a loud commotion and a “tub-shaped, brick-colored little man” (S 104) pushes his way into the parlor, roaring drunkenly, “Oreilly is a gentleman, Oreilly waits his turn” (S 104). He is quickly thrown out; when Sylvia emerges a short while later, she sees him, looking “like a lonely city child” (S 104) and bouncing a rubber ball. She smiles, for he seems a harmless clown. Oreilly admits that he has made a fool of himself but also accuses Revercomb: “I didn't have an awful lot to begin with, but then he took it every bit, and now I've got niente, kid, niente” (S 105). As to his present occupation he explains, “I watch the sky. There I am with my suitcase traveling through the blue. It's where you travel when you've got no place else to go” (S 105). He asks Sylvia for a dollar for whiskey, but she has only seventy cents, for, confronting “the graying invisibility of Mr. Revercomb (impeccable, exact as a scale, surrounded in a cologne of clinical odors; flat gray eyes planted like seed in the anonymity of his face and sealed within steel-dull lenses)” (S 106), she had not been able to remember a dream.
She tells Oreilly that she will probably not go back, but he says, “You will. Look at me, even I go back, and he has long since finished with me, Master Misery” (S 106). Starting off in the rain, they approach the Santa Claus display and Oreilly, standing with his back to the figure, says,
“I call him Master Misery on account of that's who he is. … Only maybe you call him something else; anyway, he is the same fellow, and you must've known him. All mothers tell their kids about him: he lives in hollows of trees, he comes down chimneys late at night, he lurks in graveyards and you can hear his step in the attic. The sonofabitch, he is a thief and a threat; he will take everything you have and end by leaving you nothing, not even a dream. Boo!” he shouted, and laughed louder than Santa Claus. “Now do you know who he is?”
Sylvia nodded. “I know who he is.”
In an artificial juxtaposition similar to those in “The Headless Hawk,” Oreilly speaks of Revercomb while standing in front of the Santa Claus, emphasizing the growing identification of these two figures and giving the first clear hint that he himself will assume a destructive role toward Sylvia, much as Vincent did toward D.J. In this scene the rain provides the customary atmosphere of distortion and blurred identities.
Sylvia, now living both specifically and generally in a world of dreams, has begun to lose her grip on the world of everyday reality. She has moved to a cheap furnished room and let it become filthy. Fired from her job, she has lived for a month on the income from her dreams. Estelle visits her, scolds her, and insists on knowing whether the decline is because of a man. Sylvia, amused, admits that it is.
“You should have come to me before,” Estelle sighed. “I know about men. That is nothing for you to be ashamed of. A man can have a way with a woman that kind of makes her forget everything else. If Henry wasn't the fine upstanding potential lawyer that he is, why, I would still love him, and do things for him that before I knew what it was like to be with a man would have seemed shocking and horrible. But honey, this fellow you're mixed up with, he's taking advantage of you.”
Estelle is the first of Capote's characters to be ridiculed in this way, but she will not be the last. Though satirized here as an embodiment of society's fatuous gentility, she also speaks with its prosaic rightness. Sylvia is, indeed, getting mixed up with a man who will take advantage of her—not only Mr. Revercomb, but that grey eminence's more immediate representative, Oreilly.
Sylvia answers, also more truly than she knows, that the affair she is involved in hasn't “anything to do with love” (S 109). She rejects the suggestion of marriage and reminds Estelle that they're “not children any more; at least, I'm not” (S 110), but her actions when finally left alone seem intended to belie the assertion. First she sucks a piece of sugar, her grandmother's remedy for bad temper, then she pulls from under the bed a musical cigar box made for her by her brother when she was fourteen. The tune it plays is “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.” Inside this box of childhood memories she keeps the little book in which she has begun recording her dreams, since they are “endless” now and hard to remember.
Later, hurrying to Mr. Revercomb's she finds the mechanical Santa Claus has been replaced by the equally disturbing display of a plaster girl riding madly on a bicycle that gets nowhere. But Mr. Revercomb likes her dream about the “three blind children” (S 110), and she leaves with an envelope containing ten dollars.
In one of Sylvia's conversations with Oreilly, Master Misery, already linked with the maniacal Santa Claus, is explicitly probed down to his final meaning, death. Oreilly tells her that their vicious circle of dream-selling is “just like life” (S 112), but she disagrees: “It hasn't anything to do with life. It has more to do with being dead. I feel as though everything were being taken from me, as though some thief were stealing me down to the bone” (S 112).
When Oreilly is arrested for stealing a bottle of liquor, Sylvia collapses. For days she lies in her room, hardly eating, drugged with sleep. On the radio she hears a weather report reminiscent of Joyce's “The Dead”: “A snowstorm moving across Colorado, across the West, falling upon all the small towns, yellowing every light, filling every footfall, falling now and here” (S 114). Discovering that snow has smothered the city, she opens the window to feed the birds and forgets to close it; snow blows into the room. “Snow-quiet, sleep-silent, … Mr. Revercomb, why do you wait upon the threshold? Ah, do come inside, it is so cold out there” (S 115).
The figure she dimly sees at the door just before losing consciousness is not Revercomb's but Oreilly's, and when she wakes he is holding her in his arms and singing, “cherryberry, moneyberry, happyberry pie, but the best old pie is a loveberry pie …” (S 115). When she asks why he isn't in jail he says he was never there, then quickly changes the subject. With “a sudden feeling of floating” (S 115) she asks how long he has been with her, and he replies that she let him in yesterday—then quickly begins the “wicked” story of how he escaped from the police.
Oreilly stays with her over the weekend, and it is like a beautiful party. They laugh and dance and she feels loved and declares that she will never be afraid again. She decides that she would like to get her dreams back and go home. “And that is a terrible decision, for it would mean giving up most of my other dreams” (S 117). He insists that she go directly to Revercomb with the request; she does, and soon is back in his arms crying, choking, then laughing hysterically. “He said—I couldn't have them back because—because he'd used them all up” (S 118).
As if on a signal, they separate, Sylvia giving Oreilly her last five dollars to buy whiskey for his travels in the blue. Then she starts toward home.
I do not know what I want, and perhaps I shall never know, but my only wish from every star will always be another star; and truly I am not afraid, she thought. Two boys came out of a bar and stared at her; in some park some long time ago she'd seen two boys and they might be the same. Truly I am not afraid, she thought, hearing their snowy footsteps following after her: and anyway, there was nothing left to steal.
This closing line is delicately ambiguous. Possibly a continuation of Sylvia's thoughts, it is also the last of several hints that her virginity has been lost to Oreilly. This suggested sexual theft is, of course, only a metaphor for the author's real concern: the theft of Sylvia's dreams by Mr. Revercomb. She dreams of Mr. Revercomb as a father-lover, and in her delirium his role is transferred to Oreilly. Sylvia is victimized in much the same way as D.J. was, and both their stories have as a major theme the sad fact that victims who try to be lovers are doomed not only to see themselves reflected in one another but also to advance each other's destruction.
While Capote may be granted his fondness for this story, it is nevertheless weak in several respects. Like “The Headless Hawk,” though to a lesser degree, it is a network of meanings too often artificially represented by symbols and only half realized in concrete dramatization. Oreilly in particular is difficult to see as a human being, and the identification of him with Sylvia, Revercomb, Santa Claus, and the cycling girl is too obviously contrived, as is much of the action.
The principal weakness of the story, however, is at its center, the business of selling dreams. “Dreams” can mean and half-mean many things, and the story contains a vagueness which is less suggestive than confusing. It might, for example, be read with some validity as an attack on psychoanalysis or on the scientific mentality in general—or perhaps an expression of a young writer's fear of exploitation.
While the implications of the story are vague, its overall pattern is clear, and even clearer when it is compared to the stories that preceded it. Like them, it traces the decline into captivity of an individual made vulnerable by refusal or inability to accept reality. But though the pattern is a familiar one, there is a significant change of emphasis: for the first time the victim-heroine is viewed with definite approval. While Capote's early stories are characterized, from a moral standpoint, by a fluctuating and sometimes almost nonexistent narrative point of view, all the earlier protagonists have to some extent been held responsible. Even in Kay there was a trace of the victimizer as well as the victim. But Sylvia completely escapes responsibility. She does so by being a childlike, innocent dreamer. The dreamer (almost always feminine), who made her first appearance in D.J. and here becomes the central character of the story, will be the typical protagonist of the stories that follow Other Voices, Other Rooms. Because the dreamer is unconventional, whatever moral disapproval enters these stories is reserved for the society from which she deviates.
“Master Misery” completes the first phase of Truman Capote's career as a writer of fiction, the dominant characteristics of which should by now be evident. The protagonist, while varying and developing in ways already discussed, is always and essentially a victim. The central action of each story is not so much his movement into the state of captivity as an immersion in his own deeper being that culminates in a shattering and final revelation of his plight. In each case the dark force that haunts the protagonist is projected outward—through characters of varying degrees of credibility, through images or dream or delirium, through concrete symbols—until it may be said to constitute the very framework and texture of the story.
But in each case it is also focused in one particular manifestation or set of related ones: a wizard man in a tree of night; Miriam; Mr. Destronelli and a headless hawk; a disembodied telephone voice; Mr. Revercomb-Master Misery. That these figures dominate the stories is pointed up by the fact that in every case but one they appear in the title. And Capote's custom of so naming his stories is to continue. It has been noted that the next phase of his career is marked by a new emphasis on the dreamer. The titles of several of the stories express or are related to the dreamer's dream or ideal: “Children on Their Birthdays” and Breakfast at Tiffany's, for example. One can see, then, in the very titles of the stories, a progression from fear to fantasy, from captivity to some kind of wistful freedom. Movement from captivity to freedom is also the theme of Capote's next, and longest, piece of fiction—Other Voices, Other Rooms.
The Selected Writings of Truman Capote (New York: Random House, 1963). Quotations from this volume are identified in the text by S and the page number.
Malcolm Cowley, ed., Writers At Work: The Paris Review Interviews (New York: The Viking Press, 1960), p. 290.
Current Biography, 1951, p. 93.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6270
SOURCE: “Surprised by Joy: Stories of the Fifties and Sixties,” in Truman Capote, Frederick Ungar, 1980, pp. 91–110.
[In the following essay, Garson describes the plots and major thematic concerns of four of Capote's short stories and a novella published in the 1950s and 1960s.]
The story “A Diamond Guitar,” which appeared first in Harper's Bazaar in 1950, was reprinted in the collection Capote called Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Short Stories, in 1958. Also included in the group were “A House of Flowers” (1951) and “A Christmas Memory” (1956), both of which had been published in Mademoiselle. The story, “Among the Paths to Eden” (1960), printed originally in Esquire, is in Selected Writings (1963), which also contains a reissue of Breakfast at Tiffany's.
“A Diamond Guitar” reveals Capote's early interest in prison stories as well as his sympathy towards certain kinds of convicts. The same empathy exists in the book In Cold Blood and in his collaborative writing of the script for a prison movie, The Glass House.
The setting of “A Diamond Guitar” is a Southern prison farm twenty miles from the closest town. It is a different kind of prison, located in a pine forest from which the prisoners take turpentine. Unlike city penal institutions there are few reminders of physical restrictions. A red clay road leads to the prison in the pines. At night the men can go into the yard to look up at the stars, or go to sleep with moonlight coming through the windows. There is a great stillness in this prison story, but it is the quiet that comes with the absence of life. Although the convicts live in a natural environment, they are as unhappy as any people who live behind bars. Some chafe for the real world, whatever that is for each of them; others have blocked out all hope of change, living only in the present. Mr. Schaeffer, the major figure in the story, is one of the latter.
Mr. Schaeffer has been sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a “man [who] deserved to die.” At fifty he has been in prison for seventeen years. A lonely man, with no friends outside the prison and no close friends inside, he is one of the few convicts who can read and write, and he helps other prisoners when possible. He is also a carver who makes dolls that are sold in town, a talent that provides Mr. Schaeffer with small sums of money.
One day a young Cuban named Tico Feo is brought into the prison and assigned to Schaeffer, who is to teach him the routine. Schaeffer is very much taken with the golden-haired, blue-eyed boy who plays a jeweled guitar. Tico Feo makes him feel alive, and he remembers the pleasures as well as the pain of what life once was. Schaeffer “had not wanted to be alive,” but he and all the prisoners are affected by the presence of Tico Feo. When he plays his guitar the prisoners sing and dance and laugh as they had not before he came.
The two men become good friends when Schaeffer gives Tico Feo dolls for his sisters. The older man is generous to the younger, sharing with him the things he gets from his earnings. Although Schaeffer knows that Tico Feo lies and is lazy, he tells himself that Tico Feo is a boy and “it will be a long time” before he is a grown-up. He thus forgives him for his untruths and exaggerations.
But Tico Feo arouses a great feeling of sadness in the men, emotion brought on by his music, which revives memories of life outside the prison walls. Schaeffer's emotional barriers are broken down by his closeness to the boy, and although there is no sexual relationship, “they were as lovers.”
The young man does not adjust to the penal life. He constantly speaks of the freedoms of the real world. However, the outside world evoked for Mr. Schaeffer is different from what Tico Feo represents. Mr. Schaeffer reawakens to dreams of brown rivers and sunlight, but Tico Feo's “El Mundo” is gaudy and artificial, like the glass-diamonded guitar.
Tico Feo wants to escape from the prison. Although Schaeffer believes himself too old to begin a totally new life, Tico Feo finally persuades the man to break out with him. One day, during a time the convicts are at work in the forest, the two men attempt to escape. However, as Schaeffer is running he trips over a log in the creek, breaking his ankle. As he looks up at Tico Feo's face, he realizes that the boy “had not wanted him to make it, had never thought he would.” In addition to being a liar and a thief, the young prisoner is also a betrayer. Schaeffer remembers how he had thought “it would be a long time before his friend was a grown man.”
The guards find Schaeffer but Tico Feo escapes and is never found. The Captain of the prison protects Schaeffer by claiming he had attempted to prevent Tico Feo from escaping.
Schaeffer is left with a limp and Tico Feo's guitar, for there is nobody who can play it properly. As the years pass, the glass diamonds turn yellow. Sometimes during the long nights Mr. Schaeffer's fingers “drift across the strings: then, the world.” Where he had shut out the world before he met Tico Feo, he can do that no longer. Once he had chosen not to be alive, for to be numb was to be free from pain; Mr. Schaeffer's discovery of love has now made him a vulnerable man. Lonelier than ever, he remembers, he dreams, and he suffers.
One of the many places to which Tico Feo had sailed before his imprisonment was Haiti, the island setting for Capote's story, “House of Flowers.” It begins in Port-au-Prince, the seaport capital of Haiti, the city to which Ottilie, the central figure in the story, walked from her mountain home three years earlier.1 She remains in Port-au-Prince until she meets a handsome young man, Royal Bonaparte, marries, and goes to live with him in his home high up in the mountains.
Ottilie is a beautiful seventeen-year-old of mixed parentage. When Ottilie was a child her mother died, and her father, a planter, returned to France. Brought up by a coarse peasant family, whose sons all used her sexually, Ottilie slips easily into the life of a prostitute when she is befriended by a kind man in the market-place of Port-au-Prince. He takes her to his cousin who runs an establishment known as the Champs Elysées. It is a narrow old building covered with bougainvillea vines, a house of many balconies and a porch where the eight resident prostitutes sit in the evening fanning themselves and telling stories.
Delighted with her good luck, paid for doing what was previously one of her household chores, Ottilie revels in her success: five dresses made of silk, green satin shoes, three gold teeth valued at thousands of francs, steady customers for her services, and an armful of gold bracelets given to her by an admirer, a middle-aged American engineer named Mr. Jamison. Ottilie marvels at the juke box and the electric light and thinks very seldom of the mountain area that had been her home.
Yet, with all her pleasures, she has a feeling of discontent. When her friends, Baby and Rosita, speak of the bliss of love, Ottilie realizes that she has never known it. Disturbed by this, she goes to a Houngan, a voodooist, to find out about the secret of love. When she can hold a bee in her hand without being stung, she is told, then she will know she has found love. Wondering whether she might be in love with Mr. Jamison, Ottilie tries out the message of the gods. When she catches a black bee in her hands she is stung.
Then at carnival time Ottilie goes to a cockfight, where she sees a ginger-colored, smooth and shiny-skinned man, his appearance as arrogant as the cock he has brought to the match. Ottilie feels she has “never known anyone so beautiful.” The man, Royal, and Ottilie dance and talk, and Ottilie finds herself comfortable with Royal, “for the mountains were still with her, and he was of the mountains.” They go into a wooded area, where they make love. Afterwards, as Royal lies on the ground asleep, Ottilie catches a bee. When the bee fails to sting her, she understands that she is in love at last.
They go to Royal's mountain home which is “like a house of flowers,” perched far above the sea. Wisteria covers the roof, vines hang over the windows, lilies grow near the doorway. There in the one-room house Ottilie lives joyfully, except for two problems. One is that Royal after a few months returns to some of his bachelor habits. However, Ottilie manages to accept this. But she is tormented by the other obstacle to her happiness, Royal's grandmother, Old Bonaparte.
The old woman is very cruel to Ottilie, pinching her and predicting an early death for her. People for miles around, and Royal as well, are afraid of Old Bonaparte's power to make spells. At night, when Ottilie and Royal make love, she thinks the grandmother is watching them, and once she is certain she sees a “gummy” eye staring at her in the dark. When Ottilie begins to find strange things in her sewing basket—a cat's head, a snake, spiders, a lizard, a buzzard's breast—she realizes that Old Bonaparte is trying to put a curse on her. Ottilie says nothing, but each day she cooks into the old woman's food the animal parts she finds. When at last Ottilie tells the grandmother what she has done, the old lady collapses and dies.
Not long after the grandmother's death, Ottilie begins to think she is being haunted. One night when she sees an eye staring at her in the dark, she tells Royal what had happened. When she asks him whether she had done wrong he cannot judge, but he decides that Ottilie must be punished to appease the old woman's ghost. Only then will Ottilie be left in peace.
Royal ties Ottilie to a tree in the yard and goes off to work. As she dozes she is amazed to see her two friends, Baby and Rosita, coming up the path. Ottilie's old admirer, Mr. Jamison, provided a car for them to find out what had happened to Ottilie. When the women untie Ottilie, they go into the house, where she puts on a silk dress and stockings and pearl earrings. The three of them drink rum all day and tell stories. Ottilie is happy in her friends' company, but when they expect her to leave with them she is startled, for she has no intention of deserting Royal. Baby and Rosita tie Ottilie up again in the yard once they realize she loves her husband. They return to Port-au-Prince to announce that Ottilie is dead.
As twilight settles in, Ottilie, hearing Royal's footsteps, throws herself into a position suggesting she has met with violence, happily planning to give “a good scare” to Royal. With that scene the story concludes. Ottilie has done her penance; Royal does his when he is frightened by the way his wife looks as he comes towards the house. But as in any fairy tale, all's well that ends well.
In looking at “House of Flowers” the reader may readily see why Capote used it as the basis for the musical comedy which he wrote in 1954. The story has many of the characteristics of the genre: lightness, humor, exotic setting, and one-dimensional characters. As fiction, the work is a loose mixture of love story and violence; neither part is memorable. The strangeness of the setting does not alter the superficiality of the romantic tale. And the introduction of voodoo, the evil eye, cockfights, superstition, wizardry, and death is more humorous than serious. Where Capote has used similar elements at other times to provide a look at the dark side of human nature, in “House of Flowers” they seem merely colorful.
Capote's ability to combine comedy, nostalgia, and a child's sense of tragedy is nowhere more evident than in the story “A Christmas Memory.” Declared by Capote to be his most cherished piece, it is more overtly autobiographical than anything else he has written. The author has said that the child in the story is himself and the elderly relative, his cousin, Miss Sook Faulk. He further emphasized the reality behind the fiction in “A Christmas Memory” by having a childhood picture of himself and Miss Faulk reproduced for a reprinting of the story in 1966, ten years after its original publication.
In addition to seeing the autobiographical connection between the story and the author, the reader can discern immediately similarities to Capote's novel, The Grass Harp. In both works, the major figures are a young boy and his older female relative; the scenes take place primarily in the kitchen and in the woods; the story is set in the past and the tone is nostalgic; and an event of great significance takes place in both the story and the novel, that is, the parting of the child and his cousin. In The Grass Harp the woman dies and the young man goes north to school, whereas in “A Christmas Memory” the boy is sent away to a military school, never to see his cousin again; her death occurs after his leaving.
“A Christmas Memory” opens as the narrator evokes memories of late November mornings spent in a warm country kitchen. Looking backwards the speaker becomes a seven-year-old who has lived for a long time with his distant cousin. Although it is not her house, in his child's world the other inhabitants don't matter unless they cause difficulties. The old woman and the boy, whom she has named Buddy, after a childhood friend of hers who died in the 1880s,2 are best friends. It is possible because the white-haired, small, sprightly, craggy yet delicate-faced woman with sherry-colored, timid eyes has never outgrown the sunny world of childhood. Buddy stresses the great difference between her and others, saying, “She is still a child.”
On a particular morning every November, a special ritual is repeated. His cousin looks out the window, notes the chill of the season, thinks of Christmas, and makes the pronouncement: “It's fruitcake weather.” The two of them find her hat—worn more for propriety than for warmth, a straw cartwheel decorated with roses of velvet—and get Buddy's old baby carriage, which serves as a cart for carrying the load of pecans that will go into the fruitcake. Along with their dog, Queenie, they walk to a pecan grove, where, on their hands and knees, for hours they will search out nuts.
Their expeditions are like those in The Grass Harp. Dolly, Catherine, and Collin go to the woods to gather ingredients for Dolly's dropsy medicine or to picnic. Buddy and his cousin collect flowers, herbs, and ferns in the spring, firewood in the winter, and fish the creek in the summer. The lives of the two families resemble each other in their patterns. And another similarity exists in their attitudes toward money. It is intended to bring pleasure. However, where Dolly, Catherine, and Collin have Dolly's earnings to purchase magazines and games, Buddy and his cousin enter contests to try to win money to support their activities; they also sell jars of jams, jellies, and preserves they've made, berries they've gathered, and flowers they've picked for important occasions.
They need money for the buying of the items that go into the fruitcake, the candied fruits, the spices, the whiskey, the flour, the butter, the eggs. All year long they save in their “Fruitcake Fund;” most of it is in pennies, which they count out for the thirty or more cakes they send to people they like, such as President Roosevelt, a bus driver who waves at them every day, and a couple who once took a picture of them. And afterwards there are the thank-you letters for their scrapbooks.
The fun and excitement of shopping is followed by the pleasure of preparing the cakes: the glowing of the stove, the sounds of the mixing, the smells of the spices delight Buddy. However, in four days it is all over and he feels let down afterwards. His cousin has a remedy though for depression, the whiskey left from the baking. After Queenie gets a spoonful mixed in coffee, the two of them drink the remainder. Then the sour taste of the liquor is soon replaced by happy feelings. They begin to giggle, to sing, and to dance. Queenie rolls in drunken joy as the cousin waltzes around in her squeaky tennis shoes.
The delightful comedy of the drinking scene is produced by the deft touch of the writer, not only here but elsewhere in the work as well. The description of the meeting with Haha Jones—so named for his somber disposition—proprietor of the shop where they buy the whiskey for the cakes, is another episode enlivened by the lightness of the humor. Looking at the odd pair, Haha asks, “Which one of you is a drinking man?” The appearance of Haha and the tongue-in-cheek designation of the “sinful” café he runs all add to the comic note.
There are also other kinds of humor in the story. A line here and there suggests the eighteenth-century satirist Alexander Pope. When the narrator tells of earning pennies by killing house flies, he says in mock-heroic style, “Oh the carnage of August: the flies that flew to heaven!” Superstition further provides the opportunity for comedy; the number thirteen has several possibilities. Fear of having thirteen dollars causes Buddy and his cousin to throw a penny out of the window to avoid the multiple catastrophes that could occur from the unlucky sum. Twelve ninety-nine is safer. The importance of hoarding the money of the “Fund” provides another chance for verbal and visual humor. Buddy makes the following statement, creating an expanding comic effect by the use of detail and the repetition of the word “under”: “These moneys we keep hidden in an ancient purse under a loose board under the floor under a chamber pot under my friend's bed.”
The only money ever withdrawn from their savings is the ten cents Buddy is given each week for the movies, to which he goes alone. Although his elderly cousin enjoys hearing him tell the film story, she has never been to a movie. Her life, like that of Dolly Talbo, is that of a recluse. One thinks of Dolly's nunlike, pink room when Buddy describes his cousin's bedroom containing an iron bed painted in her favorite rose pink. Further, his cousin has never been far from home, has had very limited experiences, and is ignorant of the world outside the little town in which she lives. Yet she knows all kinds of wonderful things a small boy admires: how to tame hummingbirds, how to tell terrifying ghost stories, and how to treat ailments by using old Indian cures.
Buddy's cousin, who reads only the funny papers and the Bible, is a religious Christian who fully expects to come face to face with God at the end of her life. However, she also understands the natural world, loves and respects it. Once someone chides her for refusing to sell a beautiful fragrant pine she has cut for a Christmas tree and she is told she can get another one. But she responds like a nineteenth-century Romantic philosopher in tune with nature: “There's never two of anything.”
Decorating the Christmas tree they have dragged home from the woods and making presents consumes much of their time. As early as August they pick cotton to sprinkle on the tree in December. Later, old treasures are brought down from the attic; cutouts of fruits and animals are made from colored paper and tinfoil angels from candy wrappers. They make holly wreaths and family gifts together. But then they separate to make the most important items, the things they will exchange with each other. Both want to give something special, but they have no money for bought presents. Because of that, every year they design colorful handmade kites.
When the holidays are over and the wind is right, they go out of doors to the nearby pastures to fly their kites. Thus the seasons pass, from fruitcake time to tree cutting and decorating, to kite-flying weather. And during the last kite-flying days they have together, Buddy's cousin speaks of a sudden vision she has. She tells him that God shows Himself in many guises, but only at the end of life do we realize that He “has already shown Himself.” And as she says that to Buddy, she moves her hand in an encompassing gesture “that gathers clouds and kites and grass and Queenie pawing earth over her bone.”
It is not long after his cousin has described to him her sense of a godlike indwelling that Buddy is parted from her. He is forced to take up a new life in military schools, camps, and another home. However, because of his love for his cousin and his great sense of loss in the separation, he never feels that he belongs anywhere. He always identifies home with his cousin.
Remaining alone, his cousin writes him of her activities and sorrows, of the death of Queenie. Each November she sends him the best of the fruitcakes. But she lives only a few years more. Soon her memory fails and she can no longer distinguish the narrator from the Buddy who was her childhood friend.
In the winter season when she dies, Buddy intuits her death before he is told of it. He describes his feeling of loss as an “irreplaceable part” of himself, “loose like a kite on a broken string.” He looks up to the December sky as if to see that lost self of his joining with his other self, the spirit of his cousin, “rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.”
