Oedipus, Jemima Puddle-Duck, and “Astonishing Primitives”

How to Read a Novelby Caroline Gordon

Cluny Media Edition, 2019; Originally published, 1953

The Malefactors” by Caroline Gordon

Cluny Media Edition, 2019; Originally published, 1956


Review Essay by Edwina Pendarvis

Caroline Gordon’s How to Read a Novel is a little outdated, but still intriguing in its observations on the novel. Because her discussion is at least as applicable to writing a novel as to reading one, I followed it up with The Malefactors, one of her later novels, to see how her perspective on reading fiction was reflected in her writing of it.

Gordon starts her how-to book with examples of how not to read a novel. One way, manifested by her aunt, is to expect the characters’ moral standards to match your own. Another, evidenced by one of Gordon’s friends, is rejecting novels that portray upsetting or depressing events. These misguided tastes lead her to the distinction between novels as “art proper” and novels as “amusement art.” Amusement art is purely entertainment, but art proper both entertains and changes the audience’s perspective in a significant way.

Novels Gordon considers “art proper” include War and Peace, Madame Bovary, and The Scarlet Letter. She would probably consider most genre, such as those by Ruth Ware and Ian Rankin, two of my favorite mystery writers, to be amusement art. Ignoring the