The concluding passage in its nostalgia and tenderness hearkens back to the last section of The Grass Harp, in which Collin becomes aware of Dolly's spirit moving from the confined world of human existence to the eternal freedom of nature, symbolized by the Indian grass which is the Grass Harp. The conclusion of the story differs, however, from that of the novel in one significant aspect: Collin accepts Dolly's death, seeing it as a part of the mortal cycle, the human story, and recognizes that he must move on. Buddy, on the other hand, has a sense of irrevocable loss; the perception is reinforced by the words “irreplaceable,” “broken,” “searching,” and “lost.” Dolly's presence seems to continue in nature, in the singing grass, but Buddy's cousin has gone far beyond the wintry sky.
The Thanksgiving Visitor was published in 1967, following the reissue of “A Christmas Memory.” In numerous ways the two stories can be paired: the time period is the same, 1932–34, and the place is rural Alabama; the major characters are Buddy and his elderly cousin; their way of life and their activities follow a similar pattern. But there are also important differences. The Thanksgiving Visitor is more specifically detailed and less sentimental than the earlier work. However, it lacks the tenderness as well as the humor of “A Christmas Memory.” The poetic quality is gone as well as the nostalgia. It is as though the author, having come to terms with the anger and pain of his childhood, looks back more objectively to those years that he retraces in both stories.
The elderly cousin, known only as “my friend” in “A Christmas Memory,” is now given her actual name, Miss Sook Faulk. Her character and personality once again are central to the theme. Buddy learns a significant lesson about kindness from Miss Sook, one that he grows to understand eventually. The plot of the story is built on the gentle moral teaching of the lady.
I was “a sissy of sorts,” says the grown-up Buddy, looking back at himself as a small child in second grade. Although Buddy doesn't object to being educated, he fears going to school because of an older boy in his class, Odd Henderson. Odd is a big, rambunctious twelve-year-old who terrifies all the children, even those his own age. Buddy is so frightened of Odd that he tries to avoid attending school. He has nightmares because he feels tormented by Odd. However, when he tells Miss Sook about it, Buddy is distressed by her unwillingness to condemn Odd. Instead, his cousin is sympathetic toward Odd, saying he is to be pitied because of his hard life and disreputable father.
Odd's father, Dad Henderson, a bootlegger who spends most of his days in jail, is married to a woman Miss Sook remembers fondly. Molly Henderson, much younger than her husband, was once a red-haired, lovely girl. But now, says Miss Sook, she has become a toothless hag at thirty-five, with no money and “a houseful of children to feed.”
Miss Sook expects Buddy to have tolerance and pity, for the two of them agree on everything else. Thus, when she wants to invite Odd Henderson for Thanksgiving dinner, she assumes Buddy will agree with her decision. He doesn't; but his cousin goes to the Henderson home anyway to issue an invitation. She returns, filled with sadness by the poverty she has witnessed, telling Buddy of “the shame” she feels “for all of us who have anything extra when other people have nothing.”
To Buddy's dismay, Odd comes to the Faulk house for Thanksgiving dinner. But neither of the boys gets to sample the feast of glazed turkey, ambrosia, whipped sweet potatoes, fritters, mince pie, or banana pudding—Buddy's favorite dish. After grace has been recited and as the thirty people prepare to eat dinner, Buddy accuses Odd of having stolen Miss Sook's cameo from her bureau. Although it is true, Miss Sook denies it, attempting to protect Odd Henderson. She says that Buddy has been playing a joke. With that, Buddy's uncle insists that he apologize. But Odd Henderson does not allow it. He confesses and leaves, after saying, “You must be a special lady, Miss Sook, to fib for me like that.”
Buddy runs out of the house, taking shelter in a nearby smokehouse. There, late in the afternoon, Miss Sook finds him. Despite his self-pity, Buddy accepts the turkey leg his cousin has brought him. And he listens to her, although he scarcely understands what she tells him about wrongdoing. Only “deliberate cruelty” is “unpardonable,” says Miss Faulk, as she attempts to explain that Odd's action though wrong was not calculated. Buddy's behavior, however, was inexcusable because it was an intentional wrong. The adult narrator Buddy notes that he learned after a period of time the significance of the event. But what immediately concerns the child Buddy is the assurance of the continuing love and friendship of his cousin. She convinces him he can never lose those.
Odd Henderson never bothers Buddy again. Soon Odd leaves school to work on a dairy farm, and eventually he goes away to join the Merchant Marine. The last time Buddy sees Odd is in the Faulk garden. Miss Sook and Buddy have been trying to move a large pot of chrysanthemums, when Odd Henderson comes along and carries the heavy tub for Miss Sook. Thanking him for his neighborliness, she cuts a large bouquet of flowers for Odd's mother, sending it with her love. Odd leaves as Miss Sook calls after him, and the story comes to an end.
In A Thanksgiving Visitor the reader has little of the sense of loneliness or isolation so prevalent in The Grass Harp and “A Christmas Memory.” In those stories the boy seems to be separated from ordinary life and other people, so that there appears to be a feeling of distance. The child in A Thanksgiving Visitor, however, leads an everyday existence. In all three stories there are other family members, but in The Grass Harp and “A Christmas Memory” they are regarded as enemies, outside the closed circle. In A Thanksgiving Visitor Miss Sook has two sisters, “vaguely masculine ladies” who are involved in numerous businesses. The sisters aren't named and play no real part in the story; but Uncle B., Miss Sook's brother, now seen as a kind but silent man, is an integral part of Buddy's life. His is “the deciding voice in the house”; he is the head of the family; it is for him that enormous meals are prepared by Miss Sook; he is the one who slaughters the animals or poultry and thinks Buddy needs to learn to do such things also; and he is the person who wants Buddy to have friends other than Miss Sook, male friends.
The description of life during Depression times in the rural South, of Buddy's relatives and the interplay between characters, creates a story very different in tonal quality and imagery from “A Christmas Memory.” In making daily events in the Faulk household run a rather ordinary course and in creating a moral end for the Thanksgiving story, the writer loses a certain quality that is an animating force in the earlier story: delicacy and freshness and a glimmer of a past that can never be brought back. “A Christmas Memory” tells only what one needs to know. Anything else is superfluous.
“Among the Paths to Eden” reveals a different side of Capote. In this story his characters are middle-aged; the time is the present; the setting is realistic; the pace is brisk. Told in third-person narrative, the work reveals an attitude of sympathy but not sentiment towards the protagonists. Although the two people in the story are shown somewhat ironically, the humor contains warmth and an understanding of human frailties.
One pleasant March day, Ivor Belli, a fifty-five-year-old widower, decides to visit his wife's grave, something he has not done since her burial in the fall. Neither affection nor a sense of loss prompts the action. Mr. Belli, far from being unhappy, is enjoying his bachelor life. However, the harsh winter has just come to an end, and Mr. Belli, responding to the hint of spring in the air, wants to get out-of-doors for a walk. A trip to the cemetery will provide him with a stroll in the sunshine and will also mollify one of his daughters.
Taking a bouquet of jonquils with him, Mr. Belli sets out with a feeling of joie de vivre. That changes when he arrives at the huge, ugly cemetery in Queens where his wife is buried. Suddenly, as he hurries to reach his wife's grave, the day seems chill, “the sunshine … false, without real warmth.” Mr. Belli has anticipated “the aroma of another spring about to be,” but instead he has been reminded of his own mortality. Anxious to be on his way, Mr. Belli hastily pushes the jonquils into an urn on the tomb. Yet, he pauses to prune the flowers, regretting that “he could not delay their doom by supplying them with water.”
The jonquils, first flowers after a dead season, March and its promise of happiness, the quiet graves, the sun and winds which first seem warm and then turn cold are vital parts of the theme, and their significance becomes apparent as the story progresses.
As Mr. Belli turns to leave the gravesite, he encounters a woman standing nearby. Although she speaks to him sympathetically, she appears strangely gratified that the dead relative is Mr. Belli's wife. The woman, Mary O'Meaghan, is a reader of obituary columns. Following the advice of a friend, Mary frequents the cemetery in hope of meeting a lonely widower who wants to marry again. She confesses this to Belli later, only after he tells her he would never consider marriage another time.
Mary had looked after her father until he died, and she has been left with nothing to do. She is “on the right side of forty,” heavy, bespectacled, drab looking in spite of her healthy coloring; her fingernails are bitten, and she wears orthopedic shoes because of a game leg. Possessing only the skills of cooking and taking care of people, Mary feels there is nothing in life for her except marriage. Nevertheless, all her ventures are fruitless.
The effect Mary has on Belli, however, is a positive one, though not for her. Mary's appearance, Mr. Belli decides, is that of a “decent-looking person,” the kind “you could trust.” When he comes to that conclusion, Mr. Belli immediately thinks of his secretary, Miss Jackson, a pleasant, good-natured woman, whom “lately, absentmindedly” he'd been calling by her first name, Esther. Mary has no idea of the direction Mr. Belli's thoughts take as a result of their meeting.
Knowing that she must hold Belli's attention, Mary offers him peanuts—it is lunchtime—and quickly launches into a discussion of food, for cooking is her strong suit. As they sit on his wife's grave, Belli's mood softens. Mary suggests that he must miss his wife's cooking, and Belli remembers the better aspects of his marriage: the good meals, “the cinnamon-scented feastdays,” the “afternoons of gravy and wine,” his pleasure in the fresh linen and silver. Having thought for so long only of his wife's nagging, Belli happily recalls her virtues as wife and mother. He wishes that he had brought an orchid to her grave, a flower she cherished.
When Mary flatters Belli, telling him he looks too young to be a grandfather, the compliment has a magical effect. He feels young again, rejuvenated. The mood with which he first started out the day is recaptured, “perhaps … because the wind had subsided, the warmth of the sun grown more authentic.” Once more he has the feeling of immortality. A season lies before him.
The beauty of the day prompts Mary to speak of parades and of music and singers, especially of Helen Morgan, whom Belli had “truly” loved. When Mary begins to sing it is a perfect imitation of Helen Morgan's voice. Soon Mary seems to become a different person, with “a natural expression of some secluded identity.” While she is singing, a Negro funeral procession interrupts them. Mary is embarrassed, apologetic, but Belli praises her, asking for an encore. Her response is like that of “a child to whom he'd handed a balloon” which carried her through the air. Full of happiness Mary promises she will sing for him again if he will come to dinner.
The invitation destroys the atmosphere she has created, and Belli sees her once again as she is. Confirmed in his suspicion that Mary is a husband hunter, he gives one evasive answer after another to her, until she asks directly about marrying. Belli tells Mary that “twenty-seven years” of marriage were “enough for any lifetime.”
Although Mary's hopes for a future with Belli are shattered, she does not give up the idea of finding a husband among the mourners in the cemetery. As the two walk to the gate, a “new pilgrim” enters, attracting Mary's attention, a lively “little man” of “cheery whistlings and … plenty of snap to his walk.” When Belli sees the man and notes Mary's interest, he wishes her luck and thanks her for the peanuts.
Mary's desire to find happiness, or Eden, with Belli cannot be fulfilled, but she has served as the catalyst for the rebirth of feeling in him. The vague stirrings that he has when he first meets her and is reminded of Esther Jackson build throughout the time they spend together. At the moment Belli declares to Mary that he has had enough years of marriage, he comes to a decision that he will marry Esther Jackson in April or May. First he will take her for dinner and bowling, and he will buy her an “orchid, a gala purple one with a lavender-ribbon bow.”
The orchid represents not only another beginning for Belli in a fresh season but also an acceptance of that which was good in the season that has gone. Throughout the story there is a play on mortality-immortality. Man's life is like a flower, like the seasons; the warmth and chill of the sun and wind remind him of his days. And surely, Capote's most ironic use of the theme appears in the discovery of love in a cemetery. Eden as everlasting life, a paradise of eternal youth, is the path Belli seeks among the quiet graves.
“Among the Paths to Eden” must be counted as one of Capote's best stories. The humor, intriguing story line, and personalities of the characters all mesh under the controlled pen of the writer.3 It is one of a kind. Capote's later work bears no resemblances to “Among the Paths to Eden.”
Capote seems to like three-year spans. When “A Diamond Guitar” opens, the story told has happened three years earlier.
Renaming a person one likes after someone she has cared for also occurs in Breakfast at Tiffany's, when Holly decides to call the narrator Fred because that is her brother's name.
The flaw, if one chooses to quarrel with “the given” of the story, is in Capote's seeming ignorance of Jewish customs. Belli, portrayed as an observant Jew, would never have had his wife buried in a nonsectarian cemetery.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15359
SOURCE: “Short Fiction: The Ten Dollar Dream,” in Truman Capote, Twayne Publishers, 1981, pp. 34–70.
[In the following essay, Reed categorizes Capote's short fiction in terms of the settings of the stories.]
Capote remarked once to an interviewer that his “more unswerving ambitions still revolve around” the complex art of the short story. “When seriously explored,” he continued, “the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I have,” he said, “I owe entirely to my training in this medium.”1 The expression “my training” should be borne in mind especially, for in a general way, Capote began as a writer of short fiction before turning his attention to the novel-romance. Finally, except for a foray or two into the theater, he developed the craft of reportage which became the artistic mainstay of his more recent years. Still, the great bulk of his short fiction was written in the 1940s, beginning most notably with “A Tree of Night” which was published originally in 1943. The more recent of his shorter fiction, however, is the chronologically isolated “Mojave” which appeared in 1975.
An examination of the tales in order of chronology, however, does not altogether illuminate the intriguing diversity of the shorter pieces. Much depends on Capote's keen sense of place, and the diversity of his short stories is compounded by his tendency to select either the rural South or metropolitan New York as the locality-setting for most of his work. Undoubtedly, the kinds of characters that appear, as well as the particular kinds of dilemmas in which they find themselves, are closely related either to the urbanized impersonality of city life, or to the hidebound agrarian personality of the southern mode of life as it is lived mostly in Louisiana and Alabama. It is impossible that the southern tales could have been rewritten with New York as the setting, nor could his citified stories been adapted to the isolated backlands of rural Alabama.
I. TALES OF NEW YORK
Eight of the stories, namely “The Walls Are Cold” (1943), “A Mink of One's Own” (1944), “Miriam” (1945), “The Headless Hawk” (1946), “Shut a Final Door” (1947), “Master Misery” (1949), “Among the Paths to Eden” (1960), and (to a limited extent) “Mojave” (1975), are tales of New York. In general, the care and the subsequent artistic quality with which the pieces were written, tended to improve, predictably enough, with Capote's growth as a writer. The stories gradually become richer both in linguistic skill as well as in dark thematic implications—so much so, in fact, that the earlier tales show surprisingly little stylistic resemblance to the later ones.
For example, “The Walls Are Cold” is perhaps closer to a vignette than to one of Capote's later and far more finished short stories. The scene is set in one of the upper floors of a relatively plush city apartment building where a drinking party, presided over by a fickle sixteen-year-old girl named Louise, is well in progress. The hour is two o'clock in the morning, and among the guests is a group of sailors, all of them strangers to Louise. She singles out one of them, a Mississippian known only as Jake, and proceeds to tease him with a succession of sexual overtures, eventually inviting him into the confines of her bedroom where the walls are done in a “cold green.” When, after some hesitation, he accepts her invitation to kiss, he also moves his hand against her breasts. She reacts by giving him a “violent shove” that sends him “sprawling across the cold, green rug,” and he in turn reacts by vacating the premises. Louise then resolves to sleep that night in the security of her mother's bedroom where “the walls were pale rose and warm.”
There are contrasting elements in this brief narrative that give it some slight significance. The first of these is Louise herself, a spoiled and indulged citified adolescent girl living in the midst of fairly opulent circumstances, and Jake, a hapless and far less privileged young person, eight months into a wartime interlude with the Navy. Another of the contrasts is the more pastoral life Jake had known back in Mississippi versus the life he sees at the party: “I never saw anything like it,” he exclaims as she ushers him around her apartment. Still another contrast is the change that the girl's adolescent temperament undergoes, a jolting shift from being coyly seductive to outrightly belligerent within the space of a few minutes.
But the story, such as it is, belongs to Louise, whose lack of empathy toward others such as Jake, who are actively involved in the waging of a war, prefigures the otherwise nameless “white pompadoured woman” in “The Shape of Things” which was published a year later. Otherwise, Louise is like the walls of her bedroom: both cold and green. Jake, on the other hand, is at least partially initiated into some of life's more unpleasant realities, and perhaps as a result of this he lives a less self-absorbed, narcissistic way of life. He is forced to accept, after all, the regimentation of military existence in spite of his aversion to it: “I don't take to this kind of life, I don't like others bossin' me around.”
“The Walls Are Cold” shares with “A Mink of One's Own” a certain vague consciousness that somewhere in the distance there is indeed a war being waged, except that in “A Mink of One's Own” Capote chose to intensify the elements of irony and deception. Set in New York, it is a wartime story centering upon Mrs. Bertha Munson, a vaguely discontented middle-aged woman who, as the story opens, nervously anticipates brightening one of her otherwise dreary afternoons with a visit from a younger woman named Vini Rondo who has supposedly lived a far more colorful, and altogether more privileged, existence than Mrs. Munson ever had. Vini, an American living in Paris until the German occupation, has (according to newspaper gossip columns) been married to “some Count or Baron or something.”
The story's irony becomes evident when Vini Rondo arrives at Mrs. Munson's apartment door on this January afternoon with her hair uncombed, her teeth unbrushed, her nails revealing chipped enamel, her fingers “jewel-less,” and her body clothed only in a summer print dress. She carries a large pink box containing a mink coat and says that she wants Mrs. Munson to have it, meaning that she expects Mrs. Munson to offer her money for it. (“I feel I should get something back on my investment,” she says.) Distinctly ill at ease, Mrs. Munson tenders an offer of $400.00 which she evidently cannot afford, judging from her standard of living. She writes Vini Rondo a check, primarily, no doubt, to terminate the strained and difficult conversation between them. But once Vini has accepted the check and departed, Mrs. Munson gives the coat “a little yank” and is “terrified to hear the sound of ripping.” The coat has disintegrated.
The chief deception in the story is evident at this moment when Mrs. Munson realizes that the coat is literally rotten and therefore worthless. Too late to rectify the situation, she realizes also that “Vini wouldn't phone tomorrow or ever again,” and that she must somehow justify the expenditure to her husband, admitting that she has “been taken and taken good.” And yet it is not Vini who provides all of the story's deceptions, for when she alleges that for the past year she has been living in California, Mrs. Munson replies, “Oh California, I love California!” even though “she had never been farther west than Chicago.”
“A Mink of One's Own” is not a memorable piece of fiction from any point of view, although there are signs to be found in it that point the direction that Capote's writing was about to take. Vini Rondo herself is the forerunner of certain other emotionally disturbed, urbanized young women characters, especially Miriam (in the story of the same name), D. J. in “The Headless Hawk,” Sylvia in “Master Misery,” and Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's. As an easily intimidated New York apartment dweller, Mrs. Munson bears an obvious similarity to the neurotic Mrs. Miller in “Miriam.” Furthermore, the deceptions used against these women are fairly typical of Capote's use of deceptions in his 1943 story “A Tree of Night” as well as in a good deal of the fiction he had yet to write, especially “Preacher's Legend,” “The Headless Hawk,” “Shut a Final Door,” “Children on Their Birthdays,” “Master Misery,” “Jug of Silver,” “House of Flowers,” “Among the Paths to Eden,” The Thanksgiving Visitor, and the more ambitious Other Voices, Other Rooms, The Grass Harp, and Breakfast at Tiffany's.
“Miriam” is a far better story than either “The Walls Are Cold” or “A Mink of One's Own” primarily because of its growing and sustained dramatic intensity and because of its improved handling of psychological crisis. Capote himself evidently cared little for it. “I like … several of my short stories,” he revealed once during an interview with The Paris Review, “though not ‘Miriam,’ which was a good stunt but nothing more.”2 “Miriam” is, in fact, a kind of tour-de-force, but perhaps no more so than several of the other stories published by that time, especially “A Tree of Night.” His lack of enthusiasm for it was apparently a question of personal taste.
“Miriam” has to do with the progressive emotional disintegration of a sixty-one-year-old woman named Mrs. H. T. (Miriam) Miller, a widow who, until the story opens, had led a comfortably conservative private existence in a remodeled brownstone close to New York's East River. Her sedate life and habits are interrupted, however, by the appearance of a child, also named Miriam, whom the woman encounters for the first time on a cold and snowy night while they both queue up for tickets to a movie house. From this point on the child subtly torments Mrs. Miller by making personal visits at unlikely hours of the night, and by moving, bag and baggage, into Mrs. Miller's two rooms with kitchenette. Mrs. Miller's response to this outlandish series of events is first puzzlement, then outrage, and finally desperation to escape the veiled threat to her sanity that Miriam has come to represent. Mrs. Miller gradually loses her composure, as indicated by her inability to keep track of the days as they pass, and then by her inhaling from the wrong end of a cork-tipped cigarette. Driven to desperation, Mrs. Miller eventually runs down the hallway outside of her apartment and down one landing, where she attempts to seek help from another tenant in dealing with her child-intruder, who by this time has provoked her into genuine fear. When the tenant returns with Mrs. Miller, however, there is no sign of the child. Only when Mrs. Miller comes back by herself to her apartment is the girl once again in evidence. “In times of terror or immense distress,” Capote writes, “there are moments when the mind waits, as though for a revelation, while a skein of calm is woven over thought; it is like a sleep, or a supernatural trance.” When last seen, the woman “stiffens” to Miriam's “dull, direct stare.”
“Miriam” contains the not unusual pattern in Capote's writing of the victim and the victimizer, wherein the victim's will is besieged until it finally weakens and collapses into submission. Mrs. Miller is a likely victim, however, since she obviously has not far to travel before she is forced over the line that divides rationality from despondency. She is also easily threatened and intimidated, as in the scene where the child takes possession of the cameo Mrs. Miller's late husband had given her. Like Mrs. Bertha Munson in “A Mink of One's Own,” Mrs. Miller is an inconspicuous, plain woman living in a state of isolation in the midst of a huge, densely populated, and largely indifferent city where she is an ideal target for petty tyranny. In both of these stories the main characters are threatened by females different in both age and temperament. Moreover, and this is quite significant in the development of Capote's fiction, Mrs. Miller chances at one point to come upon a version of the “wizard man,” a threatening and recurring male figure in Capote's consciousness; for on the corner of Third Avenue she becomes aware of “an old man, bowlegged and stooped under an armload of bulging packages” who gives her a sinister smile. And although she walks some five blocks, she continues to be aware of “the steady crunch of his footfalls” in the city snow. There is the vague suggestion that he is the same man with whom the child Miriam had last lived, for she has said that “he was terribly poor and we never had good things to eat.”
Capote was rather clearly concerned with the question of identity when he wrote “Miriam,” for at the end of the story Mrs. Miller is not altogether certain whether she ever did, indeed, “really [know] a girl named Miriam,” or whether the encounter she supposedly had with the child was some kind of trick of her own imagination. “For the only thing she had lost to Miriam was her identity,” and until the story's final two lines, she believes that she has recovered that illusive identity once more. The question therefore arises whether the child is the alter-ego of the woman, and as in Nathaniel Hawthorne's celebrated short story “Young Goodman Brown,” the reader can scarcely distinguish between the dream and the reality of what he has witnessed. Besides the name that the two protagonists share, there is the remark, made on the story's second page, that the child is “lacking [in] any childlike quality whatsoever.” But whether literally or figuratively, the child is an expression of the emotional dislocation that lurks just beneath the neat and orderly surface of the upper middle class world of Mrs. Miller.
Perhaps the least interesting of the New York group of stories is “The Headless Hawk” which, because of its structural diffuseness and consequent lack of artistic unity, makes it less compelling than a number of Capote's other pieces. The center of the narrative belongs not, as it would first appear, to a thoroughly perverse runaway from a mental asylum, a girl known only as “D. J.,” but to the New York picture gallery manager, Vincent Waters; for it is he, and not the seventeen-year-old girl, who is alluded to in the story's preface from Job as one of “those that rebel against the light.”
The story is as enigmatic as its two protagonists. Vincent meets the girl when she enters the gallery in the despondent hope of selling her painting which was apparently done in the secure confines of a mental hospital. Too preoccupied to pay her much attention, Waters asks the girl to leave her address, and agrees to send her a check amounting to thirty dollars for the painting. The address, however, turns out to be only “D. J.—Y. M. C. A.” which is far too cryptic a guide to tracking down a young woman in New York. He takes the painting back to his basement apartment and eventually begins to form a certain identification between himself and the picture's provocative content, consisting of “a headless figure in a monklike robe reclining complacently on top a tacky vaudeville trunk; in one hand she held a flaming blue candle, in another a miniature gold cage, and her severed head lay bleeding at her feet: it was the girl's head, but here her hair was long, very long, and a snowball kitten with crystal spitfire eyes playfully pawed, as it would a spool of yarn, the sprawling ends. The wings of a hawk, headless, scarlet-breasted, copper clawed, curtained the background like a nightfall sky.”
There can be little question but that the headless girl reclining on the vaudeville trunk represents the mentally ill D. J., whose aimless peregrinations have extended from New Orleans to New York. Nor can there be much doubt that the headless hawk is a representation of Vincent Waters himself, for the reader is told that Waters also is not emotionally fit; he has, like D. J., absorbed a succession of painfully thwarted quests. He finds himself at the age of thirty-six “a man of the sea, fifty miles from shore; a victim, born to be murdered, either by himself or another; an actor unemployed.” He is furthermore, and by his own admission, “a poet who had never written poetry, a painter who had never painted, a lover who had never loved … someone, in short, without direction, and quite headless.” As one of those who, again in the words from Job, “Know not the light,” Vincent is depicted early in the story “tap-tap-tapping” with his umbrella-cane down the sidewalk in the manner of a blind man. Later, in an act of self-destruction, Vincent impulsively stabs the hawk's heart with a pair of scissors, causing the canvas to flake dried paint on the floor.
Like “The Walls Are Cold,” “A Mink of One's Own,” and “Miriam,” “The Headless Hawk” centers upon mental and emotional disintegration, although D. J. proceeds further and more permanently over the line of irrationality than Capote's earlier characters had. “The Headless Hawk” also illustrates Capote's growing interest in characters with no particular concrete identity, for, like the child Miriam, D. J. seemingly has no origins, and is on the loose in New York. She does as Miriam does, moves in on a person she does not know and who does not know her. Waters never discovers D. J.'s true name or her background, but regards her with the same “feeling he's had as a child toward carnival freaks.”
D. J.'s shadowy references to a certain Mr. Destronelli suggest that this person, somehow connected with her mental hospital experiences, is another of Capote's wizard men whose foreboding presence is felt in the story even though he never appears. If “The Headless Hawk” were not so consistently dark and pathetic, it would, in its outward characteristics, be not so far removed from the setting and tone of Breakfast at Tiffany's where the character of Holly Golightly can be recognized as a cheerful, delightfully self-possessed D. J.
Instead, the story has certain technical and structural flaws that prevent its being the finished piece of fiction that it might have been. It is, for one thing, full of details that appear to have no function in the story as a whole. The reader may wonder, for example, why he finds Vincent Waters absorbed in a story by James Thurber in an old issue of The New Yorker, and why he observes the same character taking such an unusually narcissistic pleasure in his own nakedness. Why does Waters pay twenty-five cents to view the moon and stars? What is the function of Ruby the popcorn man? Such apparently nonessential tag ends detract from the story's real center: Vincent's lonely and vacant urban existence, his “talents unexploited, voyages never taken, promises unfulfilled,” as well as his many abortive love affairs with men and women alike. Neither is there the slightest ray of illumination leading to self-understanding in the hopelessly confused mind of D. J., who, like her friend Waters, becomes more pitiable (if not tending to invite sympathy) as the story reaches its conclusion.
Capote once revealed that “Shut a Final Door” was one of his favorites among the short stories,3 and the reasons for his preference are not difficult to ascertain. Unlike “The Headless Hawk,” it has both thematic and tonal control, as well as a keener sense of purpose and direction. Nevertheless, there is an element in “Shut a Final Door” that evades rational explanation, for the story centers around a character named Walter Ranney, an unsuccessful businessman who receives two unnerving and sinister long-distance telephone calls. His anonymous caller possesses an uncanny ability to reach him in unlikely and far removed places. The caller reaches him once in New York (“Oh, you know me, Walter. You've known me a long time”), and locates him again in the hotel room belonging to a club-footed woman under scrutiny at a medical convention in Saratoga. This aura of mystery, as unexplained as the child in “Miriam” or the character of D. J. in “The Headless Hawk,” is by no means untypical of the perplexing enigmas present in most of Capote's writing.
The most imposing theme of the story is failure, and, although such earlier characters as Mrs. Miller and Vincent Waters were also in one sense or another portraits in failure, Walter Ranney's propensity for losing life's battles is drawn into sharper focus than had been the case with these and other earlier characters. At the beginning of “Shut a Final Door” Ranney has managed to alienate his friend Anna by gossiping about her. After that, he spoils his relationship with another woman (Margaret) when he becomes an assistant in an advertising house and fawns too much on the boss (who subsequently fires him). The reader learns that as a child Ranney had been caught plagiarizing a poem that he had published in the school magazine under his own name. On another occasion he had blatantly provoked a homosexual liaison, only to jump into a waiting taxi, slam the door, lean out a window, and laugh contemptuously at the man he had allowed to follow him for several blocks: “the look on his face, it was awful, it was like Christ.” About his friend Rosa Cooper, he had apparently leaked the erroneous information to Walter Winchell's newspaper column that “big shot ad exec Walter Ranney and dairy heiress Rosa Cooper are telling intimates to start buying rice.” To all appearances, he thrives on failure: “It was like the time he'd failed algebra and felt so relieved, so free: failure was definite, a certainty, and there is always peace in certainties.”
Beyond the emphasis on failure is the almost unendurable isolation that Walter Ranney, as well as a number of his fictional predecessors, has been forced to withstand. At the outset of the story he is at his nadir, installed in a hot and seamy little New Orleans hotel room, eating peanut butter crackers, washing them down with a finger of Four Roses, and finally vomiting in a wastebasket. Like Saul Bellow's Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, Ranney is the pitiably isolated and unloved loser who is forced eventually to own up to the reality of his condition, for he sees that “no matter what you did or how hard you tried, it all came finally to zero.”
A substantial number of Capote's stories have what, for want of a better term, can be called grotesques. It was Vincent Waters in “The Headless Hawk” who found that he could love only those who had “a little something wrong [or] broken” about them, and “Shut a Final Door” has its share of such people. Margaret, for example, with her bulging eyes and her teeth reddened by lipstick, dresses like a ten-year-old child. Her friend Irving looks “like a little boy playing grownup,” his legs too short to reach the footrest on a barstool. Others are still more within the category of the comic-grotesque. Rosa's companion Anna Stimson is “almost six feet tall, wore black suits, affected a monocle, a walking cane, and pounds of jingling Mexican silver.” Stimson's son by a former husband (“Buck Strong, the horse-opera idol”) is currently incarcerated in a “corrective academy” for having stolen from Woolworths, throwing things, and taking “potshots out the window with a.22.” At a bar in Saratoga, Ranney encounters such “summer-season grotesques” as “sagging silver-foxed ladies, and little stunted jockeys.” Chief among the grotesques, however, is the unnamed woman afflicted with a club foot who explains that “my doctor's … going to talk about me and my foot on account of I'm pretty special.” Because all of the other hotel rooms are occupied, Ranney accepts an invitation to share hers. It is here that the anonymous telephone call reaches him, after which he clutches her in dismay. Her comment is to the point: “we're awfully alone in this world, aren't we?” Thus in each of Capote's stories discussed to this point (1947), the chance encounters that happen lead to emotionally debilitating results. For when last seen, Walter Ranney is, like Louise in “The Walls Are Cold,” pushing his face into a pillow in a final gesture of anguish. Indications are that, just as the demonic child in “Miriam” is a projection of Mrs. Miller herself, the sinister long-distance telephone caller is in reality an expression of Ranney's conscience and his fear.
“Master Misery” is another of the New York group of stories dealing in failure and broken dreams. Its protagonist, a young woman named Sylvia, lives for a time with her friends Henry and Estelle (a Columbia law student and his wife), whose “trouble” in Sylvia's estimation, “was that they were excruciatingly married.” But Sylvia has other problems. She loses her dreary job as a typist for an underwear manufacturing company known as Snug Fare, sells her watch, her beaver coat, her gold mesh evening bag, and finally, her dreams. Having moved into a depressingly furnished room in the East Sixties, she has fallen into the company of an ex-clown, the hopeless alcoholic Mr. Oreilly, whose spiritual bankruptcy parallels her own. Walking the crowded streets of Manhattan, she sees on different occasions the symbol of herself and Oreilly; in the window of a Madison Avenue shop she encounters “a life-sized, mechanical Santa Claus” who slaps his stomach and rocks “back and forth in a frenzy of electrical mirth.” In the same window at a later time Sylvia and Oreilly find another exhibit that is no less suggestive; this time it is “a plastic girl with intense glass eyes [sitting] astride a bicycle pedaling at the maddest pace” and although “its wheel spokes [spin] hypnotically, the bicycle never [moves].”
In need both of money and spiritual “meaning” in her life, Sylvia overhears a conversation between two men at an Automat, to the effect that a certain Mr. A. F. Revercomb on East Seventy-eight Street is a broker in dreams (“regular night-time dreams”), and will pay, according to their intrinsic merit, cash for the disclosure of anybody's dream experiences. Revercomb, whose name denotes his occupation, has no dreams of his own, as suggested by his very appearance: His “flat gray eyes planted like seed in the anonymity of his face and sealed within steel-dull lenses.” Revercomb, however, is no fraud; he knows the real dream-article from mere imaginary fabrications of dreams.
Oreilly, however, recognizes Revercomb for what he really is, another version of the wizard man (although not referred to as such); the dream broker is “the same fellow,” says Oreilly, that Sylvia must have been aware of as a child. “All mothers tell their kids about him,” Oreilly says. “He lives in hollows of trees, he comes down chimneys late at night, he lurks in graveyards, and you can hear his step in the attic. The sonofabitch, he is a thief and a threat: he will take everything you have and end by leaving you nothing, not even a dream.” Sylvia is aware of Revercomb's identity: “My family called him something else. But I can't remember what.” Oreilly knows him as Master Misery.
Sylvia and Oreilly share the same world of loneliness, stress, and unproductivity that is captured in the fragments of the newspaper headline before her: “Lana Denies, Russia Rejects, Miners Conciliate.” The external New York scene, with its frigid temperatures, snow and ice, contribute to the sense of desolation that they both feel. Sylvia's childhood friend, Estelle, feels that her predicament would be solved if she were to get married. (“I'm here to tell you, honey, that there is nothing like lying in bed at night with a man's arms around you and. …”) But the man that Sylvia was to marry, whoever that might be, “must've fallen down a manhole,” for every ostensible candidate for marriage that she has identified in New York “who seemed the slightest bit attractive was either married, too poor to get married, or queer.” Her desperation causes her to lose track of reality for short periods, and her signs of emotional instability are not dissimilar to Capote's other women characters introduced earlier.
Oreilly, too, is reminiscent of certain other emotionally depleted characters in Capote's earlier fiction, not the least of whom are Vincent Waters and Walter Ranney. He has sought a number of solutions to his spiritual dilemma, as hinted at in the song he jauntily sings: “cherryberry, moneyberry, happyberry pie, but the best old pie is a loveberry pie. …” Later in the story he changes the ending of his song to “the best old pie is a whiskeyberry pie!” Irretrievably alcoholic, Oreilly has sold all his dreams to Master Misery and used the money to satisfy his habit and also, he hopes, to create a few more marketable dreams. When “you get a couple of bucks,” he tells Sylvia, “you rush to the nearest liquor store—or the nearest sleeping-pill machine.” When he runs out of cash, he either borrows more money or steals the whiskey he is seeking. Realizing that alcoholism is Oreilly's last hold on life, Sylvia is last seen slipping a five dollar bill into his pocket as she kisses him. And when, in the story's final paragraph, two boys emerge from a bar and stare menacingly in her direction, she knows she is no longer afraid because “there was nothing left to steal.”
Still, there is nothing particularly pathological about Sylvia's morbid depression and loneliness. Her former job at the underwear company (where in a single day she has typed some ninety-seven letters) is no more pointless than the plastic girl in the storefront who monotonously spins the wheels of her bicycle, but goes nowhere. Equally devoid of meaning, to her mind, is the delusion of marital harmony and bliss as represented by her struggling married friends. Only in her dreams, the essentials of which are kept hidden in a music box, can she arrive at any possibility of meaning. Eventually, however, her dreams are extracted from her by Revercomb for money, and she is left with nothing. The difficulty of Sylvia's facing another day is emphasized by the “disorganized version of ‘Oh How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning’” that emanates from within her music box.
There is nothing amusing in “Master Misery,” but the same cannot be said with respect to “Among the Paths to Eden” which is a dark tale with oddly humorous overtones. It is also one of the simpler, more anecdotal of the Capote stories. The scene is a huge cemetery in Queens which, besides being a haven for the deceased, offers “an unhindered view of Manhattan's skyline” for the living. On a chilly and windy day in March, a fifty-one-year-old Jew named Ivor Belli arrives at the cemetery bearing “a fine mass of jonquils” to place at the grave of his wife who had once been “a woman of many natures, most of them trying.” His motive for coming out this day is less to pay tribute to his wife's memory than it is an opportunity to breathe the fresh air. He wishes also to be able to assure his two married daughters that he has paid his respects to their mother.
As he stoops “to jam the jonquils into a rock urn,” he takes a certain secret comfort in the knowledge that “the woman's tongue was finally stilled.” Turning to leave the gravesite, Belli encounters a husband-stalker who introduces herself as Mary O'Meaghan who detains him by feeding him peanuts while she leads him to believe that she has come to the cemetery to visit the grave of her father. Her late father, however, has “absolutely refused” burial, and has been cremated and left “at home.” After some preliminary ploys, Mary O'Meaghan emphasizes her prowess as a cook and then launches into an imitation of Helen Morgan while perched on the late Sarah Belli's gravestone. This much accomplished, she comes to her point by asking Belli “a very personal question,” to wit, if he had “considered marrying again.” With twenty-seven years of matrimony behind him, Belli replies in all candor that that much marriage is “enough for any lifetime.” But by this time, her inattention to his words is revealed by “her eyes [that] played hookey, [roaming] as though she were hunting at a party for a different, more promising face.” Finally, “a new pilgrim, just entering through the gates of the cemetery” attracts her interest, while Belli takes the opportunity to make as graceful an exit as the occasion allows. He thanks Mary O'Meaghan for the peanuts and wishes her good luck.
Mary, as eccentric and as uninhibited as she is, evinces the desperate, underlying loneliness of certain other of Capote's earlier women characters. Capote, however, does not allow the pathos of Mary O'Meaghan to preclude a slight comic effect, for while Mary is not altogether unattractive, she wears “shoes which were of the sturdy, so-called sensible type,” and “her chunky cheeks” assert themselves “under a drab felt hat.” Although Belli does not view her as obese, neither can he “imagine that she mounted scales too cheerfully.”
Consistent with a number of Capote's short stories, “Among the Paths to Eden” develops from the moment when complete strangers meet and interact. The idea of matrimonial disharmony, a not unusual element in his fiction, is present here, as well. The apparent significance of the title is in itself matrimonial in implication inasmuch as the story concerns itself primarily with Mary's effort to locate a husband who, for as much time as remains, will suffice as her Adam. For the time being, however, she has taken the wrong path toward her dreams of Edenic bliss.
Nor is there anything blissful about the digressive “Mojave,” which did not appear until the June, 1975 issue of Esquire. “Mojave” is a different kind of a story which examines with still greater intensity (and far less whimsy) the ironic complications of mature love relationships. The story has a point to make, and that point is reinforced a number of times. It is articulated, however, only toward the conclusion: “We all, sometimes, leave each other out there under the skies. And we never understand why.” “Mojave” does not suggest “why,” but it does explore the theme of love and its betrayal to a considerable extent.
The protagonist is Sarah Whitelaw, thirty-six, wife of the wealthy New Yorker George Whitelaw, fifteen years older than she, and a man who “had graduated third in his class at Yale Law School, never practiced law but had gone on to top his class at Harvard Business School, [and who] had been offered a Presidential Cabinet post, and an ambassadorship to England or France, or wherever he wanted.” Married at the age of twenty-four, two months after the death of her father, Sarah had once seen in George the approximation of “her great lost love”—her father. Nevertheless, the opening scene of “Mojave” finds Sarah Whitelaw in the midst of one of her regular acts of infidelity with the oafish Dr. Ezra Bentsen, “formerly her psychoanalyst and presently her lover.” But after George Whitelaw, Ezra Bentsen is an unlikely sexual partner (“two hundred and twenty pounds of shortish, fiftyish, frizzly-haired, hip-heavy, myopic Manhattan Intellectual”) whom Sarah actively loathes.
It is her husband she loves, and betrays, for the company of Bentsen, whose greed demands that she present him with expensive gifts at each of their trysts, until she breaks their liaison. Meanwhile, Bentsen has told Sarah of the breach that erupted the previous evening between himself and his child-psychiatrist wife: “I slapped Thelma. But good. And I punched her in the stomach, too.” Sarah's mind had earlier ranged over a not-unrelated incident that had happened to her the day before: Jaime Sanchez, her hairdresser, has told her that he intends to murder his homosexual companion Carlos, a dentist, because Carlos has fallen in love with Sanchez's cousin Angelita. But Carlos does not fully comprehend Sanchez's admonition to him: “You love or you do not. You destroy or you do not.”
When George Whitelaw enters the story, he tells Sarah about the summer after he left Yale when he had hitch-hiked to New Mexico and California. He goes on to say that he had met an abandoned, seventy-year-old blind man named George Schmidt on the highway in the Mojave desert. Schmidt had told him a story of his betrayal by two women, one of whom (the ex-stripper Ivory Hunter, his wife) was responsible for his abandonment “helpless, in the middle of nowhere.” But whereas Schmidt is wary of women (“women are like flies: they settle on sugar or shit”), he is also understanding (“a woman can do you like that, and still you love her”).
George Whitelaw, it develops, has betrayed his wife Sarah, but not without her aid, “for when they had stopped sleeping together, they had been discussing together—indeed, collaborating on—each of his affairs.” Neither is his involvement with other women without its consequences, for it has triggered still other betrayals:
Alice Kent: five months; ended because she demanded he divorce and marry her. Sister Jones: terminated after one year when her husband found out about it. Pat Simpson: a Vogue model who had gone to Hollywood, promised to return and never had. Adele O'Hara: beautiful, and alcoholic, a rambunctious scene-maker; he had broken that one off himself. Mary Campbell. Mary Chester. Jane Vere-Jones. Others. And now, Christine.
If the truth be known, however, George Whitelaw feels secretly “emasculated by women.”
The relation between “Mojave” and some of Capote's earlier work is apparent enough. Although “Mojave” is basically a story of New York, it contains scenes of the Southwest that echo some of his earlier excursions into local color fiction. In that part of the country, he writes, “there wasn't any shade. Nothing but sand and mesquite and this boiling blue sky.” The character Freddy Feo, who takes up with Ivory Hunter, is a carry-over from another Capote character, Tico Feo, the prisoner in “A Diamond Guitar” (1950). Both Tico and Freddy are closely identified with guitars decorated in rhinestone. Capote's attention to problems related to homosexuality (such as exists in Other Voices, Other Rooms and In Cold Blood) is evidenced once again in the strained relations between Jaime and Carlos, as well as in Freddy Feo, recently hired by a trailer park manager who “had picked him up in one of those fag bars in Cat City and put him to work as a handyman.”
Capote's fascination with snow, a symbol of isolation and estrangement in such works as Other Voices, Other Rooms and in the short story “Master Misery,” is again present in “Mojave.” When, for example, Sarah and George embrace, “the flesh against her lips felt as cold as the snowflakes at the window.” In the next-to-last paragraph in the story the heavy silk window draperies in the Whitelaws' apartment conceal “the night river and the lighted riverboats, so snow-misted that they were as muted as the design in a Japanese scroll of winter night.”
The New York stories are those in which a cold, impersonal, and uncongenial environment seems to foster characters who are, in the main, the victims of loneliness, alienation, and despair. As a consequence, their behavior not infrequently hovers somewhere between the engagingly eccentric and the certifiably deranged. Generally humorless, the New York fiction lacks some of the occasional warmth and familiarity that is often (but certainly not always) present in Capote's southern stories.
II. STORIES OF THE SOUTH
The earliest (1944) of these is “The Shape of Things” which, like “A Mink of One's Own,” is a wartime narrative. It brings four characters together on a moving train somewhere between the Carolinas and Virginia. Three of them are related directly in one sense or another to the war itself, and they are brought in touch with one another on a railway diner for a brief interlude that is perhaps more felt than articulated. The three consist of “a ruddy-cheeked marine and a heart-faced girl” (his wife), as well as a severely battle-fatigued corporal from the Army. The fourth character, and the central one, is “a wispish-sized, white pompadoured woman” who, at least ostensibly, has no relation to the war and its attendant human dilemmas. She regards the girl (who comes from Alabama) merely as a “war bride.” When the corporal suddenly makes his appearance in the dining car and lurches “awkwardly toward them and [collapses] in the table's empty seat like a rag,” she regards him as a drunk. The marine, by contrast to the woman, understands the corporal's condition and evinces some degree of sympathetic understanding: “Listen, fella, you better get a doctor.” The corporal, in spite of his erratic, nervous behavior, is aware of his own condition and attempts to reveal this understanding to the other three by saying “D'ya think I want to sit down at a table with … someone like you and make ‘em sick? D'ya think I want to scare a kid like this one over here and put ideas in her head about her own guy! I've been waiting months, and they tell me I'm well, but the first time …” With this somewhat stilted outburst he bolts out of the diner, leaving the three alone again. The white-pompadoured woman's response to this is merely to pay for the coffee that the corporal has left behind.
Capote also used the unifying device of characters brought together on a train in his next story, “A Tree of Night,” although the implications of “The Shape of Things” are quite different. In the latter story the central idea is one that is anything but unusual in war-related literature—William Faulkner had used it in Soldiers' Pay in 1926, for example—that persons like the white-pompadoured woman who are well insulated from the unspeakable realities of war seen unable or unwilling to comprehend the effects of war upon those who have been touched directly by it. “The Shape of Things” is therefore partly an exercise in point of view wherein the woman is somewhat ironically unable to imagine the grave predicaments faced by others in her midst, and reacts mostly by silence and indignation.
As a short story, “A Tree of Night” succeeds much more than “The Shape of Things” for a number of reasons. It is, first of all, well sustained in its tone. The icicles that are suspended from the remote southern railway depot at night, are “like some crystal monster's vicious teeth,” and they establish the prevailing mood for the rest of the narration. On the lonely railway platform it is windy, cold, and dark, except for “a string of naked light bulbs.” As the story's protagonist, a college sophomore named Kay, climbs aboard the last remaining dingy railway coach, the gloom of the deserted depot extends to the tawdriness of the coach's interior, with its disarray of partly eaten sandwiches, remnants of apples and oranges, discarded paper cups, newspapers, and soft drink bottles—all of which combine with the staleness of tobacco smoke, the prospect of dozing travellers, and a leaking water-cooler to produce a singularly depressing scene.
The story traces the gradual undoing of Kay, who is finally coerced into surrendering the contents of her purse to a hypnotically grotesque pair of travelling con-artists. The man and woman who with ironic subtlety break her will as she falls into a macabre trance, accomplish their ends not only by their relentless insistence, but also by the lighting on the train and by the cadence of the moving locomotive. Kay, a nineteen-year-old, is on her way back to college after having attended the funeral of an uncle who has willed her a green Western guitar. Her decidedly funereal point of view is heightened by other elements in the story, such as the ghoulish monster teeth suspended from the station house and the gloom of entering the coffin-like interior of the last coach on this dreary, nocturnal passenger train. Kay settles in the car's only vacant seat where across from her are situated the two con-artists, she in her lavender hat with its cluster of celluloid cherries drooping from it, he deaf and dumb. Their game, as it turns out, is the reenactment of live burial for the entertainment of the curious in “every tank town in the South.” The woman's advertising handbill comes, no doubt, as an unpleasant reminder of the funeral from which Kay has just returned:
LAZARUS The Man Who Is Buried Alive A Miracle See For Yourself Adults, 25¢—Children, 10¢
With a description that invites comparison with Eudora Welty's story “Petrified Man,” the eccentric woman explains to Kay their routine reenactment of his mock funeral: “He wears a gorgeous made-to-order bridegroom suit and a turban and lotsa talcum on his face,” she states matter-of-factly. “After the hymn, after the sermon, we bury him.” The deaf-mute, she says, has the ability to lie motionless for hours in a coffin by putting himself into a hypnotic trance. Then people come to view him in a storefront window. “Stays there all night stiff as a poker and people come and look: scares the livin' hell out of ‘em. …” The details of their act are ludicrous, even funny, except that both the present moment and certain of Kay's sinister childhood memories each conspire against her, breaking her will. The coldness of the car's platform makes her head ache, and outside the coach window the tall trees seem “misty, painted pale by a malicious moonshine.” The stars overhead remind the reader of the stars painted on the lid of the mute's casket, and the mute himself recalls for Kay the white image of her dead uncle's head resting on its casket pillow.
She is reminded too, and this is central to the story's “meaning,” of her childhood memories “of terrors that once, long ago, had hovered above her like haunted limbs on a tree of night,” and of “the unfailing threat of the wizard man.” For her, the mute quite obviously becomes the living embodiment of the dreaded wizard man of her girlhood imagination. His desire is to sell her a love charm in the form of a shellacked peach seed. Too terrified either to ask the railway conductor to find her another seat, or to cry out and thus awaken the deathlike slumber of those around her, she submits, pulling her raincoat up “like a shroud” as the woman takes possession of Kay's purse.
“A Tree of Night” contains certain ironic elements, not the least of which is the complete surrender of an apparently rational and intelligent young college woman to the purely emotional forces of the moment and to the wiles of an exceedingly crude (and yet not unskilled), partially drunken, self-proclaimed fraud and her afflicted partner who utters not a single word. In spite of Kay's protestations, she is emotionally seduced into cooperating with the couple when the woman tries to force her to drink some cheap gin, although Kay finally manages to pour the paper cup of gin into the sound hole of her green guitar.
Other ironic details are also present; at one point the woman admonishes Kay for not telling the truth when Kay has tried to break away, allegedly to meet a friend on the same train; it is the woman and her accomplice, of course, who trade professionally in lies. The woman then suggests that for Kay to leave her seat would hurt the mute's feelings. Only a page later, however, the woman notes that her companion is immune to having his feelings trampled on by incredulous “smart alecks” because “he's afflicted.” A short time later the woman hoists her skirt and blows her nose enthusiastically on the ragged hem of her petticoat, only to rearrange her skirt “with considerable primness.” As for the rest of the passengers seated in this veritable mobile garbage dump rolling through a siege of foul weather in a dimly lit and offensive-smelling antiquated railway car, they seem “not … at all conscious of any discomfort” because they are asleep.
The story is made coherent by a series of leitmotifs and images. The most imposing of these is the awareness of death as suggested by entombment, morbid fear of supernatural forces, bodies, shrouds, and caskets. Another recurring image in the tale is that of devoured fruit. On the floor of the coach are apple cores and orange hulls. The lacquered peach seed that the mute desires to palm off on Kay is another such image, as is the cluster of faintly comic artificial cherries that are sewn to the woman's hat. Such images are but a reminder of the otherwise spent and artificial atmosphere that engulfs the whole narrative, particularly the funeral that Kay has just witnessed, and later the gloomy interior of the coach. The result of these unpleasant experiences for her is but another step in the loss of her youthful innocence.
Capote's early fiction is characterized in part by an unevenness in artistic quality. There is probably no better illustration of this than the differences that exist between “A Tree of Night” and “Preacher's Legend,” both of which appeared in 1945. The deficiencies of “Preacher's Legend” lie in both its narrative style and its dubious thematic import. The story centers around “an old colored man” of advanced age (“ninety or a hundred, maybe”) who lives alone in the rural South and who is preoccupied by the passing of his wife Evelina long ago, as well as by certain fundamentalist religious persuasions. At one juncture in the story he retires alone into the woods to pray at a location known to him simply as The Place. But when he opens his Bible, clasps his hands, and lifts his head, he is interrupted by two sinister white hunters bearing a slain wildcat. The hunters are identified only as Curly Head and Yellow Hair. Owing to his generally confused state and to his preoccupation with the Bible (despite the Preacher's illiteracy), “he knew who the strangers were—knew it from the Good Book.” Accordingly, he addresses one of the hunters as “Mistuh Jesus,” and the other as “Mistuh Saint,” evidently believing that the two have come to deliver him to his heavenly reward.
But Preacher is not ready to go. To Mistuh Jesus he says, “I'se been turnin' de whole mattah ovah an' I'se come to conclude I don't wants to go wid y'all.” Curly Head and Yellow Hair do not take the old black man seriously, and are of the opinion that “he's just been sitting in the sun too long, that's all.” As the two make their departure, however, Preacher asks Mistuh Jesus to do him one favor: “If you can see yo' way clear to do me one mo' favuh, I'd ‘preciate it if you evah gits de time iffen you'd find my ol’ woman … names Evelina … an' say hello from Preacher an' tells her what a good happy man I is.” Curly Head promises to fulfill Preacher's request “first thing in the morning,” but as the two hunters make their way down the road they burst into derisive laughter.
The story has relatively little to say. Capote reveals something of Preacher's private world, a world of myth and memory that is contrasted in the story with some harsher realities of the intrusive “outside” world of violence and cynicism represented by the two hunters. Preacher's remarks to himself, and to them, make the narrative partly a dialect story, and the Preacher himself is sketched in the tradition of the childlike, subservient, equivocal black man of the Uncle Remus stories.
Some of Capote's early interest in the gothic mode that found its flowering in Other Voices, Other Rooms is to be found in “Preacher's Legend,” just as in “A Tree of Night.” Evelina had been “dead and buried two springs ago,” and Preacher is mindful that some of his own children have gone “to their graves” and that “on the eve of his puppy's death, it was said, a great red-winged bird with a fearsome beak had sailed into the room from nowhere.” Other images and suggestions reinforce the morose tone of the narration. From his wall stares “a wonderful poster-picture of a golden-haired girl holding a bottle of NE-HI [that is] torn at the mouth, so that her smile was wicked and leering.” Outside, meanwhile, a rooster crows and the dogwood blossoms. Preacher recalls Evelina's admonition to him against believing in spirits: (“I ain't gonna listen to no mo' of dat spook talk.”). And yet, when he first hears the approach of the hunters in the woods, he regards them as apparitions. Such details as these point to the story's affinity with local color tradition as evidenced by its whole cultural milieu, its rural southern setting, its reuse of black colloquialisms, and its somewhat paternalistic view of the black man.
After “Preacher's Legend,” comedy prevailed in Capote's southern stories, and one of the better comic tales is “My Side of the Matter” which is written (uncharacteristically for Capote) in the first person. The narrator is a seriocomic sixteen-year-old bridegroom and expectant father who, to his infinite regret, has been persuaded to relinquish his “swell position clerking at the Cash'n'Carry to accompany his bride to her aunts' house in Admiral's Mill” which, he says, “is nothing but a damn gap in the road any way you care to consider it.”
Domestic differences of opinion have culminated in his being attacked by his wife Marge's two aunts. One of them, Eunice, has threatened him with a Civil War sword, and the other (Olivia-Ann) has brandished a “fourteen-inch hog knife” against him. The result of these disputes is the young man's barricading himself in the family parlor by pushing heavy furniture against the doors, locking the windows, and lowering the shades. Last seen, he is “munching a juicy, creamy, chocolate cherry” from out of a “five pound box of Sweet Love candy.” As his would-be attackers plead for him to surrender, his reply is to give them “a tune on the piano every now and then just to let them know” that he is still “cheerful.”
The story is as light and comic as most of the others were dark and serious, and yet throughout his career Capote persists in concentrating upon the grotesque characters he had used before, except that in “My Side of the Matter” they are devoted to comic ends. Here the narrator himself admits to being “slightly stocky,” but he attributes that to his not having “got [his] full growth yet.” Eunice, seeing him in a less understanding light, regards him merely as “the runt of the litter.” But Marge protests: “you seem to forget, Aunt Olivia-Ann, that this is my husband, the father of my unborn child.” Eunice then makes a nasty sound. “Well, all I can say is I most certainly wouldn't be bragging about it.”
The other characters are scarcely more appealing. Marge, the child bride, according to her husband, “has no looks, no body, and no brains whatever,” and on top of those shortcomings, “ups and gets pregnant” after the couple are betrothed less than three months. Eunice, on the other hand, has “a behind that must weight [sic] a tenth of a ton,” and tries vainly to chew her tobacco with ladylike decorum. Olivia-Ann, according to the sixteen-year-old, is worse still, “for she is a natural-born half-wit and ought really to be kept in somebody's attic.” To make matters worse, he says, “she's real pale and skinny and has a mustache. She squats around most of the time whittling on a stick with her fourteen-inch hog knife.”
The women make no pretense about their disapproval of the young man, compelling him as they do to sleep apart from his wife on a cot erected on the screenless back porch, which is besieged both by mosquitoes “that could murder a buffalo” and by “dangerous flying roaches and a posse of local rats big enough to haul a wagon train.” With continued vehemence, the women accuse him of ineptitude and outright laziness. Says Eunice, “if you think I'd let that runt drive my just-as-good-as-brand-new 1934 Chevrolet as far as the privy and back you must've gone clear out of your head.” Alluding to his laziness, she continues, “if he's ever so much as driven a plow I'll eat a dozen gophers fried in turpentine.”
The humor of the tale is at once sophisticated and slapstick, for while the narrator retains an astutely ironic point of view throughout, he also speaks with an ingenious crudity. In the end, the story turns into a free-for-all. Marge hands Eunice a Civil War sword with which to restrain the narrator, while Olivia-Ann rushes into the yard bellowing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The effect of all this is hilarious Faulknerian fun, as pointless, perhaps, as it is funny.
Like a number of stories before and after it, “My Side of the Matter” concerns a less-than-welcome guest in an alien household, a circumstance that Capote uses in such stories as “Miriam,” “The Headless Hawk,” “Shut a Final Door,” “Master Misery,” as well as in Other Voices, Other Rooms. And although the young man's involuntary exile in “My Side of the Matter” is comic, he is still another of Capote's isolated and unloved outcasts.
“Jug of Silver” is another comic story, and the chief difference between it and “My Side of the Matter” is that the former is a much more charming narrative, though no less enigmatic in its message. It is the story of a waifish boy known only as Appleseed who is credited with guessing the amount of money ($77.35, in all) contained in a gallon jug that had once contained “store-bought” Italian wine.
The scene is a small town in the deep South where the narrator, looking fondly back to his boyhood, recalls Mr. Ed Marshall, his uncle, “a squat, square-faced, pinkfleshed man with looping, manly white mustaches” who owns and manages the Valhalla drugstore. Early in the story Marshall appears as “a renowned teetotaler” drinking red wine with his companion, a somewhat mysterious, supposedly Egyptian, dentist named Hamurabi who unaccountably possesses no foreign accent, and who, in the opinion of the narrator, “wasn't any more Egyptian than the man in the moon.” Marshall, a little tipsy from the wine, and a great deal concerned about the sudden appearance of an old man named Rufus McPherson who has opened a rival drugstore across the town square, decides to fill the jug with nickels and dimes. His idea is to promote business by allowing his customers to estimate the value of the jug's contents, and to award the same contents on Christmas eve to the nearest estimator. To Hamurabi, the jug represents “the pot at the end of the rainbow,” but to Marshall, it is a sensational piece of business promotion. He tells his customers that “the more you buy, the more chances you get. And I'll keep all guesses in a ledger till Christmas Eve, at which time whoever comes closest to the right amount will get the whole shebang.”
The plan succeeds enormously. “Why,” the narrator says, “the Valhalla hadn't done so much business since Station Master Tully, poor soul, went stark raving mad and claimed to have discovered oil back of the depot, causing the town to be overrun with wildcat prospectors.” But moral and sentimental problems confront Marshall and Hamurabi when Appleseed arrives on the scene and claims to live on a farm outside the town limits. Appleseed also claims to be twelve years old, but his sister Middy (“a sad looking kid” who resembles “a regular bean pole” and who has something wrong with her teeth) says that her brother is only eight. Obviously down on his luck, Appleseed never changes his outfit which consists of “a red sweater, blue denim britches, and a pair of man-sized boots that went clop clop with every step.” His mother, he says, weighs but seventy-four pounds, his brother plays the fiddle at weddings for a fee of fifty cents, and his father is apparently one short step ahead of the sheriff.
Appleseed resolves to ascertain the correct amount contained in the jug, but instead of taking a mere educated guess, he intends somehow to count the money: “Now, the way I got it figured, there ain't but one sure-fire thing and that's to count every nickel and dime.” Hamurabi is incredulous: “Count! You better have X-ray eyes, son, that's all I can say.” Moved by the sight of the pathetic boy and his even more pathetic sister, Hamurabi has not the heart to see the child's face on Christmas Eve when he, in all probability, will be grievously disappointed: “I don't want to see that kid's face. This is Christmas and I mean to have a rip-roaring time.”
At the climax of the story at the Valhalla on Christmas Eve, the store fills with an anxious assemblage in only twenty minute's time. Capote's handling of the suspense element is perfectly timed. Appleseed is accorded the honor of opening an envelope containing a slip with the prize-winning figure on it, and it becomes clear that Marshall, in the spirit of yuletide charity and holiday good will, has altered the figure to coincide precisely with Appleseed's estimate. Only the town drunk who masquerades as Santa Claus and “who had a snootful by this time” causes a rumpus, although it develops that he has been paid to do so by Rufus McPherson.
The story is related with an engaging oral quality in the tradition of the American tall tale. Appleseed wins the contents of the jug, so Capote's explanation goes, because he had been fortuitously born with a caul over his head. But all this happened long ago. In the ensuing years Appleseed moved with his family to Florida and was never again heard from. In the remaining time before his death, Marshall “was invited each Christmas day to tell the story of Appleseed to the Baptist Bible class.” Later, Hamurabi had recorded the “legend” of Appleseed and had attempted to interest an editor in publishing it, but was unsuccessful. Capote's story ends on still another ironic note, for the editor who had turned down Hamurabi's version of the story had done so because Hamurabi had not stressed the fact that Middy supposedly “turned out to be a movie star” after she acquired enough money to pay for false teeth. “But that's not what happened,” says the narrator, “so why should you lie?” The real center of the story is, of course, predicated on Marshall's charitable distortion of the truth.
As in so many of Capote's short stories, “Jug of Silver” offers the reader an array of colorful and eccentric characters, especially in the form of precocious, determined children. The children in the story are much like those in “Children on Their Birthdays” which appeared next, and which is similar in situation, setting, and atmosphere. “Jug of Silver” also shares with a number of other stories, such as “A Tree of Night,” “Miriam,” and “The Headless Hawk,” a certain counterrealistic quality which, if it makes the story no less believable, is still considerably removed from stark, photographic reality. It makes effective use of some genuinely warm and comic southern local color elements; but comic or not, it contains a touch of sadness growing out of the use of deprived characters that makes the texture of the narrative decidedly bittersweet.
That same bittersweetness prevails in another of Capote's favorite stories, the hilarious “Children on Their Birthdays.” The tale begins and ends on a poignant note, however, for the protagonist (an enigmatic ten-year-old named Miss Lily Jane Bobbit) is eventually run over and killed by the same six o'clock bus that had originally brought her and her mother to the tiny southern town which is the scene of the narrative. The story, withal, is a remarkable piece of local color narration told by an anonymous first-person observer. Much like “My Side of the Matter,” “Children on Their Birthdays” has no imposing thematic point to make, although it is rich in a variety of kinds of suggestiveness.
Structurally, the story is framed by Miss Bobbit's arrival and would-be departure, for as she runs toward “those moons of roses” prepared by her childhood friends as a going-away tribute, she runs into the path of the bus and is killed. The story itself ends on this note, and the immensely comic aspects of the story are therefore tempered.
Still, “enigmatic” is the word that applies best to Miss Bobbit's character and behavior. From the moment she makes her appearance in town, there is a certain disruption of the usual patterns of social and psychological behavior among a whole colony of provincial southern children in whom change is ultimately brought about. The “wiry little girl in a starched, lemon-colored party dress [carrying a] spinsterish umbrella” proceeds to evoke a wide range of responses (jealousy, awe, admiration, outrage, and finally love) among those children who are attentive to her. Miss Bobbit is another of Capote's somewhat disarmingly precocious child characters. The narrator's Aunt El, for one, is bothered by this ten-year-old child's wearing makeup, but aside from that, Miss Bobbit possesses an adult dignity, for “she was a lady, and, what is more, she looked you in the eye with a manlike directness.”
The story consists of a series of loosely related anecdotes involving the child, each of which is progressively more comic and revealing of character. At the outset, the eccentric child moves into an eccentric-looking house, “an old dark place with about two dozen lightning rods scattered on the roof.” The gossipy Mrs. Sawyer who owns the place and who is terrified by storms, spreads the rumor that the child's father, “the sweetest singing man in the whole of Tennessee,” is serving time in a state penitentiary, and that Miss Bobbit and her suspiciously silent mother subsist on a raw vegetarian diet. When the child befriends a young black girl named Sister Rosalba (“baby-fat and sugar-plum shaped”), Mrs. Sawyer tells Aunt El “that it went against her grain to have a nigger lolling smack there in plain sight on her front porch.” And when Miss Bobbit announces that Rosalba is to be considered as her sister, the initial racial slurs from the white population are finally discontinued. On the occasion when Miss Bobbit becomes incensed over the dogs that station themselves under her window at night and keep her awake, she and Sister Rosalba take the matter into their own hands after the sheriff refuses to do anything, and after Sister Rosalba reveals that she does not regard them as dogs at all, but as “some kind of devil.” The two are “seen stalking through town carrying a flower basket filled with rocks.” When they come upon a dog, Miss Bobbit scrutinizes it, and if it is one of the condemned, Sister Rosalba, “with ferocious aim, would take a rock from her basket and crack the dog between the eyes.”
Later, when Miss Bobbit becomes the county subscription representative for a list of magazines that include “Reader's Digest, Popular Mechanics, Dime Detective and Child's Life,” she enlists the help of the unruly Billy Bob and his exceedingly ornery companion who is ironically misnamed Preacher Star. Sister Rosalba, meanwhile, begins to market an assortment of cosmetics called Dewdrop, and also hires the boys to make deliveries. The work is surprisingly difficult, for “Billy Bob used to be so tired in the evening that he would hardly chew his supper.” But the most comic part of the story involves the appearance of the town con-man (Manny Fox) who, in the manner of Mark Twain, promotes a show featuring a “Fan Dancer Without the Fan” as well as an array of local talent elicited from among the townspeople who will compete for “A Genuine Hollywood Screen Test.” The fanless dancer (clad in a bathing suit, much to the disappointment of the local hangers-on) turns out to be none other than Mrs. Manny Fox (“A deadpan pimento-tongued redhead with wet lips and moist eyelids”), currently residing at the Chucklewood Tourist Camp.
The main attraction for the narrator and his companions is Miss Bobbit, the ladylike Miss Bobbit, who has been practicing her “act” behind drawn window shades at Mrs. Sawyer's. When another local performer (Buster Riley) has finished “Waltzing Matilda” on a saw, Miss Bobbit proceeds to shock the townfolk by singing in “a rowdy sandpaper voice”: “I was born in China, and raised in Jay-pan … if you don't like my peaches, stay away from my can oho o-ho!” Aunt El gasps as, “with a bump [Miss Bobbit] up-ended her skirt to display her blue-lace underwear.” Her act terminates in a grand flourish when “in the midst of a full split” a Roman candle bursts “into firey balls of red, white and blue,” as the audience rises for her to bellow out “The Star Spangled Banner.”
In the meantime, Manny Fox skips town, and after two weeks of non-action on the promised Hollywood screen test, Miss Bobbit organizes the “Manny Fox Hangman's Club” which leads eventually to his arrest in Uphill, Arkansas. For her efforts, she receives the “Good Deed Merit Award” from the Sunbeam Girls of America, of which she takes a dim view because of “all that rowdy bugle blowing.” By the time the Hangman's Club proposes to send her to Hollywood for a screen test (in return for ten percent of her lifetime earnings) Billy Bob has fallen in love with Miss Bobbit. But after the farewell festivities which involve “boys in flower masked faces,” she runs into the path of the bus.
Miss Bobbit, remotely the same kind of self-determined, totally independent, and enterprising child that Capote's Miriam had been, can be viewed as the forerunner of certain other characters yet to be created, not the least of which are Idabel Tomkins in Other Voices, Other Rooms and Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Similarly, Billy Bob's habit of escaping up the nearest tree in moments of stress prefigures The Grass Harp where a whole colony of characters select the same arboreal refuge. Capote's attention to the elements of hoax and childhood problems, also evident in “Jug of Silver,” foreshadows The Thanksgiving Visitor.
But Capote's next story in the southern group was “A Diamond Guitar” which appeared in 1950 and which belongs among the darker of his short stories. The scene is a prison farm set in the midst of a pine forest in the South, where the prisoners pass their days tapping the trees for turpentine. The protagonist is a certain Mr. Schaeffer who is serving a sentence of ninety-nine years and a day for having killed a man who, according to the omniscient narrator, “deserved to die.” Schaeffer enjoys a limited measure of prestige among the prison guards and inmates, in whose eyes he has “a mask of special respect.” He is literate, for one thing, and prisoners not infrequently bring letters from outside for him to read aloud, although he has the habit of improvising “more cheerful messages and does not read what is written on the page.”
One Sunday a truck arrives bearing a young Cuban named Tico Feo, “a knifer” who has allegedly “cut up a sailor in Mobile” and who brings with him, among other cherished items, “a guitar studded with glass diamonds.” Given to telling outlandish lies, the young Cuban causes most of the men in the green wooden sleep house to feel a kind of love for him, inspired, perhaps, by his songs sung to the accompaniment of his guitar. “Except that they did not combine their bodies or think to do so,” the narrator says, “they were as lovers.”
Tico reveals to Schaeffer that he has a friend named Frederico in Mobile who will put them on his boat and carry them to freedom if they can first manage to escape from the prison camp. And as Schaeffer fantasizes about his prospects for making an escape, he hears the sound of a coffin being assembled in the yard for one of the prisoners who has died. Thinks Schaeffer, “This is for me, it is mine.” But it is Tico's plan to hide in a tree until dark, and then make an escape by running through a creek and thereby leave no scent for search dogs to follow. The last act that Tico performs before attempting his escape is to put his guitar in tune. When the moment of their prison break comes, the two men run through the creek as “icy geysers [spray] around them.” While Tico makes his successful escape, Schaeffer breaks an ankle when he runs into a fallen tree. The captain of the guards ironically interprets the whole episode to mean that Schaeffer has been injured in an attempt to capture Tico, for which he is honored by having his picture in the local newspaper. Tico, meanwhile, makes good on his bid for freedom, and, in his typically romantic fashion, is said to have entered the home of a spinster woman, kissed her twice, and fled.
Three winters go by, and Schaeffer's hair has become progressively whiter. He still keeps the “diamond guitar with its glass gems turning yellow with age.” A new prisoner is assigned to the sleep house, and although he is said to be an accomplished guitar player, his songs come out sour, “for it was as though Tico Feo, tuning his guitar that last morning, had put a curse on it.” When last seen, the guitar is beneath Schaeffer's cot, where in the night the old man “sometimes reaches it out, and his fingers drift across the strings: then, the world.”
Like so many other Capote tales (such as “A Tree of Night,” “Miriam,” “My Side of the Matter,” “The Headless Hawk,” “Shut a Final Door,” “Jug of Silver,” and “Master Misery”) “A Diamond Guitar” is set in motion when complete strangers begin to interact. Tico Feo's rather brief influence over the dreary, hopeless life of Schaeffer has provided the old man with not only a ray of hope for an eventual escape, but also some colorful memories to fuel his romantic imagination. Tico himself shares with Billy Bob (of “Children on Their Birthdays”) the notion that one can find solace and safety if he will but climb a tree. But in general, Tico is another of Capote's array of fiercely independent characters who, like Miss Bobbit and Holly Golightly, are far more motivated from within than from without.
In “A Diamond Guitar,” Schaeffer functions as the protagonist because he is the person to whom development occurs. And although Tico himself undergoes no significant change, the monotony of Schaeffer's life is alleviated by Tico's brief presence. Tico, with his “bottle of Evening in Paris cologne” and his “Rand McNally map of the world,” enjoys a kind of life far removed from Schaeffer's; for to Tico, being alive “was to remember brown rivers where the fish run, and sunlight on a lady's hair.” He leaves behind him only the diamond guitar, an emblematic reminder of himself.
The most warmly engaging of all Capote's ventures into short fiction is “A Christmas Memory” (1956), a blend of fiction and autobiography concentrating once more on the author's remembered life in the South. His powers of description in “A Christmas Memory” are quite possibly unparalleled anywhere else in his work. When the book begins, it is “a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago.” Capote remembers himself at the age of seven. His guardian, “a woman with snow white hair,” is at the window “wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summer calico dress,” and looking like “a bantam hen.” Because “it's fruitcake weather,” the boy and the old woman set out in a buggy, the wheels of which “wobble like a drunkard's legs” to find the ingredients necessary to bake thirty cakes: “cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pineapple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings. …”
Like much of his earlier fiction (such as Other Voices, Other Rooms and The Grass Harp), “A Christmas Memory” can be read as a moving expression of lost childhood innocence and idyllic simplicity. The texture of the prose is also similar to those earlier pieces, for it is both subtle and impressionistic. There is probably no better instance of this kind of writing in “A Christmas Memory” than Capote's description of a late fall southern dawn:
Morning. Frozen rime lusters the grass; the sun, round as an orange and orange as hot-weather moons, balances on the horizon, burnishes the silvered winter weeks. A wild turkey calls. A renegade hog grunts in the undergrowth. Soon, by the edge of knee-deep, rapid-running water, we have to abandon the buggy. Queenie [a dog] wades the stream first, paddles across barking complaints at the swiftness of the current, the pneumonia-making coldness of it. We follow, holding our shoes and equipment (a hatchet, a burlap sack) above our heads. A mile more: of chastising thorns, burs and briers that catch at our clothes; of rusty pine needles brilliant with gaudy fungus and melted feathers. Here, there, a flash, a flutter, an ecstasy of shrillings remind us that not all the birds have flown south. Always, the path unwinds through lemony sun pools and pitch vine tunnels. Another creek to cross: a disturbed armada of speckled trout froths the water round us, frogs the size of plates practice belly flops; beaver workmen are building a dam. On the farther shore, Queenie shakes herself and trembles. My friend [Miss Sook Faulk] shivers too: not with cold but enthusiasm. One of her hat's ragged roses sheds a petal as she lifts her head and inhales the pine-heavy hair. “We're almost there; can you smell it, Buddy?” she says, as though we were approaching an ocean.
Curiously enough, Capote once said that “A Christmas Memory” was the only piece he ever wrote “that depended on its southern setting. The moment I wrote that story I knew that I would never write another word about the South. I'm not going to be haunted by it anymore.”4 Haunted or not, Capote succeeded in creating in “A Christmas Memory” a high watermark of personal feeling and dramatic intensity; he recalls at one point that for Christmas he had wanted a bicycle, but that because of his guardian Miss Faulk's impoverished state, he anticipated receiving a kite (made by her), along with “socks, a Sunday school shirt, some handkerchiefs, a hand-me-down sweater and a year's subscription to a religious magazine for children.” This will be the last Christmas with Miss Faulk. Her mind begins to fail, and the boy is to be sent to a series of military schools, “a miserable succession of bugle-blowing prisons, grim, reveille-ridden summer camps.” Back in the present, some twenty years after these childhood experiences, he learns of her death, which he regards as a “severing [of an] irreplaceable part of [himself].” He concludes, “that is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.”
Capote's The Thanksgiving Visitor shares with “A Diamond Guitar” and “A Christmas Memory” not only a remote southern locality, but also a tone of wistfulness born out of the narrator's sense of profound loneliness. The narrator in The Thanksgiving Visitor, however, is a child, and the story itself can be read in more than one light. Perhaps the most obvious way of seeing the narrative is as a documentary of life in rural Alabama in one of the worst of the Depression years, 1932. At the climactic Thanksgiving dinner, Uncle B (one of the narrator's four guardians) offers a prayer appropriate to the occasion: “Bless You, O Lord, for the bounty of our table, the varied fruits we can be thankful for on this Thanksgiving Day of a troubled year.” Buddy, a Capote self-portrait, recalls having been fed magnificently on “cockcrow repasts of ham and fried chicken, fried pork chops, fried catfish, fried squirrel (in season), fried eggs, hominy grits with gravy, blackeyed peas, collards with collard liquor and cornbread to mush it in, biscuits, pound cake, pancakes and molasses, honey in the comb, homemade jams and jellies, sweetmilk, buttermilk, coffee chickory-flavored and hot as Hades.” But he is understandably troubled by the thought of those who have to make do with less. “Throughout the Depression Years,” he says, “our school distributed free milk and sandwiches to all children whose families were too poor to provide them with a lunch box.” But a few children were still harder hit by the bad times: “some boys, girls too, were forced to go barefoot right through the bitterest weather—that's how hard the Depression had hit Alabama.”
For Buddy, the times were also difficult, but for reasons somewhat independent of the country's depressed economy. An autobiographic story, The Thanksgiving Visitor is a bittersweet, retrospective, illumination of his early life with three aunts and an uncle. The protagonist is Buddy's only “friend,” Miss Sook Faulk, for “as she was a child herself … she understood children, and understood me absolutely.” Even so, Buddy's life is not an easy one, inasmuch as they “had taken me under their roof because of a disturbance among my more immediate family, a custody battle that, for involved reasons, had left me stranded in this somewhat eccentric Alabama household. Not that I was unhappy there: indeed, moments of those few years turned out to be the happiest part of an otherwise difficult childhood. …”
The conflict in the story centers around Buddy's unhappy relations with a twelve-year-old contemporary named Odd Henderson. “Talk about mean!” says Buddy, “Odd Henderson was the meanest human creature in my experience.” Odd, who has failed the first grade twice, vents his hostilities on the more passive Buddy by knocking him to the ground and rubbing prickly cockleburs into his scalp as “a circle of kids ganged around to titter, or pretend to.” Malicious acts of this nature cause Buddy to find excuses not to attend school, and when Miss Sook comprehends the problem, she develops a stratagem to solve Buddy's dilemma, while she finds a way to advance the cause of Christian charity at the same time. Convinced that Buddy must somehow “come to terms with people like Odd Henderson,” Miss Sook pays a call on Molly Henderson, Odd's destitute, toothless mother who is faced with a house full of children and an absentee, jailbird husband. Miss Sook extends an invitation to Odd for Thanksgiving dinner.
The dinner itself ends in a debacle when Odd steals Miss Sook's prize cameo. At the dinner table, Buddy does what he can to expose the crime, but with continued holiday charity, Miss Sook covers up for Odd's act of petty theft. Because, in Buddy's judgment, “she'd lied to save his skin, [and] betrayed our friendship,” Buddy is all the more disconsolate. Even so, the Thanksgiving invitation solved the original problem of Odd's harassment of Buddy, for “afterward, Odd Henderson let me alone,” Buddy recalls.
But the object of the story lies much deeper than the alleviation of Buddy's problems with Odd Henderson. “The whole family (there were ten of them, not counting Dad Henderson, who was a bootlegger and usually in jail, all scrunched together in a four-room house next door to a Negro church) was a shiftless, surly bunch, every one of them ready to do you a bad turn; Odd wasn't the worst of the lot, and brother, that is saying something.” The story makes use of the somewhat outmoded philosophy of determinism to some extent, for Odd himself is depicted as “a skinny, freckled scarecrow in sweaty cast-off overalls that would have been a humiliation to a chaingang convict,” and the conditions of his environment shape his behavior. As Miss Sook puts it, “this boy can't help acting ugly; he doesn't know any different. All those Henderson children have had it hard.”
There is much more to her understanding of the Hendersons: at the end of the story, Miss Sook puts her arm around Buddy's shoulder. “There's just this I want to say, Buddy. Two wrongs never made a right. It was wrong of him to take the cameo. But we don't know why he took it. Maybe he never meant to keep it. Whatever his reason, it can't be calculated. Which is why what you did was much worse: you planned to humiliate him. It was deliberate. Now listen to me, Buddy: there is only one unpardonable sin—deliberate cruelty. All else can be forgiven. That, never. Do you understand me, Buddy?” Miss Sook's words are central to an understanding of The Thanksgiving Visitor. Furthermore, they have far-reaching implications in Capote's system of values because they clarify some of the perplexities of evil and its origins that occur in the pages of In Cold Blood. In that book, the murderers Richard Hickock and Perry Smith are, in a very real sense, prisoners of their pathological childhood. As a consequence, their crimes are rendered understandable, but not forgivable.
In its narrative style, The Thanksgiving Visitor is one of the more quotable of Truman Capote's stories because of his occasional flashes of linguistic brilliance. As Miss Armstrong (a strong-armed schoolteacher) beats Buddy's hands for having called Odd a “sonafabitch,” Odd looks on with “a small citric smile.” Somewhat later, Buddy comments that “my mind wandered through a maze as melancholy as the wet twilight.” Observing Odd's ears, Buddy regards them as “a pair of eye-catchers, like Alfalfa's in the Our Gang comedy pictures,” and as he watches Odd urinate, he sees him “unbuttoning his trousers and letting go with a forceful splash [as] he whistled along, jaunty as a jaybird in a field of sunflowers.”
Capote's stories are frequently invested with certain gothic elements. In a fight with a tomboy named Ann “Jumbo” Finchburg, Odd suffers “a broken thumb, plus scratch scars that will stay with him to the day they shut his coffin.” And of the “Henderson breed,” he writes that they might well “gouge the gold out of a dead man's teeth.” While Odd's act of thievery is being exposed at the Thanksgiving dinner, he “seemed calm as a corpse,” and as Buddy fantasizes about his own funeral, he says it would be “worth it to hear the human wails and Queenie's howls as my coffin was lowered into cemetery depths.”
III. “HOUSE OF FLOWERS”
“House of Flowers” (1950) must be considered among the lighter tales, although like those it is not altogether made up of sweetness and light. The central character is a comely prostitute named Ottilie who in the early part of the narrative is in the employ of a “spinsterish, smooth-looking invalid” woman who operates the Champs Elysées bordello in Port-au-Prince from an upstairs room. Ottilie, notwithstanding her pleasant and engaging manner, has not passed an easy life. Her mother has died, her father has returned to France, and Ottilie herself has been left in the custody of “a rough peasant family, the sons of whom had each at a young age lain with her in some green and shadowy place.” At fourteen, she had walked two days and a night to Port-au-Prince carrying what was originally a ten-pound sack of grain. To ease the strain, she has allowed the grain to run out gradually until there was little of it remaining at her arrival. “A jolly nice man” has dried the girl's tears and has taken her “to see his cousin,” the proprietress of the Champs Elysées, where she has become the only employee under thirty, and easily “the most talked about girl on the road.”
At a cockfight she meets Royal Bonaparte who spirits her away as his wife to his house of flowers. Convinced by a Houngan in the hills above town that love has come to her at last, she has also been led to believe that if she clutches a wild bee in her bare hand, and if the bee does not sting, then love is real. Although this test has disproven her love for a bordello customer named Mr. Jamison, it indicates the genuineness of her attachment to Royal. Her main problem after five months of marriage to Royal is not so much that he has been spending great amounts of time at cafes and cockfights, but that she has been tormented by her mother-in-law, a more than petulant woman known as Old Bonaparte. The old woman not only spies on Ottilie's love-making, but also harasses her by placing the severed head of a yellow cat on Ottilie's sewing basket. Later, Old Bonaparte places other things in the basket, such as a green snake, spiders, a lizard, and a buzzard's breast. Ottilie retaliates by incorporating such morsels as these in her cooking for the old woman. She drops the cat head into a boiling pot and serves Old Bonaparte a soup that turns out to be “surprisingly tasty.” But when Ottilie reveals her culinary practices to her mother-in-law, the shock is so extreme that the woman dies by nightfall. Ottilie, however, imagines at night that “Old Bonaparte was dead but not gone,” and she confesses to her husband that she has served the old woman such things as snake stew. Royal concludes that she must be punished by being tied to a tree for an entire day without food or water as “the goat Juno and the chickens [gather] to stare at her humiliation.”
Still tied to the tree, Ottilie thinks she is dreaming when Baby and Rosita, two of her former associates from the Champs Elysée, arrive in an automobile hired by Jamison, and attempt to bring Ottilie back to Port-au-Prince where her absence has caused trade at the bordello to fall sharply. They untie the girl and drain a bottle of rum in “a toast to old times, and those to be.” Finally, Ottilie insists on being retied so that, as she explains, “no bee is ever going to sting me.” Thus, rather than being “dead,” as the invalid proprietress has said of Ottilie, Ottilie is not only alive, but in love. “Chewing eucalyptus leaves to sweeten her breath,” Ottilie throws “her arms akimbo, [lets] her neck go limp, [and lolls] her eyes far back into their sockets [so that] seen from a distance it would look as though she had come to some violent, pitiful end.” This, she concludes, will give Royal “a good scare.”
In spite of the story's sometimes unsavory and unfunny elements, the narrative is not only witty, but curiously innocent and romantic, inasmuch as Ottilie possesses a childlike mentality and lives a life (in spite of her shady past) that seems idyllic. Ottilie's story is fundamentally consistent with the pattern established by other Capote protagonists, for she is a virtual stranger whose influence is strongly felt by those with whom she comes into contact. At seventeen, her precocity at handling people and situations invites a comparison with (for example) Lily Jane Bobbit of “Children on Their Birthdays.” Both characters prove to be virtually irresistible to those around them, and it is precisely this irresistibility that distinguishes some of Capote's other key short-story protagonists such as Appleseed (“Jug of Silver”) and Tico Feo (“A Diamond Guitar”). Moreover, Capote's three longer narratives (Other Voices, Other Rooms; Breakfast at Tiffany's; and The Grass Harp) have as central characters individuals with considerable personal appeal. Gone are such unattractive and audibly introspective personalities as Mrs. Miller (“Miriam”), Walter Ranny (“Shut a Final Door”), and Sylvia (“Master Misery”).
Malcolm Cowley (ed.), Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, (New York, 1960), p. 287.
Ibid., p. 290.
Roy Newquist, Counterpoint (Chicago, 1964), p. 80.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4692
SOURCE: “The Room Was Locked, with the Key on the Inside: Female Influence in Truman Capote's ‘My Side of the Matter,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1987, pp. 279–88.
[In the following essay, Allmendinger detects the influence of Eudora Welty's “Why I Live at the P.O.” on Capote's “My Side of the Matter.”]
Grobel: “Has any American writer had an influence on you as a writer?”
Capote: “No American writer has.”
—Conversations with Capote
The apartment was in the wildest disorder—the furniture broken and thrown about in all directions. There was only one bedstead; and from this the bed had been removed, and thrown into the middle of the floor. On a chair lay a razor, besmeared with blood. On the hearth were two or three long and thick tresses of gray human hair, also dabbled with blood, and seeming to have been pulled out by the roots.1
So Poe describes the scene of the crime, in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” He startles the reader with a graphic depiction of the bedroom, but he stumps the reader with a detail that has since become a staple of detective fiction. Auguste Dupin learns, on forcing the door, that
no person was seen. The windows, both of the back and front room, were down and firmly fastened from within. … The door leading from the front room into the passage was locked, with the key on the inside.2
Dupin wrestles with the right of access to a locked room. In a similar fashion, critics struggle with the seductive image and mythic biography of Truman Capote. In conversations, interviews, and the preface to his last book, Music for Chameleons, Capote denies the influence of other writers on his work. Describing his own development, he conjures up the image of a locked room—of a writer who withdraws from the influence of society, to create. Critics have been less successful than Poe's detective in solving the puzzle of the room, locked from within. In the last thirty years, they have accepted the proclamations of a man whose conversation was often more convincing than his prose; whose own texts contradict the denials of literary influence. Books and articles have linked Capote to the work of his contemporaries in only a vague, suggestive sense, but a piece from his early period draws specifically upon Eudora Welty. “My Side of the Matter” is a clear reconstruction of her short story, “Why I Live at the P.O.,” and a case study in the anxiety of female influence. In his response to Welty, Capote alters the gender of his characters to depict a battle between the sexes and centers the plot on a male protagonist, accused of stealing from a woman.
In the preface to Music for Chameleons, Capote says: “I started writing when I was eight—out of the blue, uninspired by any example.”3 Capote means to impress the reader with the emergence of his art, as a magician seeks to startle the audience, pulling a rabbit out of his hat. Here and elsewhere, Capote loads the denial of literary influence with a rhetorical force that seeks to amaze the audience and suggest that writing is an uninspired feat. In Conversations with Capote, the author belittles Ezra Pound by telling Lawrence Grobel that the poet sought help from T. S. Eliot. He adds: “I've never had anybody that I could show things to and ask their opinion.”4 He insists that Norman Mailer and other contemporaries have drawn from his work to produce the nonfiction novel and have won awards for their unacknowledged debt to his own novel, In Cold Blood. But he denies that he, in turn, has drawn from Henry Adams or Hemingway, as Malcolm Cowley suggests.5 He reiterates this statement throughout a series of interviews with Grobel and insists upon it with an air of protestation.
I don't think of myself in terms of relationships with other writers at all and I don't feel in competition with other writers. Because I don't write about the same things as any other writer that I know of does. Or have the same interests. Or as a personality that's in any kind of conflict with any other writer. I have absolutely no envy of any other writer.6
Capote suggests that literary influence is not a tradition, which bonds together writers in a helpful sense, but a psychological abnormality which brands the writer as psychotic with a “personality” disorder, in “conflict” or “competition” with tradition. Capote relates self-sufficiency to self-esteem and isolates himself from the canon.
In doing so, he builds an image around his own identity as an autonomous writer. He tells Grobel that he hid in his bedroom and started to write when he was eight years old. “I mean, really seriously, so seriously that I dared never mention it to anybody. I spent hours every day writing and never showed it to a teacher.”7 Capote allows the reader to imagine that he has fought off the curious and withdrawn from the world to write in his room. In the preface to Music of Chameleons, he says that his family sought to discover the purpose of his confinement. “Yet I never discussed my writing with anyone; if someone asked what I was up to all those hours, I told them I was doing my school homework.”8 Grobel accepts the scenario or finds the image of the locked room sufficiently interesting to include in a preface to his interview. He tells the reader that Capote was inspired to write Other Voices, Other Rooms during a winter walk in the forest. “When he finally reached home, he went straight to his room, locked the door, got into bed fully clothed, and … wrote: ‘Other Voices, Other Rooms—a novel by Truman Capote!’”9
The image of the locked room seems to have satisfied critics for the last thirty years. In Cold Blood has drawn attention because of the connection between the nonfiction novel and its precursors: The Education of Henry Adams and Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. But “My Side of the Matter” has been overshadowed by other stories in A Tree of Night. Since winning the O. Henry Awards, both “Miriam” and “Shut a Final Door” have received scrutiny, but articles dealing with these stories discuss themes and predicaments that attract most readers of Southern American fiction: the Gothic, the grotesque, the obsession with the past, the use of local color and dialect. American critics have skirted the issue of influence since the publication of A Tree of Night and have focused on major stories in the collection.
“My Side of the Matter” borrows its plot from Welty's work, “Why I Live at the P.O.” Both stories tell of a woman who returns home to her family, with child, and precipitates an argument that leads to the withdrawal of the narrator from other members of the household. Stella-Rondo returns with Shirley-T., a child she has “adopted.”10 Sister challenges the parenthood of Shirley-T., accuses Stella-Rondo of having borne the child herself, and provokes an argument which broadens in scope as it builds to climax. Systematically throughout the narrative, Papa-Daddy, Mama, Uncle Rondo and Shirley-T. turn against Sister and persuade her to leave the house. She moves to the post office.
And if Stella-Rondo should come to me this minute, on bended knees, and attempt to explain the incidents of her life with Mr. Whitaker, I'd simply put my fingers in both my ears and refuse to listen.
Marge returns to her aunts, three months pregnant, in “My Side of the Matter.” Both Eunice and Olivia-Ann disparage her husband—the narrator—belittle his manhood, and question the fatherhood of the child. They antagonize Sylvester and succeed in turning his wife and their maid against him. After a skirmish, Marge's husband locks himself in the parlor, defies the other members of the family and, like Sister, determines to spite them.
Oh, yes, they've started singing a song of a very different color. But as for me—I give them a tune on the piano every now and then just to let them know I'm cheerful.11
Capote characterizes the people in his story by exploiting particular elements that occur in Welty's earlier work. Uncle Rondo becomes ridiculous when he appears “in the hall in one of Stella-Rondo's flesh-colored kimonos, all cut on the bias, like something Mr. Whitaker probably thought was gorgeous” (48). Capote uses the same garment to undercut the authority of Eunice and to mock her romantic self-image. “She troops around the house, rain or shine, in this real old-fashioned nighty, calls it a kimono, but it isn't anything in this world but a dirty flannel nighty” (197). Olivia-Ann has a pathetic, romantic attachment to Gary Cooper and has “one trunk and two suitcases full of his photos” (200). Her fantasy has its counterpart in the trivial feud between Sister and Stella-Rondo, who fight over Mr. Whitaker while sitting for “Pose Yourself” photos (46). Papa-Daddy intimidates the community of China Grove, as well as his family, by exploiting his alleged wealth and power. He uses his position to procure the office of postmistress for Sister and to marshal the town against her when she leaves. “There are always people who will quit buying stamps just to get on the right side of Papa-Daddy” (56). Welty exploits the comedy by characterizing Papa-Daddy as a man who denies the rumors of wealth, but capitalizes on them to wield power. Sister says: “He's real rich. Mama says he is, he says he isn't” (47). Capote puts Eunice in the same position. “Not that she hasn't got plenty of money! Naturally she says she hasn't but I know she has …” (197). Sylvester attributes the influence of Eunice to her status in Admiral's Mill.
Of course anything Eunice says is an order from headquarters as not a breathing soul in Admiral's Mill can stand up and say he doesn't owe her money. …
Capote caricatures the battle between David and Goliath by juxtaposing the status of Eunice with that of the narrator. While Eunice conceals her funds and denies her wealth, Sylvester exaggerates the importance of his job in Mobile, and consistently refers to his “perfectly swell position clerking at the Cash'n'Carry” (196–197). Welty also pits the authority of Papa-Daddy against the subordinate Sister, who runs “the next to smallest P.O. in the entire state of Mississippi” (47).
Welty and Capote tell their stories in the first-person. In part, they do so to color the narrative with a silly urgency and impromptu exaggeration, both of which help to characterize the tall tale. Sister and Sylvester are obsessed with their own importance, the injustice of “life,” and the righteous indignation which motivates their behavior. Their ramblings also enliven the events of the past, turning them into oral reconstructions of the immediate present. Run-on syntax, slang, idiomatic phrases, and italicized words animate experience and imitate the inflection of vocal speech patterns. Sister and Sylvester talk to their audience and recreate their scenes, using rhetoric to grab the attention or gain the sympathy of the reader. Sister uses one device which occurs nowhere else in the works of Welty: the recreation of speech tempos through the hyphenation of letters within a single word. She prepares the reader for the reaction of Papa-Daddy, who rebels against the notion that he should cut off his beard. Stella-Rondo says: “‘Papa-Daddy, Sister says she fails to understand why you don't cut off your beard.’ So Papa-Daddy l-a-y-s down his knife and fork!” (47). The reader anticipates the response of Papa-Daddy, who slowly l-a-y-s down his utensils and prepares to put up his dukes. Capote appropriates the same device in a dialogue between Eunice and Marge. Marge describes the narrator as “the best-looking” man she knows, and the narrator says: “Eunice eyes me u-p and d-o-w-n and says, ‘Tell him to turn around’” (198). Again, the elongation of the phrase “u-p and d-o-w-n” enables the reader to see Eunice, as she scans the body of the narrator with careful scrutiny, and prepares the reader for the sarcastic comment which follows the pause. “‘You sure must've picked the runt of the litter. Why, this isn't any sort of man at all’” (198).
Two other strategies have their counterparts in “My Side of the Matter”: the comic one-liner, used to describe a character, and the rhetorical question, addressed to the reader. Sister systematically slays her antagonist-of-the-moment with comic barbs throughout the story. “Papa-Daddy is about a million years old and's got this long-long beard” (47). “You ought to see Mama, she weighs two hundred pounds and has real tiny feet” (50). She exaggerates the age and weight of her family and undercuts one aspect of their appearance by insisting on the incongruity of another. Welty turns the longevity of Papa-Daddy into a joke and makes the grandfather into a caricature of Methuselah, with a “long-long beard.” Sister's description of Mama cannot bear scrutiny, any more than her mother's “real tiny feet” can possibly bear the weight of her “two hundred pounds.” Capote's description of Eunice bears more than a faint resemblance to Welty's description of Mama. “Eunice is this big old fat thing with a behind that must weigh a tenth of a ton” (197). Elsewhere, Olivia-Ann is “real pale and skinny and has a mustache” (197). Marge has “no looks, no body, and no brains whatsoever” (196). The narrator resents the interference of Eunice, Marge, and Olivia-Ann by telling Eunice about Mrs. Harry Steller Smith, a canary that Olivia-Ann has released from its cage. Sylvester silences Olivia-Ann and turns aside to the reader. He says, triumphantly: “Remember Mrs. Harry Steller Smith?” (202). He begs the reader to side with him and uses the rhetorical question in the same way that Sister does, to win the sympathy of the reader. When Stella-Rondo says that her uncle looks like a fool in her kimono, Sister comes to his defense. “‘Well, he looks as good as he can,’ I says. ‘As good as anybody in reason could’” (49). Stella-Rondo tells Uncle Rondo in a later scene that Sister has described him as “a fool in that pink kimono” (52). Sister responds, by asking the reader to pity her plight. “Do you remember who it was really said that?” (52).
Capote might well have entitled his story “My Side of the Matter: Or, Do You Remember Who It Was Really Said That?” His imitation of Welty and his denial of literary influence put him in an interesting position. His comments to Grobel suggest that a writer who bonds himself to tradition loses his identity and becomes psychotic, but his refusal to identify the source of his own work seems equally perverse. Capote's alterations of the earlier story reveal more clearly than the similarities that he struggles to resolve this paradox. “My Side of the Matter” transforms the narrator into an alter ego of the author and turns the antagonists into a successive string of females, who challenge Sylvester. The plot now centers on the accusation of theft—by a man, from a woman. The struggles between Sylvester and the women in Admiral's Mill have their counterpart in the acceptance and refusal of Welty as the original source, and represent the anxiety of female influence, which Capote must overcome.
The reassignment of sex roles in the second story turns the battle between Sylvester and the opposition into a gender issue. Sister faces off against a series of enemies who are equally distributed between the male and female sex—against Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo on the one hand, and Stella-Rondo and Mama on the other. Capote turns the conflict between the narrator and the other characters into a battle between the sexes. Sylvester now confronts Eunice, Olivia-Ann, Bluebell, and eventually Marge in a series of encounters that test his manhood. He asserts his authority by insisting that he has a position of patriarchal importance at the Cash'n'Carry, by defending his ability to impregnate his wife, and by demanding to sleep with her. The women attempt to separate Sylvester from the rest of the house because of his sexual status. Eunice says: “Birds setting in their roost—time we went to bed. You have your old room, Marge, and I've fixed a cot for this gentleman on the back porch” (200). The women are horrified by the possibility that Sylvester could assert the male prerogative, impregnate his wife, and work on her affections. They seek to castrate the protagonist, who finds an alternate means of asserting his sexual strength. Sylvester describes the influence of Eunice over Marge, and his attempt to counteract it.
She has turned that girl against me in the most villainous fashion that words could not describe. Why, she even reached the point when she was sassing me back, but I provided her with a couple of good slaps and put a stop to that. No wife of mine is ever going to be disrespectful to me, not on your life!
When he learns that he can't control his wife as a sexual male, he turns to force and seeks to assert his power, as a member of the “stronger” sex. He exerts physical power over other women in the house as well. As the battle progresses, he picks a parasol off of the hat tree and raps Bluebell “across the head with it until it cracked in two” (204). He describes himself as a victor in the sexual sense—as a “man.” Only Sylvester has the strength to barricade himself behind the parlor door with “that big mahogany table that must weigh a couple of tons” (205). And only Sylvester can appropriate sexual power—pick and choose between Marge and “a five-pound box of Sweet Love candy” (205) that becomes a mock-romantic substitute for the female companion.
Sylvester creates a history for himself and other characters by building a sexual hierarchy that subordinates women and defines people by establishing their patriarchal roots. He undermines female influence by attributing the importance of Eunice and Olivia-Ann to the appropriation of masculine power. “There is a big table in one corner of the parlor which supports two pictures of Miss E and O-A's mama and papa. Papa … was a captain in the Civil War” (202). The male tradition empowers the past and enables the narrator to live for the future. Sylvester says: “Oh, if it wasn't for that little unborn George I would've been making dust tracks on the road, way before now” (200). Unlike Marge, Eunice, and Olivia-Ann, Sylvester has no parents or past, according to the narrative. He is completely self-created and, as the narrative progresses, the reader learns that he is also able to create little men in his own image. Sylvester determines that the unborn child is a boy, believes that it will grow to be a man, and decides to protect it until the man can protect himself. He names the child and confers upon it the attribute of male power. “George Far Sylvester is a name we've planned for the baby. Has a strong sound, don't you think?” (199). The “strength” of the male child is due to his distance from the female group, as the middle name “Far” suggests. The reader establishes the identity of Sylvester himself through a naming process in the narrative which is self-referential and gender-reflexive, within the male tradition. The narrator uses the reflexive pronoun “I” to refer to himself and withholds his name from the reader as he withholds his presence and power from the women, at the end of the narrative. Through the naming of George Far Sylvester, the reader learns to identify the narrator himself as Sylvester—to link the father and son together, through the patriarchal surname.
Eunice and Olivia-Ann acknowledge their “inferiority” by imitating men or assuming the costume and behavior of the opposite sex to achieve power. Eunice chases Sylvester with her father's Civil War sword—a comic, phallic symbol and a relic from the male world of war and bloodshed. Olivia-Ann “squats around most of the time whittling on a stick with her fourteen-inch hog knife” (198). Both she and Eunice brandish their weapons, wave them in the face of the protagonist, and challenge his potency. They represent a threat to the male and give him a “half-inch cut” (204) that harms him less than it hurts his masculine pride. Sylvester counters the authority of women, throughout the story, by telling the reader that Eunice and Olivia-Ann fail as men and function as comic, pathetic imitations of the real thing. Eunice “chews tobacco and tries to pretend so ladylike, spitting on the sly” (197). Olivia-Ann has a “mustache” (197). Sylvester portrays the women as sex-starved maiden aunts who envy Marge because they can't get a man for themselves. In the absence of actual men, they imitate the opposite sex and persecute Sylvester because he represents the real thing.
They mock his pretensions to manhood, as he mocks theirs. Eunice glories in the role of bread-winner and belittles Sylvester.
Why don't the little heathen go out and get some honest work? … If he was any sort of man you could call a man he'd be trying to put a crust of bread in that girl's mouth instead of stuffing his own off my vittles.
Olivia-Ann pokes fun of his small size and bad back, and refers to him as a “runt” (198). Both women devalue the man by denigrating his capacity to procreate and defining his status as a sexual failure. Olivia-Ann echoes her sister when she says that “he isn't even of the male sex” (198). “How can a girl have a baby with a girl?” (199). References to impotence and castration proliferate throughout the text and testify to the capacity of women to disarm their male opponents. Sylvester compares the tyranny of Eunice, in the community of Admiral's Mill, to the alleged rape of a woman by an elderly man.
… if she said Charlie Carson (a blind, ninety-year old invalid who hasn't taken a step since 1896) threw her on her back and raped her everybody in this county would swear the same on a stack of Bibles.
The sisters assert their presence in the house, as they do in the community. Sylvester finds that “the fancy man tore out of this house one afternoon like old Adolf Hitler was on his tail and leaped into his Ford coupé, never to be heard from again” (201). Olivia-Ann locates the source of the feud, below the belt, and gives Sylvester a terrific “knee punch” (204) before running into the yard and shouting:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
She brings the opponent to his knees—literally—and tramples the “grapes of wrath,” neutering the man whose genitals threaten the women.
The conflict begins with the accusation of Eunice, early in the story. Sylvester says:
I happened to find close to a thousand dollars hidden in a flower pot on the side porch. I didn't touch one cent, only Eunice says I stole a hundred-dollar bill which is a venomous lie from start to finish.
Later, the accusation precipitates the final fight in the story.
“Where is it?” says she. “Where's my hundred dollars that he made away with while my trusting back was turned?”
“This is the straw that broke the camel's back,” says I, but I was too hot and tired to get up.
“That's not the only back that's going to be broke,” says she, her bug eyes about to pop clear out of their sockets.
The theft by a man, from a woman, summarizes the conflict between men and women and symbolizes the central theme of the story: female influence and the denial of it. Eunice proclaims the dependence of men upon her and threatens to break the back of a man whose body is weaker than hers. Sylvester maintains his innocence, first by fighting Eunice, then by pushing her out of the parlor. The final image is an answer to the accusation. Sylvester locks himself in the room, using his physical isolation to assert his actual innocence, and to demonstrate his independence.
Capote leaves the crime—and the issue of influence—unresolved at the end of the story. He allows the reader to suspect Sylvester and certainly means to suggest that the locked door is evidence of an empty assertion. The isolation of the protagonist cannot, in itself, absolve him of the crime or his complicity in it. The denials cannot function, on their own, as an adequate defense. Capote compares the confrontation between Eunice and Sylvester to an earlier scene of accusation and denial. Eunice meets Sylvester, when he first arrives, and tells Marge that he looks like the “runt of the litter.” Sylvester says: “I've never been so taken back in my life! True, I'm slightly stocky, but then I haven't got my full growth yet” (198). Sylvester responds to the accusation with a weak defense. The reader dismisses the reasoning process of the protagonist and carries a skeptical reaction to Sylvester over into the final episode of accusation and denial. To this extent, Capote allows the reader to doubt Sylvester, to interpret the outcome of the story, and to care about it. But ultimately he undermines the issue of female influence by leaving it open-ended. He suggests that the plot is irrelevant and that the accusation of theft is simply one in a chain of petty incidents in the narrative, championed by ridiculous people. The interaction of characters and the complication of events create a diversion which subverts interpretation and subordinates the issue of female influence to the illustration of the spectacle itself.
In an interview with Playboy, in March, 1968, Capote said: I've never been psychoanalyzed; I've never even consulted a psychiatrist. I now consider myself a mentally healthy person. I work out all my problems in my work.12
Capote seems to work out the problem of influence in “My Side of the Matter,” using the battle between Sylvester and the women to illustrate his own anxiety. He imitates Welty and reveals this intent, by tipping his hat to tradition in the title of the story. “My Side of the Matter” might well read “My Response to Eudora Welty,” for Sylvester's battle seems to reflect Capote's own involvement with his predecessor. But in his comments on his work—in conversations, writings, and interviews—Capote contradicts the blatant link between himself and earlier writers. The psychological search for his own identity, within the text, leads the reader to suspect that the struggle between two images of the author—the psychotic and the “mentally healthy person”—never resolves itself. Taken in context with the author's statements about tradition and the struggle to create a literary identity, “My Side of the Matter” ultimately remains a problematic work. Sylvester's retreat to the parlor parallels Sister's withdrawal to the post office and indicates the extent to which the author draws upon his literary model. But Sylvester's rebuttal, behind the locked door, mirrors the protestations of the author, who uses the image of the locked room to illustrate his own autonomy. Capote's story, therefore, represents an intriguing compromise: a testimonial to tradition and a denial of it.
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” from The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), p. 147.
Ibid., p. 150.
Truman Capote, Music for Chameleons (New York: Random House, 1975), p. xi.
Lawrence Grobel, Conversations with Capote (New York: New American Library, 1985), p. 97.
Ibid., p. 116.
Ibid., p. 149.
Ibid., p. 52.
Capote, Music for Chameleons, p. xii.
Grobel, Conversations with Capote, p. 82.
Eudora Welty, “Why I Live at the P.O.,” from The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), p. 46. Further references to this story are from the same edition and are included, parenthetically, within the text.
Truman Capote, “My Side of the Matter,” from “The Grass Harp” and “A Tree of Night” (New York: Signet Books, 1980), p. 205. Further references to this story are from the same edition and are included, parenthetically, within the text.
William L. Nance, The Worlds of Truman Capote (New York: Stein and Day, 1970), p. 53. I borrow this passage from an interview in Playboy, which Nance quotes.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4506
SOURCE: “The Caravan Moves On: Last Stories,” in Truman Capote: A Study of Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 63–73.
[In the following essay, Garson provides a thematic analysis of Capote's later work.]
“Dazzle,” which appeared first in Vogue in 1979 and then in the collection Music for Chameleons in 1980, has multiple connections to the new kind of fiction Capote was writing by this time. Although the story is more focused than the pieces in the unfinished Answered Prayers, the works are similar in their revelations of details from the author's life. “Dazzle” also has links to his final story, One Christmas, for both these pieces share subject matter and setting related to Capote's early childhood experiences in New Orleans. Like all the intimate and rather bitter pieces written in the last decade of his life, here the writer offers another version of himself and the people who were part of his often unhappy boyhood.
In the 1987 compilation A Capote Reader, the editor divided Capote's writings into genres and placed “Dazzle” with the essays. The logic behind the decision is puzzling, but perhaps the editor was misled because Capote himself called “Dazzle” nonfiction. Capote's categorization raises a number of questions, given his view that all truth is altered when it becomes a story. What, then, is “truth” in “Dazzle”? Is there any great difference, insofar as the labels “fiction” and “nonfiction” are concerned, between works in which the author does not appear or appears only as a minor character (Breakfast at Tiffany's for example), and works in which he takes the major role? Why should we think that, “Dazzle” is less fictional than “A Christmas Memory,” since both are remembrances of childhood?
The answer may lie in Capote's decision to end “Dazzle” by returning to the present and, without mask or other distancing device, introducing an episode that focuses on the relationship between himself and his lifelong nemesis, his father, Arch Persons. The major part of “Dazzle” is set in the past: Capote relates a mortifying childhood event that reflects his youthful confusion about his sexual identity. But at the end of this part of the story, he abruptly shifts to the present and introduces his father, who played no part at all in the incident recalled. We leap ahead 44 years. The grandmother, who had a major role in the disturbing incident, has died, and her grandson, Truman, did not attend the funeral. The drunken Truman Capote has an angry telephone conversation with the father he reviles, yet still fears. Is this the nonfictional aspect of the story? Perhaps. Though the feelings between father and son seem real enough, the dialogue does not sound realistic or truthful. The father's angry and sentimental statement that Capote's grandmother died with Truman's picture in her hand reads too much like nineteenth-century melodrama.
Apparently Capote in his late stories was trying to write autobiography as a means of explaining and justifying his life. Yet the resulting pieces contain too much fiction to be categorized as “real” autobiography. In “Dazzle” too many of the details sound like bits and pieces from Capote's early fiction: The mysterious Mrs. Ferguson, unmarried with “a raft of children,” suggests Sister Ida of The Grass Harp. Mrs. Ferguson's praise of the boy's girlish beauty reminds us of Sam Radclif's comments in Other Voices, Other Rooms, and the little boy's journey to the Ferguson home also reminds us of that novel. Mrs. Ferguson's son, Skeeter, happens to have green eyes, always a significant symbol in Capote's stories. A belief in magic, witchlike characters, charms, and spells are all characteristic of the writer's fiction, and all appear in “Dazzle.”
The story itself tells of a theft the boy commits while staying with relatives in New Orleans. To achieve a hoped-for transformation from male to female, he seeks the magical help of a local sorceress, Mrs. Ferguson. Mrs. Ferguson demands that he steal his grandmother's yellow, rock-crystal stone and give it to her as payment for her magic. The boy succeeds in taking the jewel without ever being discovered, but Mrs. Ferguson's sorcery fails. Not only is the boy's desire for a female identity disappointed, but the guilt he feels as the result of stealing from and betraying his grandmother stays with him throughout his life in memory. His grandmother's death revives the entire experience for him. However, his inability in middle age to handle his sense of shame, and the hostile confrontation with his father, seem completely separate from the other parts of the story. The mood and tone shift too abruptly as the narrator moves from past to present, and even the last words of the story, invoking the power and appearance of Mrs. Ferguson, do not succeed in bringing back to the reader the boy's sense of the frightening knowledge of that witchlike figure.
Should readers care whether “Dazzle” is fiction or nonfiction? Perhaps. Certainly we must exercise caution in accepting all the author tells us about his own reality. Georges Gusdorf, author of a study on autobiography, has said that there are two types of autobiography: one is a form of confession; the other is “the artist's entire work, which takes up the same material in complete freedom and [is] under the protection of a hidden identity.” Unquestionably, some of Capote's works are forms of confession, and all of his works offer a composite, psychological autobiography by means of characters that serve as masks for Capote himself. Gusdorf also states: “Autobiography appears the more or less anguished uneasiness of an aging man who wonders if his life has not been lived in vain, frittered away haphazardly, ending now in simple failure. In order to be reassured, he undertakes his own apologia” (39). This analysis appears to fit as explanation for the last cycle of Capote's stories. Retracing segments of the past, he appears to be saying that this is true, that was not true. However, intended or not, the parts are all pieces of the whole, fragmented though they may be.
“Dazzle” was printed when Capote was struggling to recover from the aftershock of social and professional rejection brought about by the publication of fragments from a projected new novel. However, neither “Dazzle” nor publication of a well-regarded collection a year later could restore him to his previous position. Although much of Capote's writing had excited strong reactions from readers over the years, only his late stories provoked outrage. Supposedly conceived as part of his long-promised new novel, Answered Prayers, these pieces were first published in Esquire in the 1970s. The earliest story, “Mojave” (1975), was republished in the collection Music for Chameleons (1980). After Capote's death in 1984, his editor put together the remaining three stories as the work that was retitled Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel (1987).
To whet the appetite of the public, Esquire began “Mojave” on the cover of its June issue. It was Capote's first story in many years, and it elicited both negative and positive responses. Some who praised this so-called beginning of Answered Prayers were to change their minds when other stories followed. Capote, however, reportedly was delighted he had overcome the writing problems that had set in after the high point in his career in the late sixties.
“Mojave” uses the techniques of the frame, that is, a story within a story, and of doubling. What is unusual in this approach is that the second story is made the double of the first. Both are about women who betray the men who love them, although one betrays in secret, and the other does it flagrantly and cruelly. One woman is young, the other old; one is rich, elegant, upperclass, and idle; the other is poor and lower class, a former burlesque queen and stripper. Both give their lovers gifts, paid for with their husband's money. Through the doubling of the two women, a theme is developed that surfaces throughout all the stories in Answered Prayers: beneath the skin all women are the same, “the Colonel's Lady an' Judy O'Grady.” Capote's animus toward women is epitomized in a sneering remark about women and snakes: “The last thing that dies is their tail,” says the old man, a central character in the inner story of “Mojave.” That Capote shares the old man's attitude becomes clear when Capote repeats the same statement in the later piece “Unspoiled Monsters,” here without benefit of an intermediary, apparently having forgotten he had already used this abusive remark in “Mojave.”
The doubled women are matched with doubled husbands. Actually, the doubling is made even more emphatic with the men because both share the same first name: George. On the surface the first George, George Whitelaw, appears to be the opposite of the second, George Schmidt, whom the former meets when he is just out of Yale, hitchhiking across the country. George Schmidt is old, fat, and blind, a man who has been a masseur for 50 years. (Capote seems to favor this occupation as a plot device that enables the masseur character to learn intimate details about the lives of the rich and famous people he serves; in this story of the device seems acceptable enough. However, when Capote repeats this device with his major figure, the narrator of “Unspoiled Monsters” and “Kate McCloud” in Answered Prayers, it becomes inappropriate, given the narrator's other talents and his social milieu.)
Twenty years after this meeting in the Mojave Desert, George Whitelaw tells his wife, Sarah, the story of his encounter with Schmidt. The blind Schmidt had been abandoned by his wife, Ivory, perhaps to die in the intense heat. In the course of a ride out of the desert with a truck driver, Schmidt tells Whitelaw about his meeting, courtship, and marriage to Ivory Hunter, who betrays him almost immediately with a younger man. Ivory Hunter lives up to her much too obviously symbolic name by taking all of her husband's possessions and driving off with her lover after leaving George alone amidst the “sand … mesquite and … boiling blue sky.”
Sarah Whitelaw is far more subtle than Ivory Hunter when she betrays her husband. Refusing to share George's bed because she has had two unwanted children and fears having another, Sarah slyly takes a lover. Ivory never refuses to have sex with her husband—quite the opposite—and her relationship with her lover is scarcely concealed. Ivory's motivation for her treachery is sexual passion, but Sarah's motive is unclear. Sarah choses as her lover her former psychoanalyst, a man described in most unattractive terms: he is short, fat, and wears dentures, and he is a vulgar and greedy man who grunts and grimaces and expects gifts and money from her. Sarah derives no sexual pleasure or other satisfaction from this relationship. The pointlessness of Sarah's affair seem to suggest that betrayal for no motive other than betrayal itself is women's nature.
Capote provides no realistic cause for Sarah's deceitfulness, drawing her as a superficial, selfish, even prudish woman who chooses to ignore her husband's obvious suffering. She takes on the role of his pimp in order to keep him, as well as to keep him satisfied. Capote apparently recognized that Sarah is the least successfully drawn character in “Mojave,” and therefore in an attempt at providing a psychological motive for her actions, he says that Sarah married George because of his resemblance to her father. But this damage control does not work. The bits and pieces of her character and personality are an uncoordinated mixture: she is an anxious poseur with her husband; cruel and insulting to her lover; confiding, sympathetic, but also cynical to her hairdresser, whose pain at his betrayal by his lover she dismisses by telling him there is always someone else.
Her cynicism is leavened with fear the night her husband tells her his tale about George Schmidt and Ivory Hunter. As Sarah listens to her George he seems to become the other George, coarse and street-smart, blind, but possessed of a clear inner vision. Tired and feeling old, for the first time in their marriage George artfully hints to Sarah that he knows about her affair. When George turns to his wife for solace, she gives him the same comfort she had earlier given her hairdresser: there is always another lover down the road. Yet what her husband has given her is a far greater and deeper kind of love than the love that George Schmidt had given Ivory, for it includes forgiveness both for her refusal to share her bed with him and for her betrayal of his trust.
George tells Sarah that everyone, at some time, leaves the “other out there under the sky” and never understands why. This is one of Capote's themes in the story. Another theme, more hidden and dark, in the last part of the story, briefly reveals the Capote touch of earlier days. As Sarah draws the heavy silk draperies against the snow-misted night, the images leave us with the subliminal recognition of the swift passage of time, of the coming of night and the long winter of death that no draperies can block out.
“La Côte Basque,” the second story published in Esquire, was a disaster for Capote. Although general readers took pleasure in the entrée the story provided into the secret world of stars, artists, and high-society glitteratti, those who belonged to that world were outraged by Capote's revelations. Capote's jet-set friends and acquaintances felt that he had betrayed them.
From the moment “La Côte Basque” appeared in 1975, Capote lost almost every society friend he had. The stories in Answered Prayers were all based on true incidents from or gossip concerning the lives of people in Capote's rich and famous circle. Once these people read “La Côte Basque” and recognized what he was doing—how he was turning the sordid details of their lives into stories for the public to read—they closed ranks and turned on him. Overnight, his friends became enemies; the reviews savaged him; and his career was destroyed. Soon he was reduced to appearing on talk shows, where often obviously drunk or under the influence of drugs, he pathetically tried to defend himself and to attack the people who had rejected him.
Whether the unfinished “novel” would ever have been printed had there not been so much publicity about it following Capote's sudden death is a matter of speculation. For a number of years Capote and a few loyal supporters insisted the work was almost complete. But no manuscript has been found. For a time rumors that some people had seen, or read, or heard Capote read other parts of the book circulated. Speculation about a more complete manuscript version of Answered Prayers continues, but whether Capote actually wrote more than we have is doubtful considering his imaginative decline in the years before his death.
In book form, Answered Prayers: The Unfinished Novel is much the same as the stories Esquire published. There are only two significant differences. Where the sequence in the magazine was “Mojave” (June 1975), “La Côte Basque” (November 1975), “Unspoiled Monsters” (May 1976), and “Kate McCloud” (December 1976), the book places “Unspoiled Monsters” as part 1, “Kate McCloud” as part 2, and “La Côte Basque” as part 3. The second change is the removal of any references to the story “Mojave.” In the magazine version of “Unspoiled Monsters” the major character speaks about beginning to write “Mojave,” and in the first lines of the Esquire “Kate McCloud” he notes having spent a week writing “Mojave.” Clearly, Capote made almost no changes in the work, although for years he and his publisher announced he was revising it.
Where “Unspoiled Monsters” and “Kate McCloud” have some slight connection to one another, “La Côte Basque” has nothing in common with either except that it, like the other two, is supposedly told by a narrator named P. B. Jones. One wonders about the publisher's choice of the term “novel” to describe the work, although it is the word the author himself used. If Capote had some large overall plan for the structure of his book, the plan is not revealed by the fragments that he managed to complete.
The first two stories make some attempt at plot, but plots so steamy and fitful as to appear ludicrous to the reader. Although Capote and a few other people spoke of the planned work as Proustian, the plots and characters in “Unspoiled Monsters” and “Kate McCloud” might have been borrowed from a combination of popular romance and pornographic film and fiction. The third story, while recounting gossip, as do the other two, has no plot at all.
P. B. Jones, identified by various people (including Capote's editor), as a “dark doppelgänger” of the writer, is a strange peripatetic figure, who, for no clear reason, flits between New York and the Continent. At some point he remains an expatriate for 12 years. He is a failed writer, a prostitute, and a masseur. While the reader quickly discovers that Capote often intends Jones to be himself, the secret self Jones seems to embody is like the painting of Dorian Gray. Almost nothing of the charming, witty, poetic writer remains. Instead, there stands in his place, a vulgar, vicious purveyor of gossip, a one-time man about town, who now is little more than the teller of dirty jokes. In many respects Jones is an older, more worldly, and more world-weary Walter Ranney from the early dark story, “Shut a Final Door.”
In “Unspoiled Monsters” the narrator tells us more about himself than anyone else in the story. The story consists of a number of vignettes about people whose names are household words. Many appear with names unchanged; others are given pseudonyms, but most of the pseudonymous characters can be easily identified. In “Kate McCloud” the focus shifts from the narrator and his angst to a soap-opera plot that is larger than the cardboard characters. And in “La Côte Basque” the narrator serves as little more than an ear for the malicious gossip of his luncheon companion.
In all this work, Capote used some of the techniques of earlier years: circularity, remembrance of things past, time shifts, cinematic devices, humor, and the poetic configuration of images and symbols. Yet the things that worked so well for him before rarely succeed here. “Unspoiled Monsters” and “La Côte Basque” have circularity of structure: each begins in the present, goes back to events in the past, and ends back in the present. “Unspoiled Monsters” and “Kate McCloud” include remembrances of the past, nostalgia for beginnings, and time shifts of multiple kinds; cinematic devices are strongest in these two stories as well, with collage and stills and scene shifts. All three pieces are very visual, but without the symbolic implications of previous fiction. An important component of each work is humor; much of this humor is farcical and sexually oriented; the gossip, which is meant to be funny, is almost entirely of a sexual nature.
The person seeking to learn more about Capote—his likes, dislikes, attitudes, visions of himself in middle age—will find “Unspoiled Monsters” interesting. A mask is removed, but are we to believe what appears? In part, yes. Here is Capote taking vengeance on the academic world, mocking the scholars who either ignored him or considered his work insignificant. Jibing at them, suggesting they spend their time in tiny, petty pursuits, he calls attention to his use of alliteration, to his recognition that he is indeed borrowing the name of a graceless character out of a Flannery O'Connor story. He sneers at the process of obtaining grants, at writers-in-residence programs, at those writers whose work is read only by intellectuals. Having scorned the latter, he procedes to tell the kind of story he seems to have suggested they would never write.
Hostility permeates segments of the story, although it is meant to be humorous and honest about the way the world turns. In striking out at critics and reviewers, he suggests that much that is published under an author's name is not the work of that author, himself as Jones, for example. He claims that many writers get into print because they trade sexual favors for assistance from editors, publishers, or other famous writers.
Self-hatred is very strong in this first story. Jones describes himself as a failure, something Capote undoubtedly felt at this point in his career. But the author shifts gears at times, briefly separating himself from Jones. Unlike Capote, Jones has had only one book published, and that was a flop. But Jones's failed book was called Answered Prayers. Capote appears to be saying he knows in advance that the public will reject his novel. Further, Jones is planning to rewrite Answered Prayers, an act Capote himself planned but did not accomplish during his sad last years. Doubling is used in the description of an attention-getting book-jacket photograph, although the picture of Capote used for his first book, Other Voices, Other Rooms was taken by Harold Halma, and Jones's portrait for Answered Prayers was done by Beaton, the photographer who became a very close friend of Capote after the publication of that first novel.
The subject of Jones's book, he tells an acquaintance, is “Truth as illusion,” surely an important theme in all Capote's work. Briefly, Jones becomes the reflective writer, the thoughtful Capote, mulling over questions he has addressed before in other works. What is truth? What is fiction? How does the artist use them? Writers turn everything into stories. Do stories become lies when altered by the transforming imagination?
This conversation about writing, truth, life, and fiction occurs during a discussion Jones has with his friend about ways to make a living. The friend convinces Jones he can make easy money by selling his services as a prostitute. At first the shift in the conversation from writing to prostitution appears to be little more than another instance of the meandering structure of the story. Yet the juxtaposition of these two subjects presents a Jones/Capote view of the writer, part of the darkness, the hatred within: the writer as prostitute, prostitute of the self, or prostitute for the self, two very different views, yet each a cruel vision, albeit concealed by humor.
Capote's Jones mask is held up to hide his own face, shifted to reveal a piece of his face, or dropped entirely at various times in this and the other two stories. At times Jones seems to disappear, or perhaps he and Capote become one and the dark side is hidden from view. Some of the melding takes place in episodes that remind us of the early poetic writer. When he is still a young, hopeful novelist, Jones, like Capote, met the French author Colette. When Jones described this meeting we hear not Jones, but the familiar voice of Capote talking; specifically, we hear the Capote of “The White Rose,” when he remembers Colette and his introduction to her symbolism of paperweights.
In “Unspoiled Monsters,” Capote places the Colette episode immediately before his discussion of prostitution of the self. He uses it to allow Colette to talk about art, about the penalties the artist must pay, the sacrifices he must make. Although life is flawed, it is warm compared to the coldness of art. The artist's life does not matter. What matters is the purity of art—a true enough point, but one Capote was making defensively at this stage in his career.
Scattered throughout the story are a few other poetically wrought depictions of people and places. Still, the general tone is that of a writer suffering malaise. The cities described in Capote's collection of travel pieces, Local Color (1950), cities that once were magical, become now, through Jones's eyes, unattractive, unappealing places.
The touch of the painter-poet, Capote himself without the Jones/Hyde element (even though Jones remains the narrator), is seen twice more, in the endings of “Kate McCloud,” and “La Côte Basque.” A dream concludes “Kate McCloud,” a dream described as resembling a late-nineteenth-century painting, though one might also imagine it as a haunting scene created by a cinematic artist. Images of color, of delicate, graceful motion, and the shimmer of the sea remind us all too briefly of ways the writer once captivated us. So too does the final paragraph of “La Côte Basque” hold us momentarily with its description of the waning afternoon, the words “exhaustion” and “failing” creating the air of melancholy often found at the close of Capote's best stories.
The least satisfactory of the three stories, “Kate McCloud” is disjointed, and, far worse, uninteresting. The major character is a composite, fantasized figure drawn from several women Capote knew or had heard about. The story, told by Jones (here as masseur, with no sign of the novelist), moves back and forth between past and present, shifting abruptly at times, recounting the inevitable dirty jokes, gossip, and episodes that have absolutely no relationship to the story of Kate.
In contrast to “Kate McCloud,” “La Côte Basque” is a well-structured piece, although the headnote, a salacious joke, at first seems unrelated to what follows. The jest, or prologue, is told by two ordinary people in an ordinary bar in the west. Yet the short story turns out to have many resemblances to it. Both are bawdy and are told by two people over drinks. No matter that the two luncheon companions are themselves widely known, that the restaurant, a real one, is elegant and expensive, or that the drink is Roederer's Cristal, one of the most costly champagnes. Everywhere life is a joke, we are being told, and a dirty one at that.
The story takes place in the course of a single afternoon. Here the function is extremely simple as compared to the two previous pieces: its entire concern is gossip, the telling of unpleasant truths about the private lives of people. There are two narrators, Jones, again the tale-bearing, wittily cruel persona, who moves among the monied celebrities of international society, and his hostess, Lady Coolbirth (Capote's playful naming of a friend whom a number of readers were easily able to identify). Jones's narrative function is limited, for it is really Lady Coolbirth who provides most of the gossip, taking great relish in demolishing the reputations of people in the restaurant and other people she and Jones (and Capote) know—and the reader may know of.
“La Côte Basque” adds nothing to what we have learned about Jones. The story is set in the present, and there is no clue about Jones's status either as writer or gigolo. That he is still “in” as part of the jet-set is suggested by the intimate knowledge he reveals concerning fellow members. In retrospect, however, the reader recognizes with some regret that it is this story which brought Capote's fall from grace, the finish to his charmed life, and those last imagistic words of the story, “exhaustion” and “failing,” seem all too apt a description of the end of his meteoric career.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11729
SOURCE: “Camping the Gothic: Que(e)ring Sexuality in Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms,” in Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2000, pp. 107–38.
[In the following essay, Mitchell-Peters considers the portrayal of homosexuality in Other Voices, Other Rooms, focusing on the function of Camp and Southern Gothic style on the novella.]
With possible influence from the utopian “greenwood” of E. M. Forster's Maurice, originally written from 1913 to 1914 and first published posthumously in 1971, Truman Capote released his first novel in the late 1940s with a striking never-never land that provided an alternative to the stifling realities for homosexuality during this time. There are three settings that exist in this text: the first is a typically redneck Southern backdrop filled with the necessary types and Capote's campy satire, the second is a mysterious rundown mock-haunted castle where the adult homosexuals and/or drag queens hide, and the third is a Peter Pan-like Oz, where queer youths gather, bond, and discover their young yet very real feelings. The novel's original setting of the Southern redneck reveals the most hostile environment for homosexuality, an environment that still exists today, not only in the South but throughout the United States, as we have witnessed recently with the grotesque murder of Matthew Sheppard in the fall of 1998. The second setting the reader is introduced to has received most of the criticism to date: its gothic feel has allowed the novella to be deemed a Southern-gothic tale, although, as this article will discuss, the use of gothic themes is equally as satirical as the mock-maleness of the redneck Southern inhabitants. The setting that has received the least amount of critical investigation is Capote's unique creation of a fantasy locale. Within this fantasy location, Capote not only moves away from the types of dismal realities that are evident in Baldwin's novel and Williams's stories, but shifts the subjects of homosexuality to queer adolescents. With the real world lurking in various forms behind the carnival of life that Joel and Idabel discover, their world—the world of queer acknowledgement and arguable homosexual awakenings—marks a hope for their inherent desires. Capote's text thus marks the first modern representation of homosexuality where a character's queerness does not lead down some version of the river Styx to a contemporary Hell. Instead, Joel and Idabel flourish and reveal that their natures are definitely queer. Truman Capote's first novel illustrates influences from a number of sources to tell the revolutionary stories of its young, queer heroes. This article will explore the literary influences in this text to illustrate how Capote re-constructs a gothic setting and employs aspects of Camp sensibility to construct his unique queer characters. Unlike Capote's contemporaries—such as James Baldwin or Tennessee Williams, who portray aspects of homosexual repression, disillusionment and violence in their texts from the 1950s—Capote's early book gives a type of literary birth to two young queer and often times detectably homosexual characters. This accomplishment—which arguably fuelled the negative, often hostile criticism that surfaced after the novel was published—is a tremendous feat in pre-Stonewall American literature. Capote is rivalled by no one in the first half of the twentieth-century, and his wondrously loaded book accomplished many tasks which were not tackled in full until the 1960s and 1970s: in Other Voices, Other Rooms there is no Frankensteinian arrangement of master and slave, nor questionable desire and excessive abuse and related power struggle. The destructive reality of homosexual panic is not a major part of the story Capote tells. Rather, Capote's text cleverly manipulates form and characterization and creates a number of compelling queer characters.
If a Victorian murderer is queer, if cannibalism is queer, if Marilyn Manson is queer (arguably really queer), if Madonna in the early 90s was queer, and if I am going to argue how two pre-teens are queer, how can one pin-point a definition for queer? Perhaps my question is aptly responded to: queer allows for interpretative movement, and related questioning and cultural theorizing. Queer allows for a readership which isolates aspects of uncertain, odd, and sometimes gay or lesbian characters and circumstances; not always homosexual, but definitely not only heterosexual, queer challenges the binary of straight/bent to include instances of possible homosexuality, bisexuality, cross-dressing, or uncertain or bizarre, physical interactions within such a trajectory of difference. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that queer includes
the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone's gender, of anyone's sexuality aren't made (or can't be made) to signify monolithically.
(“Queer and Now” 8)
Aside from opening definition and representation, Sedgwick's writing is integral to a contemporary consideration of queer as it's compound object insists that gender and the idea of meaning as well as signification cannot be static. Less complicatedly, the notion of a signifier—something we can read as queer—will shift and never have precisely the same meaning in any questioned circumstance. Hence, Marilyn Manson's neo-gothic vampiress persona, Madonna in a designer suit grabbing her non-existent yet certainly powerful phallus as she exposes a meshy black bra, as well as characters who stray away from heterosexual advances to acknowledge same-sex ones, are all examples—however different—of queer behaviour: none exhibit direct homosexual interaction, but each example is out-of-the-ordinary, and is susceptible to a queer reading and thereby a decoding of signifiers to present gay and or lesbian undertones (at least).
To explore the relationships between queer and/or homosexual representation, gothic nuances and settings, and Camp, in this article I will: (i) introduce the relationship between gothic themes and Camp as a literary technique to counter the Southern-gothic style in the text, and present the ways the reader can re-think these categories in Other Voices, Other Rooms; (ii) approach the criticism which followed the book's publication, questioning the focus on Southern-gothic style and homophobic discourse in such criticisms; (iii) illustrate Capote's technique of Camping gothic themes to create a queer text, and (iv) analyze the main characters in this text to solidify their queerness and emphasize their homosexual natures. The aim of this chapter is to illustrate the ways that gothic styles are undermined by Camp sensibility—Capote's specific style of reacting to the homosexual representations in literature of the late 40s and 1950s—and focus on the developments of representation and queer sexuality through the novel's important combination of these two very different yet often interlined styles of Southern-gothic and Camp to create a readably queer text.
THE GOTHIC AND CAMP: RE-THINKING GENRES
As discussed throughout the preceding chapters, gothic literature reacted to norms and related representations in traditional literature during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As such, the gothic articulated the controversial issues of incest, murder, and promiscuous sexuality, and created an exciting arena for the development of the supernatural and the occult. Gothic, in short, rebelled against traditional domesticity and sentimental literature, as a writing style which embodies and develops horror and terror (Arnaud, 123). Can Other Voices, Other Rooms be considered as a novel which re-employs the atrocities of a nightmarish imagination? Curiously, the Signet edition's introductory page describes the book as “terrifying.” It appears that the school of criticism which highlights the gothic motifs in the text is the influence which subverts Joel's sexuality through the masked label of sensitivity, and avoids Idabel's lesbianism by focusing on her as a tomboy. On the introduction feature page of the Signet edition, Skully's Landing is described as “[a] mouldering mansion[,]” as the mysterious drag queen has been interpreted as “[a] ghostly face at a curtained window.” It appears that the publishers went through great pains to emphasize the gothic-like backdrop of the novel to focus on gothic motifs and similarities to overt the then-controversial issues that Capote's novel presents. As this paper shall argue, the author deliberately uses gothic themes and gay Camp style to create eccentric, queer characters who challenge the tradition of homosexual representation in contemporary American literature.
As the pre-Stonewall homosexual character has been locked in the abyss of gothic representation since Marlowe's “Edward II” and most conveniently crystallized as the pre-modern villain in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Capote manipulates a neo-gothic setting to develop characters with a particularly queer consciousness, as the text moves away from the literary tradition of homosexual desire and impending death. One may wonder why Capote employs the gothic to express queer sexualities: the gothic form is habitually indulgent, imaginative, supernatural and horrific, hence in the gothic novel almost anything can happen. The gothic novel can be read with particular attention to queer sexual spaces, where unclear, or partially veiled instances of physical intimacy can be interpreted with attention to homoerotic undercurrents. Moreover, aspects of the gothic create an often suppressed homosexual character or encoded homosexual (or homosocial) relationship between a desired male character and the corruptive monster or demon. What is gothic becomes questionable and simultaneously homosexual with the theme of a double-life in Stevenson's “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and with the combination of Camp, the Narcissus myth, murder, and death in Wilde's Dorian Gray, what was questionably homosexual in the nineteenth century becomes detectably queer almost one hundred years later. Modern literary representations of homosexuality have frequently been found in texts which re-employ gothic motifs, such as Djuna Barnes's Nightwood or Carson McCullers's Reflections in a Golden Eye. In the twentieth century the gothic monster is given a more human form, in the style of Dorian Gray, as the male homosexual. Truman Capote's Southern-gothic tale of Other Voices, Other Rooms borrows from this intricate tradition, as he introduces a series of gothic types, themes and settings, only to dissolve Joel's spooky, late night arrival to re-present the gothic into a daytime carnival of Campy aesthetics. I would like to argue that Capote was well aware of his specific mock-gothic agenda and, as this chapter shall argue, by countering gothic with Camp the author rebels against the gothic's inscription of homosexuality and death. Robert Miles suggests that part of male representation in the gothic is the value of sight and the visual, hence, “[i]n Gothic writing, desire inheres within the visual” (57–60). Capote's first novel uses the visual in a similar manner, with a distinctly different twist: in Capote's text what is excessively visual is an acute, flamboyant and flagrant series of images that bombard the reader throughout the text. As the author uses aspects of a genre which relies inherently on the visual, he manipulates gothic motifs with a style that encompasses a strong visual intensity. The Camp style of this text allows for the amusing, new type of literary representation of queer personalities. Capote distinctly re-constructs aspects of gothic style, then Camps it: he takes an already excessive and fantastic style, creates a parody of it by adding to such a style with colourful prose, and over-the-top characters. By countering and complimenting gothic nuances with Camp, Capote is able to manoeuvre a style which will enhance the intensity of his characters, further emphasizing the open boundaries of interpretation that queer theory introduces.
Capote uses a conventional late-40s genre by adopting a Southern-gothic style, and through a precise use of camp aesthetics and language he turns it queer: as the nineteenth-century gothic challenged traditional literary form with unbelievable reincarnations of the occult-supernatural, Capote re-thinks his own variety of vamps, and tones down their supposedly dangerous natures through excessive camp-humour. By employing a Camp style of satire and excess, Capote un-haunts the night-time gothic of Skully's Landing, and as day breaks the author slowly and completely creates an absolutely queer textual space that replaces the gothic nuances with a very definite gay-Camp sensibility. Over the years, many critics have argued that Camp is gay, as others have argued that it is not. Camp style is a product of a most definitely queer sensibility, where the homosexual artist adopts a genre to create a parody of another genre, thus taking away its power and strength. Capote's use of gothic motifs allows him to de-sensitize the focal issues of what should be gothic, and in return he focuses on his concerns: rather than murder and monsters Capote takes the fear out of the rumoured fearful inhabitants of Skully's Landing.
Through the young queer characters of Joel and Idabel the text gives birth to two adolescents who are readably homosexual. This text tells the stories of their discoveries of their own, different, and queer sexual awareness. Susan Sontag has infamously argued that Camp is not necessarily a gay style and that Camp is not political (281). As this discussion shall exhibit, Camp is a critical part of readership appreciation, and the manner in which Camp is detected, interpreted and often appropriated is definitely a gay phenomenon, although it is by no means gay male exclusive. Sontag reads Camp as “the love of the unnatural, artifice and exaggeration” (275). In Other Voices, Other Rooms such aspects of Camp style intersect with the gothic themes, and undermine—if not extinguish—them. Like Wilde's important literature, in Capote's text Camp expresses a political voice. As Camp is an excessive parody, and thus incorporates satire as its principal mode of humour, when one Camps something—such as a mannerism—one often ridicules a convention, especially gender typology. Hence, this chapter will have a detailed look at how Capote Camps the Gothic as a means to create a definitive satire which allows him to create the queer personalities of Other Voices, Other Rooms.
THE EARLY CRITICS
In most pre-Stonewall criticism, Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms has been explored in homophobic, pop-psychoanalytic readings, which consider the text as terrifying and perverse, and the characters are more often than not examined as deviant. Many critics slander this book, as they attempt to solve the sexual mysteries of Capote's creative characters through aspects of trivial, demeaning psychology. The negative criticism which accompanied the publication of this novel is essentially a homophobic reaction, a direct result of the anti-homosexual sentiment of the late 40s and early 50s. Chester E. Eisinger clearly illustrates his own homophobic reactions to the sexual diversity in Capote's text as he argues that Other Voices, Other Rooms presents a “world of flight, childhood terror, estrangement and perverted love” (16). As such, Capote's intuitive and imaginative novel is not only reviewed in regard to negative approaches to the unusual characters, settings and situations, but in regard to the main characters' lack of sexual conformity. Rather than unique or revolutionary, Capote's characters are reviewed in response to theories of sexual deviance and related ideologies of perversity. I would like to counter Eisinger's argument by emphasizing that Capote's main character Joel Knox and his equally queer sidekick Idabel Tompkins are reactionary creations, marking this text's very important position in the history of gay, lesbian, and queer literature; hence the focal point for the arguments that dominate this paper. To prove Eisinger's argument is problematic, one must note that Joel journeys willingly to the text's fantastic locations of Skully's Landing and Noon City, and both Joel and Idabel do not engage in a horrified flight from either of these locales. Rather, the unprepared reader may desire flight from the issues this novel presents, as Joel and Idabel embrace these settings as the homeland of their queer adventures. Contrary to Eisinger's homophobic remarks, Joel's arrival brings an end to his possible childhood terror and presents Joel with a series of personal discoveries which take place in his new Southern setting. As well, rather than estrangement, Joel and Idabel's comraderie demonstrates supportive friendship: with Idabel, Joel learns how to make friends with a carousel of different people, most significantly his cousin Randolph and Miss Wisteria. The relationship between these characters creates a queer comraderie amidst the unconventional mock-gothic and Campy settings. Sadly, Eisinger is not alone, and many of Capote's early critics use the demeaning terms grotesque and perverted to describe the characters, the identities and the sexualities in this author's early writing. Although various re-constructions of the gothic genre are part of the foundation in this text (as I shall explore throughout the next section), Capote builds away from the possible reactions of trauma and horror, and presents a Southern paradise where queer sexuality, in varying forms, flourishes in abundance.
Ihab Hassan is the one exception amongst the early critics. However, his book on the contemporary American novel was released over a decade after Capote published Other Voices, Other Rooms. Capote was plagued with unflattering, narrow-scoped reviews and analyses for over ten years. Conservative approaches to the gothic themes, as seen in Eisinger's criticism, dominated the questioning of setting and description in Capote's early text. Moreover, his latter works Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood remain his most famous. Capote cleverly borrowed from the mystery and suspense of classic gothic literature to create a setting which would allow for the colourful characterizations that take place throughout the text. The use of night and day, the binaries of good/evil and straight/queer are certainly themes and sub-themes crystallized in nineteenth-century English fiction. However, as the gothic and Camp themes adequately house his characters' unconventional mannerisms, both genres reveal the revolutionary sexualities in this text. Capote purposely presents aspects of unclear or partially revealed desire which can be read as queer coding: the shy-boy, the tomboy, and the drag queen all function as signifiers for sexual queerness, creating a text which depicts queer sexuality and possible homosexuality not as dismal destruction, but as a possible option. Thus, Hassan considers Capote's use of gothic themes as an “extravaganza” where the “narcissistic overestimation of the self … begs for allegorical interpretation” (234 & 239). Hassan explores Capote as an author who exhibits unusual characters, sexual diversity, and double-identities in a profound post-gothic genre with an excess of Campy style. Combining the gothic with a paradoxical use of humour, the author turns the scary into a carnival of the unorthodox. In line with Hassan's arguments, Capote's text is about interpretation, somewhat allegorical, perhaps metaphoric, theoretically semiotic, but most of all revolutionary: the novel's careful representation of genre, gender, identity and sexuality challenge the established representation of queer sexuality and homosexuality in literature and create a literary arena where the author can introduce and reveal a new selection of not-so-straight characters. Gothic therefore becomes a neo-gothic style, possibly even a mock-, quasi-, or partial-gothic, which moves away from the traditions of English and American gothic as it undermines the central component of fear with curiosity. Hence, the integral binary of fear/attraction that exists in nineteenth-century gothic fiction is overthrown, and what is supposed to be scary is actually rather amusing. In this new Southern-Camp-gothic, sexuality can flourish and the characters are free enough to explore some aspects of their sexual orientation.
MORE THAN GOTHIC
CAMPING THE GOTHIC
Far too often the adaptation of gothic themes has allowed for the creation of the doomed homosexual. The night-time and the sub-cultural haunts are part of the inevitable despair and death of the queer character in pre-Stonewall fiction. Death can be read as a metaphor, a punishment and deliverance, and the process of dying or journeying towards death is part of the pre-Stonewall homosexual character's rite of passage, hence an inevitable “moral” fate. From an exploration of coded language and ambiguous sexuality in Frankenstein and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” to Dorian Gray, the queer character is destined to a regimented fall and an inevitable death at the end of a given text. Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms portrays sometimes gay, often lesbian, and habitually queer characters without the inevitable; the author creates the birth of queer sexuality which leads his young heroes to discover their adolescent awareness. The main characters are budding teens who are different, queer, and often homosexual, and there is no attempt to explain the different personalities of Joel and Idabel, as they do not conform to typical gender representations. No matter how “unnatural” people may seem, in Capote's fiction the eccentric characters are typical. The author represents queerness as he indirectly critiques the adaptations of the gothic genre which have been used a myriad of times to express homosexuality and related destruction. Capote reconsiders particular aspects of the gothic mode through his parody of a Campy Southern-gothic style, as he frees what is queer and gives life to the homosexual discoveries of his young characters.
Over recent years a few studies have been done which move away from the condemning attitudes of the pre-Stonewall critics. Like Hassan's text, the two books by Helen S. Garson consider Other Voices, Other Rooms as an example of exceptional fiction. Garson's arguments focus on the novel as a piece of literary accomplishment rather than a disruptor in a conservative literary canon; Other Voices, Other Rooms is explored as a text which counters the conventional novel of the 1940s. Garson suggests that “Capote's novel was a piece of a new pattern in fiction, one that was described by terms such as narcissistic, grotesque, symbolic and aesthetic” (13). Like Garson, my explorations will embrace Capote's use of the grotesque and the narcissistic to highlight and de-code the text's important queer signs. Thus, my approaches are concerned with the manner in which Capote represents the grotesque, through his own combination of Gothic motifs and his use of Camp-style(s). Along with the parody of gothic themes and the advent of Camp, this paper will explore how, in his first novel, Capote's greatest accomplishment is the insubordination of gender and the expression of personal and sexual discovery for both Joel and Idabel.
Capote suggests a future of gay and lesbian identification for his protagonists through his use of gothic parody: the author builds from a tradition of representing sexuality within an unclear and partially veiled text to imply the queer natures of his heroes through their unorthodox and often eclectic behaviour. In the pages that follow, the setting of Skully's Landing will be examined with attention to gothic similarities which house the ambiguous settings for the text's queer characters. The following section will focus on how Capote recreates a gothic style of sexual representation: a little ghoulish, and basically unconventional, Capote first haunts desire, then Camps it, and creates a strange irony between what should be scary and what is humorous. The result is a type of literary birth as Other Voices, Other Rooms portrays the discoveries of its young and not so young queer heroes. Joel and Idabel's rites of passage are therefore both traditionally and non-traditionally American: Capote creates the search for identity within a seemingly conventional frame—the search for ancestry and the rite of passage—as the characters achieve sexual freedom through unconventional circumstances.
Since Capote playfully borrows aspects of gothic style, the contents of his first novel are often misread and the text is labelled as exclusively Southern-gothic. Of course this text is Southern-gothic historically, but with a particular flavour of its own as the author's efforts to counter his gothic style reveal a paradoxical structure, as the reader continuously shifts between gothic themes and a Camp sensibility. As the earlier critics consider this text Southern-gothic, they search for the gothic theme of good versus evil. Accordingly, the early critics associate the homosexual aspects of the text with darkness and destruction. It should be emphasized that the early critics focus on gothic oppositions of good and evil to lighten the stylistic and creative accomplishments of the Camp text, which lessen the importance of homosexual and queer representations in this late 1940s novel. Rather than approach the novel's representations of genre, gender, identity, and sexuality, the pre-Stonewall studies concentrate on (hetero)normative polar oppositions to condemn the homosexual as a psychologically unsound and deviant subject. With the combinations of gothic and Camp, the novel is bizarre, exciting and unique, especially if one considers Capote's presentation of the rite of passage, the search for identity, and the discovery of queer sexuality. The restructuring of gothic themes demonstrates Capote's rejection of trauma and destruction. Capote first introduces a gothic-type setting and possibly dark characters, then ends the ominous night with the bright sunshine of the day that follows, and the Campy journey that follows.
As one can survey in literature from Christopher Marlowe to Anne Rice, gothic themes have been used to express tragic representations of homosexuality. As Christian England deemed homosexuality a sin against God and the nation, the occult and generally nocturnal worlds of gothic fiction aided the representation of sexuality, desire and same-sex love in pre-Stonewall literature. A queer gothic, and arguably homosexual gothic, springs forth as early as Marlowe (especially if one considers themes of disillusionment, destruction and punishment) and by the end of the nineteenth century Wilde illustrates a particularly homosexual gothic in The Picture of Dorian Gray. By the time Capote had started to write, many writers had already established the gothic mode as a genre which plays an integral role in the representation of ambiguous physical liaisons between people of the same sex. Capote uses the gothic motifs of a midnight arrival, lurking mystery and threatening evil, however, he does not imitate or replicate in admiration. There is no Frankenstein-like doctor and his angst-ridden monster as the characters spring forth from an unconventional, night-time dream-scape to move beyond the destructive master and servant theme. Capote presents a Campy manipulation of the gothic, resulting in a particularly satirical Southern-gothic parody: rather than scary and deathly, everything and everyone is bizarre and queer. Other Voices, Other Rooms will not be explored as the “sadistic fantasy [or] masturbatory horror” that Leslie A. Fiedler condemned it as in the mid-nineteen-sixties, but as a revolutionary pre-Stonewall novel (135).
WILLIAM FAULKNER AND BRAM STOKER
Before exploring Capote's most important representations of queer sexuality—Joel Knox and Idabel Tompkins—I would like to clarify my interpretation of genre in Other Voices, Other Rooms and clearly illustrate Capote's combined use of gothic themes and Camp styles. The Southern-gothic style is the most detectable in the text; it is central to the illustrations of homosexuality. During the pre-Stonewall decades of the twentieth century, adopting a gothic style helped the homosexual writer to publish aspects of same-sex desire in more open—yet by no means out—prose texts. It is within such a study that one can read Capote's earlier writings as an “anti-realist protest,” which used gothic themes to present unreal characters in an almost surreal setting or background (Fiedler 135). Hence, the backdrop to this novel, the haunted-like mansion and the night-time arrival, demonstrates a reaction to a world which would not tolerate homosexuality in contemporary fiction, especially a positive one. It is from this Southern-gothic frame that Capote easily creates unusual heroes and their equally unorthodox sexual discoveries.
As a born and raised Southerner, Capote illustrates his influence from the popular Southern-gothic mode in early twentieth-century American literature. William Faulkner should be read as an influential predecessor, particularly in response to the overwhelming power of death in As I Lay Dying. Specifically, Faulkner's varying narratives in this novel present the occult as a force which overrides the everyday; the voice of the dead mother initiates the journey and haunts the text. Faulkner confidently displays a series of odd characters, strange happenings and often incomprehensible dialects. In this text, Faulkner's focus is on a number of teenaged characters, their rite of passage and their own experiences with death, disillusionment, and sexual discovery. Similar to Cash's journey and the findings that take place throughout Faulkner's story, Capote presents Joel and his search for origins, and both young characters grapple with their identities and lineage on a strange journey which reveals their true natures. Both authors write in a style of language which the reader may not completely understand, complete with dialects, accents and regional expressions. Like As I Lay Dying, Capote's text reveals the discovery of life and experience through an often unclear, yet creative story which only partially reveals the secret of each location and the protagonist's genealogy and personality. Moreover, in Faulkner's book, the voice of the past is the voice of the dead mother, as in Other Voices, Other Rooms the voice of Joel's past is the voice of a dying father: a voice the reader never hears except through the editing, slurring voice of Joel's strange cousin Randolph. The characters are brought together by the supposed death of Joel's father, Edward Sansom. In the Gothic tradition death is often a guiding force: in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Jekyll's fear of death motivates the creation of his elixir—which, ironically, brings him closer to his own death and ultimately destroys him—and in Dracula, Lucy's death not only reveals the reality of the vampire, but unites the vampire hunters. In Capote's novel, death motivates Joel's trip to Skully's Landing, as Joel must make contact with his father and discover his past, and arguable future, before it is too late. Aside from the motif of death and the unconventional narrative, the characters demonstrate the author's influence from Faulkner as both books display a diverse collection of misfits, and a mysterious journey filled with side-stepping interludes that reveal partial (arguably symbolic) sketches of each character. Unlike Faulkner, Capote has one official narrator: an omniscient voice with direct access into the thoughts and feelings of the story's many characters. This narrative style illustrates the eccentric personalities and the queer sexualities. As such, Capote's gothic opens the rusted gate of a not so haunted Castle, and displays not the vampire or monster but, as the following sections shall argue, the queer main characters of Joel, Idabel, and cousin Randolph.
Along with the impact of Faulkner and the tradition of the Southern-gothic, the other major gothic influence of Other Voices, Other Rooms is Bram Stoker and Dracula, and the motif of the haunted castle. Like Jonathan Harker, Joel Knox is prompted to go to a mysterious home, instigated by a letter, and rather than the discovery of the vampire and ominous, deadly anti-Christian blood worship, Joel finds a series of colourful vamps who help him transform his personal consciousness. In Dracula the reader never sees the original letter which prompts Harker to voyage to Transylvania, and Stoker's novel is told in an epistolary format: we read a series of letters, journal entries and newspaper clippings to find out what has happened and what is happening in the life of the sinister vampire Count. In Other Voices, Other Rooms, Joel receives his letter from his father, which turns out to actually have been written by cousin Randolph. Joel, like Jonathan, takes a long journey into the unknown, however, no wolves howl in Joel's new landscape, as he arrives at the mock-haunted castle of Skully's Landing. As well, Joel is included in a series of secrets, surprises and realizations, and rather than sending him to recuperate in a sanitorium, Joel's exposure to the unconventional realities of the Landing allow him to embrace the odd misfits of this new world and leads him to the discovery of his sexual difference. The secrets Joel discovers are far from ominous. Joel is brought away from the clandestine mysteriousness of the night to a bizarre, queer daytime drama.
The realities of the locale and its inhabitants are revealed by a series of eccentric characters, and the reader uncovers these secrets through varying voices in the narrative, particularly when the omniscient narrative gives way to dialogue, and the characters of Randolph and Idabel speak. These characters dramatically help the telling of Joel's story, as they illustrate the Camp style of the text, disclosing the realities of the mock-Southern-gothic environments as they slowly reveal a series of unconventional sexual identities. Joel is allowed to observe the diverse behaviour of queer personalities. From this experience, Joel will soon acknowledge his own sexual orientation. Rather than the deadly gothic monster, Joel's surprise is the gender diversity and the transvestism of Randolph (and presumably Joel's ill father), and from his discoveries Joel learns about his own sexuality. As Jonathan Harker enters the world of the vampire and never is the same, Joel enters the nurturing circus freakshow of Other Voices, Other Rooms and discovers aspects of his identity: through his new friends, Joel becomes involved with the carnivalesque characters and learns to accept his true self.
Unlike Jonathan, who never recovers from his contact with the vampire, the changes that affect Joel are part of his evolution and mark the journey from queer to gay consciousness. Through his manipulation of the vampire Stoker demonstrates the metaphor of queer sexuality, and with the vampy characters of Randolph and Miss Wisteria Capote articulates a more open version of queer sexual liaisons. Most of all, it is the night-time setting of Skully's Landing which allows the untraditional characters to emerge: in the gothic novel danger happens during the night, and in the spirit of midnight mystery Capote introduces the eccentricities of Skully's Landing. Rather than roaming graveyards for blood, these oddities turn out to be the drag-personas of Joel's parental figures, as well as the butch-girl personality of Joel's young counterpart, Idabel. To counter the night-time setting's relationship to Dracula, Capote alludes to his influence from Faulkner with the day time carnival of Southern misfits. Like Faulkner characters, Capote's creations are odd and sometimes difficult to understand. Faulkner's characters are sad victims of limited education and often intense personalities, as Joel and his friends are only partially understood because they can't articulate their true feelings. Capote only partially discloses the sexualities of his characters; readership and decoding the text is part of the consideration of queer representation in Other Voices, Other Rooms. Consequently, unlike Stoker or Faulkner, Capote's characters are illustrated as far less serious, although their positioning as queer, and at times homosexual, subjects is an important one in the history of the gay and lesbian novel. Hence, Capote borrows from gothic literature's creation of the unconventional setting to give birth to strange characters, and express the queer sexuality of his young heroes.
As I have indicated in the preceding paragraphs, the most pivotal Southern-gothic setting is Skully's Landing. Negative criticism denotes the name of this location as an example of death, or as John Aldridge has argued the “aborted symbolism of evil and guilt” (194). As my introduction suggests, the application of the general, vague binaries of good and evil and innocence and guilt are difficult to successfully prove since there is no presence of puritanical light in Other Voices Other Rooms. Skully's Landing is a setting where the “good” pole is absent, and the “evil” pole is reconstructed to portray the dark, the sinister, and the dead or the deadly, as the not-so-sinister, the eccentric and queer. Rather than absolute Southern-gothic, Capote uses parody and Camp to question his use of gothic themes. Skully's Landing can be read in a series of ways which confirm the text's ironic use of the gothic genre: (i) the Landing re-creates the classic gothic locale as the haunted-type house; (ii) Capote's construction of such a space is particularly paradoxical, as he reconstructs the clandestine into a less dangerous and humorous version of the bizarre; and (iii), which is the result of one and two, Skully's Landing presents aspects of mystery without fear, and this new, arguable mock-Southern-gothic locale functions as a post-gothic closet which hides the transvestism of Joel's father and uncle, and leads the way to Joel and Idabel's queer consciousness. Accordingly, once Joel is a part of Skully's Landing, he must confront the queer sexuality and personalities of his father and uncle, as well as the queerness of the many other characters in the text. Experiencing this diversity, Joel begins his journey towards the discovery of his own queer sexuality.
Stephen Adams argues that the gothic and homosexuality share key similarities under the scornful gaze of conservative criticism, most specifically the manner in which both are part of the lurking perverse nature of Capote's narrative (56–88). I would like to suggest that although Capote wrote Other Voices, Other Rooms during a time when homosexuality was judged within the negative confines of Christian moralism, he creates a confident manipulation of what is gothic and who is homosexual. This text can therefore be read as rebellion against the confines of contemporary society and homosexual representation in literature. As a result, the gothic-type setting is not life threatening—but freakish—and the queer character is not abnormal or deviant, but a standard part of such an environment. The pessimism and compulsive heterosexism in the literary representation that Adams discusses is not part of Capote's first novel, since the world and the genre are parodies of other fictional worlds. However, Capote does demonstrate the entrapment of desire in sociological and cultural realities of the text's time. Much like Dracula's towering mansion—the Count's safety from the world of light—Skully's Landing provides Joel with what it provides for Randolph and Edward: an escape and a protection from the absent yet present every day, where diversity and sexuality would stimulate unjust societal treatment in the real world. This unseen world exists beyond the pages of the text. Although the Landing functions as a type of closet for the adults, it leads Joel into the freer world which the reader experiences throughout the story: in this queer pastoral where Joel and Idabel flourish.
FROM QUEER TO GAY, LESBIAN, AND DRAG QUEEN
When Joel wakes up at Skully's Landing, he remembers his one and only previous visit when he felt that “the walls were alive with the tossing shadows of candleflames” (26). He remembers the Landing as strange and old, and as he looks around he recollects the supposedly ominous surroundings which welcomed him at midnight (26). As he wakes up, he thinks about how he was led through the house by Miss Amy, up the steep stairs with a “robber['s] stealth,” as his guide partially revealed the pre-modern decor with the feeble light provided by her kerosene lantern (26). Capote re-creates the haunted castle, although its haunts do not threaten Joel or possess any real, life endangering secret powers, like Dracula's Castle in Transylvania. The gothic style of an unknown and shadowy locale welcome Joel, not by the proprietor himself (Joel's absent father), but by a type of mock-gothic servant who shows Joel to his room at the Landing. Joel wakes up, sits in wonder, and thinks about his new home and its mysterious inhabitants: he feels no fear, although the narrator illustrates a setting which could have been perceived as haunting. What follows Joel's arrival is not a nightmare-filled sleep (like Jonathan Harker's in the early pages of Dracula) but a content, full sleep which he awakes from early in the afternoon (28). The supposedly menacing night almost instantaneously breaks into a warm, Southern day, and what was set up as gothic becomes carnival-like: night-time haunts give way to day time eccentricities, and lead Joel to his own self-discoveries. Capote couples aspects of gothic nuances with a Camp sensibility which simultaneously disarms the danger of the night and allows for the developments of the bright and gay day that follows. By overriding the gothic motifs of the unknown inhabitant, the haunted house, and a candle-lit midnight arrival, Capote takes the threat out of the setting of Skully's Landing and introduces the potentially frightening as both intriguing and comforting, as Joel's long, restful sleep insinuates.
Capote crosses the two different influences from the gothic and Camp by combining gothic nuances with similarities to L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. Baum's book is a gothic story for children, fully equipped with an evil witch, a haunted castle, and a lot of magic; moreover, Baum illustrates a battle between the forces of good over the forces of evil. Like gothic fiction, both Baum and Capote provide the reader with a new, mysterious setting, as both novels (and the Camp-cult musical that followed Baum's book) provide both the naive Dorothy and Joel with new, odd, and interesting friends, who confirm that neither Joel nor Dorothy is as odd as they think when compared to the new people they meet. The paradoxic representations of questionable danger which proceed Joel's night-time arrival are lessened with the sunny day that follows and the Campy style Capote uses to present the characters and circumstances which take place during this day. By combining gothic motifs with Camp, Capote begins to represent the sexual diversity and the queer personalities in Other Voices, Other Rooms.
Like the vampires that have no need for mortal necessities of the toilet, Miss Amy informs Joel, “we haven't modern plumbing facilities. Randolph is opposed to contrivances of that sort” (28). The absence of modernity is part of Randolph's eclectic tastes, not only aligning the setting with the haunted locations of nineteenth-century fiction, but signifying Randolph's difference through his inability to conform to basic technological realities. Joel finds himself as a natural part of this strange setting, bidding Miss Amy compliment to her ghostly hair, which is striped like a skunk's: oddly, Joel informs her that he finds it to be “a nice colour” (29, Capote's italics). Miss Amy's skunk-like appearance signifies questionable nocturnal habits, as Joel's almost out-of-place compliment balances the gothic surrounding with an almost Campy remark. Due to the author's use of italics, the truthfulness of this compliment is to be questioned by the reader as the italics are indicators of a Campy drawl, which adds to the specifically Southern style of the Camp Capote employs. This sequence also demonstrates how Joel is not threatened by Skully's Landing and its inhabitants. Rather, Joel's ability to accept the strange world of the Landing illustrates that Joel feels at home in his new, strange surroundings, as he is also different from the conventional world.
Joel's new environment is hardly threatening, and once he awakes from his restful sleep, the Landing is illustrated as eccentric and unique. The world Capote depicts before the Landing is a type of Southern redneck environment, and Joel's interactions with the people in this setting exhibits how he is different from them—this will be explored in the following subsection. When he arrives at the Landing he feels no fear towards his stepmother or the spooky environment, and from his deep sleep he awakes. He falls into sleep, emphasized as sleep comes to him by “falling … falling … FALLING!” (25). Aside from denoting a type of dream-like unconsciousness, the emphasis on falling illustrates that Joel falls from somewhere else, a place which is presumably more conventional. Like Dorothy who falls from a Kansas farm to a colourful world of music and danger, Joel finds himself in a freer setting once he awakes in Skully's Landing. Capote brings on the light of day by sighting an imaginary, unexplained “crocodile [which] exploded in sunshine” (25). I would like to read this part of the text as deliberately symbolic, and consider the exploding crocodile the destruction of a monstrous threat, alleviated with the arrival of sunshine. The crocodile's fate in the daylight is much like the vampire, who burns up in an immediate gust of fire when faced with arrival of the sun. In Other Voices, Other Rooms what is threatening is put to rest with the arrival of daylight, as the Southern-gothic surroundings give way to the Campy, queer day that lies ahead. Ironically, Randolph and Edward are paralleled to the vampire, and like the crocodile who explodes in the sunshine, they are confined to Skully's Landing during the day. In return, for isolated, brief moments, they show their feminine personalities during the evening's interludes. Joel is led away from the Landing during the day, principally by Idabel, and the day reveals a collection of queer characters, as the night partially exposes the drag personas of Joel's uncle (as well as his father). Like the crocodile, the possible threat of this new landing is put to rest, as Joel's new home poses no threat as the new, sunny day brings him closer to his self-discovery.
As the novel unfolds, it is apparent that Joel is both mystified and captivated by the secrets of the Landing. Capote's mock-gothic is embraced by the main characters, and thereby emphasizes the relationship between Southern-gothic and satire. Joel does not try to flee from or battle the vampy characters in this surrounding, but he is caught in a spell by them, fascinated and entranced. Skully's Landing, cousin Randolph and Idabel teach Joel how to settle in, how to feel at ease, even in front of odd or seemingly terrifying things. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Randolph and Idabel teach Joel to not only embrace queerness, but to not feel estranged. By combining gothic nuances with a definite Camp style, Capote emphasizes a liaison between his characters and a queer interpretation: the queer characters are part of an unclear, only partially exposed narrative which can only become more clear as the text progresses.
When Joel wakes from his deep slumber, a magical rite of passage begins as Joel meets a variety of different people. As The Wizard of Oz tells the story of four people and their personal triumphs, Other Voices, Other Rooms tells the story of a similar search. In Dracula, when Jonathan recovers in the European convalescent home, Mina brings him home, and when they return to England nothing is the same. Jonathan has been touched by the sexual unconscious of the vampire sisters, as Joel has been touched by the sexual inversion of the Drag Queen “sisters,” which causes him to evolve past gender restrictions to discover his queerness. Joel too will never be the same after his visit to his father's, but his haven is antithetical to the hell that Jonathan, like most gothic heroes, must go through. When Joel wakes, Miss Amy, Randolph and Idabel—who are certainly more like Dorothy's friends in Oz than the vampire sisters of subconscious desire in Dracula—show him a world which changes him dramatically.
With Joel, Capote presents a queer adolescent protagonist younger than Dorian Gray and a little older than Dorothy. By creating a character as an almost child and not quite adult, Capote avoids confronting the more complex issues of sexuality and identity which Randolph's sexuality and cross-dressing embodies. Instead, like Idabel, Joel's characterization is about identity and a rebellion against fixed gender norms. Throughout the text, Capote overthrows all gender restrictions as he destructs the limitations of specifically masculine or feminine character traits. The circus of outlandish characters not only represent an unconventional world but they all emphasize the difference which is at the centre of Joel's characterization: all of these characters embody traits, either physical or part of their personality, which articulate gender insubordination, gender inversion, and/or queer desire. Thus, each character's difference(s) can be read as signifiers for their queer sexuality, and, in the case of Joel, his homosexuality.
The excitement Joel feels to the many diverse personalities and queer personas—such as Miss Wisteria, Miss Roberta and cousin Randolph—lead to the awakening of his own sexual awareness. Rather than sexual interaction and possible interpretations of physical intimacy, Capote expresses sexual awakening through the development of adolescent behaviour. Consequently, through the people he meets, Joel learns to accept the sexual insubordination of his new surroundings, as he slowly begins to express his own queerness. I emphasize the idea of consciousness or personal awakening as a coming of age and a crucial part of homosexual representation in this text because Joel's realizations come about through exposure to the queer gender rebelliousness of Idabel and Randolph, rather than a homosexual love affair with another character. Consequently, Joel's discovery is a queer-sexual awakening, rather than sexual experience. Joel acknowledges his new friends' queerness as he slowly begins to discover himself. Capote's most important contribution to pre-Stonewall literature is his characters' flamboyant, colourful personas, and how Joel learns tolerance and self-acceptance through his interaction with the wide variety of eclectic and often readably queer people. The characters in this revolutionary text demonstrate that gender typology has no bearing on the queer consciousness that Capote illustrates; as the title implies, the sexual Other is very different from prescribed visions of masculine or feminine gender restrictions. As a result, Joel has the chance to rethink what society has prescribed for him as a young man, and by identifying with the queer personalities of his new friends and family, Joel has the opportunity to embrace his own sexuality in a more open environment.
As the previous sub-section has illustrated, two principal story lines (and their related shorter plots) are part of the portrayal of Joel's coming of age: (i) his experiences with Idabel Tompkins, and (ii) his cousin Randolph (to be discussed in the next sub-section). Idabel's place in the text serves a faux-heterosexual story line, where the traditional reader is fooled by Joel's interest in Idabel. This is not to say that Joel has no legitimate feelings for Idabel; however, his feelings need to be considered within the concerns of this reading. Idabel may fill the gap of supposed crush for Joel, but as Capote reveals and as I shall argue, Idabel functions as a signifier for queer identification, for both herself and for Joel. As tomboy she breaks free from the stereotypical limitations of the little girl, and discovers her own sexuality. This is critical for Joel; with Idabel Joel witnesses first-hand homosexual identification, love, and coupling, as portrayed through Idabel's liaison with Miss Wisteria. Joel does not trail behind Idabel with a secret romantic interest, but identifies and bonds with her as a homosexual counterpart. Capote makes this clear when Joel first sees Idabel:
The skinny girl with the fiery, chopped-off red hair swaggered inside, and stopped dead still, her face was flat, and rather impertinent; a network of big ugly freckles spanned her nose. Her eyes, squinty and bright green, moved swiftly from face to face, but showed no sign of recognition; they paused a cool instant on Joel, then travelled elsewhere.
It seems highly unlikely that the above description is meant to imply any sexual fascination with Idabel. Rather, Joel focuses on Idabel's non-conventional appearance, specifically the way her presentation is very different from a conservative description of an adolescent girl. The attention given to Idabel's gender difference and the strength of her demeanour signifies Joel's attraction to her, and represents Joel's desire to establish a friendship with someone like himself. Capote places particular emphasis on Idabel's boyishness to counter Joel's girlishness. Joel instantly recognizes this gender insubordination. Subtly, yet clearly, the author creates an association between these young characters and the common queer-kinship that links them.
Idabel is portrayed as not attractive in a traditionally girlish manner, and like Joel she shares a type of androgyny. Her description is the counterpart to Joel's appearance. Like Idabel, Joel has been perceived as a queer boy by Radclif, the redneck truck driver. This happens when Joel first arrives in Noon City and is searching for his father's mysterious abode:
He [Radclif] eyed the boy over the rim of his beer glass, not caring much for the looks of him. He had his notions of what a “real” boy should look like, and this kid somehow offended them. He was too pretty, too delicate and fairskinned; each of his features was shaped with a sensitive accuracy, and a girlish tenderness softened his eyes, which were brown and very large.
Like Idabel, Joel's description is emphasized through the impression he makes on the other people of the town, specifically the androgynous qualities of his appearance. His lack of gender conventions and the absence of specifically masculine traits are like Idabel's absence of exclusively feminine characteristics. Both Idabel and Joel embody both forms of opposite gender conventions, from Joel's girlish completion and gaze, to Idabel's boyish hair and stance. Capote specifically marks these characters' queerness through the series of visible traits, which signify their homosexual natures. Capote creates the principal characters of Other Voices, Other Rooms as reactions to gender norms, and Idabel and Joel's lack of traditional gender traits are important literary accomplishments. The confident gender rebelliousness of these characters and the homosexual natures which are subsequently disclosed is not done on a regular basis until the 1960s: with the exception of Capote, major American writers, such as James Baldwin, Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams, have employed gothic motifs to represent the homosexual as a dangerous, fatally destined contemporary monster. Not until the 1960s would another major author confidently portray young homosexuals with the open, creative style that Capote does in 1948. In this text, the naturalness of Idabel and Joel's own gender differences challenge conventional gender norms. The pairing together of these two should not be read as a type of freaky romantic liaison, rather, Idabel and Joel's friendship illustrates the mutual attraction between sexual others and their ability to gather personal strength in the company of one another. As a modern, Southern American approach to gender inversion, Idabel is similar to Radclyffe Hall's Stephen Gordon from The Well of Loneliness, as Joel is a version of a young Dorian Gray. Capote thus borrows not only from traditional nineteenth-century gothic tales, but, his principal characters echo the very queer constructions of Hall and Wilde, characters and stories that crystallized queer representations until the 1960s. Most of all, Capote's characters live in a much freer and more colourful environment than either of their English ancestors.
Capote introduces his commentary on traditionally masculinist typology through Joel's early interactions with Radclif the truck driver. As Joel and Radclif get acquainted, “Joel imagined a queerness in the driver's tone” (11). Capote's text instantly signifies that either Joel's perception of Radclif or the driver himself is queer. Moreover, Joel's consequence for not being boyish enough and for desiring the mysterious Landing and its implications comes from the aggressive Radclif, fully equipped with sexual undertones: “Yessir, if I was your Pa I'd take down your britches and muss you up a bit” (8). To compliment Capote's use of parody, the butch behaviour of his characterization of Radclif comes across as equally strange, satirical, and queer. The author displays the excessive unnaturalness of extreme masculinity; to emphasize this critique, Radclif's comment signifies a satiric hint of pederastic, homoerotic “punishment.” What is supposed to be straight is seemingly not, as this sequence introduces and foreshadows the queerness to come.
In the spirit of reversing traditional gender roles, it is not Radclif but Idabel who musses Joel up, a little later on in the story. This takes place during Joel and Idabel's outing to the bathing pond, a sequence which marks the signalling moment of their homosexual natures: Joel tries to kiss Idabel, and winds up in a fight with her. The sequence begins with Idabel washing Joel's hair, “without clothes,” and to Joel “her figure was, if anything, more boyish” (133). Even though Idabel is a girl, Capote plays with undercurrents of male-male erotics through a description of Idabel which marks her form and her mannerisms as conventionally boyish. Idabel proceeds to tell a joke, one Joel has to inquire about as he can not understand the meaning, and Joel feels that Idabel “was imitating someone” (134) and asks her who. She tells him her masculine model is “Billy Bob.” Along with Idabel's boyish physique, she reveals her masculine prototype, someone she attempts to manner herself after. Idabel then tells Joel about her softer side, that she does cry, but instructs Joel not to tell anyone. Joel feels close to Idabel, understands a kinship has formed and thinks, “I am your good true friend,” but instead of saying it he “kissed her cheek” (134). Opposed to stating his appreciation towards Idabel, Joel conveys his feelings in a more traditionally feminine exchange of a friendship kiss, which Idabel reacts against with more of her little-boy angst. Idabel grabs Joel by the hair and they begin to fight:
The dark glasses fell off, and Joel, falling back, felt them crush beneath and cut his buttocks.
“Stop,” he panted, “please stop, I'm bleeding.”
As Joel assumes a submissive position to Idabel and gives up, she ends the confrontation and cleans out his cut as she states rather flatly, “You'll be alright” (76). Joel passively apologizes about breaking the glasses and Idabel replies, “It's not your fault […] Maybe someday I'll win another pair” (76). Strangely, Joel's first “sexual encounter” is part of his coming of age and results with his bloody buttocks; Capote is making a crude-Campy mockery of the loss of gay male innocence. As well, the gender conventions are aptly established as Idabel states how she “won” her glasses, much like a boy would at a fair.
What Capote manoeuvres in this section is a very careful and clever manipulation of gender-role play. The traditionally fixed binary categories of masculine and feminine are overthrown with these diverse heroes, as stereotypically aggressive and passive roles alternate: what is considered as masculine behaviour is attributed to Idabel and what is deemed feminine is executed through Joel. Joel is sentimental, he thinks about his devotion to Idabel and finally summons up enough courage to compliment her with a light kiss. Rather than asking what the kiss was for, she presumes it is her cue to rough Joel up, and does. Capote highlights Joel's bloody buttocks as a mocking gesture towards virginity or purity, something Idabel taints with her aggressive physical interaction. Capote makes abrupt statements on gender boundaries through the representation of boy and girl, as he mocks heterosexual courtship and physical violation. By reversing the gender roles, Capote demonstrates the difficulties with regimented constructions of male and female, and the complexities that these limited gender norms initiate in a homosexual rite of passage. Through Idabel and Joel, Capote illustrates how gender typology just doesn't work, and how heterosexist restrictions have no place between these characters. The author ridicules gender roles through Camp, where excess, absurdity, and humour overthrow what is supposedly fixed and unchangeable.
The Campy descriptions of physical appearances and related personalities can be read as a well thought-out reaction to the limitations of conventional gender representation. Capote's carnival of characters have distinct physical attributes and mannerisms which emphasize post-gothic grotesqueness with a humorous Camp excess: introduced as lurking night-time figures, the text reveals that the sea of misfits are far from dangerous. Moreover, the Camping of the gothic and the subsequent characterizations in this text exhibit the queer personalities and allows the author to further develop certain characters—principally Joel and Idabel—as lesbian and gay. The distortion of the physical appearances and the excessive mannerisms is Capote's particular Camp sensibility. Through his Campy style, Capote emphasizes the sexual diversity of his characters, thus marking the pre-Stonewall political consciousness of the text.
Capote introduces lesbian rivalry through Miss Roberta's scornful approach to Idabel. Roberta is very masculine, introduced early in the text with mannish movements and “dark fuzz” covering her arms (16). She is always furious with Idabel. Towards the end of the novel Capote further mocks her physical appearance when she kicks Joel and Idabel out of her diner. The author describes Roberta, “toying with the long black hair extending from her chin-wart […] scratching under her armpits like a baboon” (105). Capote draws particular attention to Roberta's unusual behaviour and appearance not to simply poke fun at her, but to demonstrate that Roberta has no shame in regard to her unladylike appearance. Moreover, the descriptive insult—her ape-like conduct—is also a signifier of primal desires: she is un-evolved, she can embrace the instinctual and as such her hostility towards Idabel can be read as her own, internalized homophobia. Other Voices, Other Rooms does not try to explain or excuse gender insubordination. Rather, this text embraces gender difference and exhibits its queer personalities with confidence.
What happens after the scene when Idabel and Joel have their fight is the disclosure of Idabel's sexuality. Capote demonstrates this through her attraction to Miss Wisteria. When Joel and Idabel leave the diner they go to the fairgrounds and meet Miss Wisteria. Joel asks Miss Wisteria to join him and Idabel for soda, Miss Wisteria replies with a whole lot of Southern Camp, as the author emphasizes as she lisps (rather than declares), “Well, this is surely a treat” (106). As Miss Wisteria takes out her lipstick to freshen-up her appearance, we find out that the treat isn't just for Miss Wisteria. Curiously, “a queer thing” happens to Idabel:
borrowing the lipstick, [Idabel] painted an awkward clownish line across her mouth, and Miss Wisteria, clapping her little hands, shrieked with a kind of sassy pleasure. Idabel met this merriment with a dumb adoring smile. Joel could not understand what had taken her. Unless it was that the Midget had cast a spell. But as she continued to fawn over tiny yellow-haired Ms Wisteria it came to him that Idabel was in love.
For Idabel, Miss Wisteria is as a type of good lesbian witch who “had cast a spell” on Idabel (107). This spell is successful since Idabel has been queer all along; the type of spell which ignites her homosexual desire is triggered by the outlandish, overdone Camp charm of Miss Wisteria. As the mysterious spell results with Idabel's lesbian desire she crosses the threshold between little girl and adolescent: as her appearance is never girlish—even with lipstick—her desires are never heterosexual. It takes the bizarre, Campy, and strangely glamorous Miss Wisteria to inflame Idabel's passions. Once the spell has been cast, Idabel is sent into a tranquil state of delirious love (107). Unlike Joel's attempt to kiss Idabel, there is no hostile approach to Miss Wisteria, and contrary to her previous characterization, Idabel has become sheepish under Miss Wisteria's spell. Throughout this section Miss Wisteria repeats “charmed” a number of times, and indeed, Idabel is charmed. However, through this sequence something happens to Joel, and Capote makes an interesting comment on Joel's sexual identity as well. Although Joel wants Idabel to come back to him, thinking “I love you” (108), he does nothing about this urge, and, for a brief moment he finds himself the subject of Miss Wisteria's desire, something he does not react to. Consequently, Miss Wisteria not only demonstrates Idabel's lesbian desire, but through Joel's rejection of her advances the text implies Joel's sexual orientation.
Once Joel witnesses Idabel's crush on Miss Wisteria he flees to Skully's Landing in search of his eclectic cousin Randolph and the mysterious Lady: who is, presumably, Randolph and/or Edward in drag. Through Joel's interaction with Randolph, Capote demonstrates Joel's liaison to his cousin, gesturing towards Joel's own homosexual nature. Although one can argue that Joel is queer throughout the text, his queerness and the possibilities of his latter homosexuality is confirmed by cousin Randolph, as the novel ends. The many adventure-like story lines can be read as Idabel and Joel's coming of age, and due to their young ages, each of these characters establishes their sexual identity through a queer adult. As Idabel's lesbian awakening takes place through her attraction towards Miss Wisteria, Joel's sexuality is confirmed at the end of the text with his cousin Randolph. Throughout the story his friendship with his cousin signifies his sexual orientation: in an early scene when Joel and Randolph are in the privacy of Randolph's boudoir, the narrator explains how puzzled Joel is with the mysteries of the Lady in the window. What “she” means and who she is, as the author also demonstrates, is cleverly manipulated through Randolph's ambiguous response (or lack of response) to Joel's questions. Joel asks Randolph, “I saw that Lady, and she was real, wasn't she?” Randolph replies with “his loose kimono swaying about him”; “[a] matter of viewpoint, I suppose” (52). These words are some of the most striking words in the text, for as much of the criticism has revealed, viewpoint has a lot to do with reading this novel. The early critics label this book gothic and “terrifying”; however, Other Voices, Other Rooms is hardly scary, as the text mocks style, language, and human behaviour to illustrate diverse sexual awakenings. Through the intensity of Capote's Camp style, readership dictates viewpoint, as well as interpretation; to the unwilling reader Joel may not be that queer, and certainly not gay, and Skully's Landing might somehow be frightening, the Lady in the window with the kimono and the yellow wig may indeed be a “ghost” (52). However, to the inquisitive reader Joel has to be queer, the Landing can't be anything but a Camp parody, and, accordingly, the “lady” in the window must be Edward Samson in drag (52).
Rather than absolutely homosexual, I would like to emphasize Joel's queerness is a signifier of his still developing homosexuality. Joel's lack of typical boyish mannerisms coupled with his fascination with Randolph and the mysterious lady of Skully's Landing allow for Joel (and the text) to be read as queer: by queer I am implying that many aspects of this book are simply not straight, and like the unknown lady, sexuality is in disguise. As such, the uncertainties of this text are subject to readings which explore homosexual themes. It seems harder to say that Joel is gay all the time, but it is a little more accommodating to focus on Joel as different, as queer, and, in my consideration, as a young homosexual. When Joel wakes up during the last morning of the text, the narrator exclaims that Joel “was in love” (2–26). However, the reader is never privileged with the subject of Joel's love. “He hugged himself,” writes Capote, confirming that Joel has found happiness in the drag house of his cousin and absent father (125). Unlike Idabel who falls in love with Miss Wisteria, we do not know who Joel is in love with: maybe Randolph or perhaps Joel is in love with his own self, alive and awake, celebrating himself in a Whitman-like manner, or a type of narcissistic self-fascination.
Although Joel has finally accepted Randolph, Capote advises the reader that Randolph will have “no part of him [Joel]” (125). Randolph's affections for Joel are consistently ambiguous. Perhaps the above reference is meant to imply that Randolph will not turn Joel into a Baroque lady, that Randolph will not seduce Joel, and transform him into a drag queen. Nonetheless, and perhaps most importantly, Randolph's double identity complicates Joel's position and his sexual awakening. Randolph and Joel have different types of sexualities, although both are presumably queer. Due to the evasive and illusive language of the last pages of Other Voices, Other Rooms, pinpointing what exactly happens (and what will happen) to Joel is difficult. However, it appears that this mysteriousness is part of Capote's narrative technique: through the ambiguity of the mysterious Lady, the absent father, and Randolph's strange mannerisms, Capote draws a differential separation between Randolph's queer transvestism and Joel's homosexuality. In Randolph Joel does not necessarily find a homosexual big brother. As Capote demonstrates through Joel's comfort in his new home and his relationship with his cousin, it appears that in Randolph and the mysterious Lady (Randolph and/or Edward in disguise) Joel finds a subject of Diva admiration. As such, Randolph represents a moment in the contemporary homosexual's rite of passage and the subject of gay fascination is found in a thrilling, glamorous, mysterious and often pathetic woman.
More than experienced friend, Randolph can be read as Joel's Louise Brooks, his Marlene Dietrich, his Joan Crawford, his Marilyn Monroe, his Liza Minelli, or his Madonna. Therefore, Capote gives birth to the discovery of homosexual identity, rather than the tradition in pre-Stonewall fiction which almost predestines the discovery of homosexuality with despair or death. Capote implies an interesting comment on homosexuality in the twentieth century: the male homosexuality is not only played out through sexual discovery but at times through the admiration of the gendered performances of the fabulous and glamorous (wo)man.
“I am me,” says Joel to Randolph, “we are the same people” (125). Randolph has no response, and instead walks in circles as though he “were in a trance of some kind” (227).
And Joel realized then the truth; he saw how helpless Randolph was: more paralyzed than Mr. Sansom, more childlike than Miss Wisteria, what else could he do, once outside and alone, but describe a circle, the zero of his nothingness?
In the text's style of partially disclosed homosexuality the narrative further demonstrates its paradoxical nature: if Joel is happy with himself, a self which is reflective of his cousin, why is Randolph in a gloomy state and why does Joel consider Randolph a zero? This point is responded to when Amy arrives, furious with Randolph, but, of course, not stating why. Arguably, Amy considers the relationship between Randolph and Joel as the development of cross-dressing identification, something she obviously scorns. Amy wants “the truth” to be known (126) and she plans to do anything to reveal the truth. Her threats are severe and hysterical, “I'll go to the sheriff, I'll travel around the country, I'll make speeches” (126). And what will such tactics resolve, wonders the puzzled reader, what would the flaky Miss Amy tell the Sheriff and how would her complaints be interpreted? Does Capote respond to any of the mysteries he introduces throughout the text? In response to Idabel, Capote reveals a lot more than with Joel and his absent father. However, with Joel, our answers must be derived from the complex, illusive language: the evasive, suggestive language hints at interpretative solutions, attracting a particular reading by a specific audience who can read between the lines and come up with a queer theory about Joel's journey.
The novel, rather appropriately, does not have a conventional—hence final—ending; it is up to the reader to isolate, speculate and question, and arrive at only partial responses. As well, both Joel and Idabel identify with a queer adult, but neither receive support. Miss Wisteria and cousin Randolph remain distant from their young proteges. Nonetheless, in Other Voices, Other Rooms the homosexual characters live and there is no dark, sinister, morally conscious death or killing. Through this text, Capote gives birth to queer representation, related homosexual themes and homosexual developments: the author thereby demonstrates his reaction to the type-casted melo-traumas of his contemporary portrayals of homosexuality in literature. Throughout this novel Capote plays with ambiguity, illustrating a lack of specificity in the queer, homosexual, and drag-like personalities. As Idabel Tompkins is most definitely a young lesbian, Joel Knox is just as different, certainly queer, and for the correct audience, a little homosexual and possibly a soon to be drag queen.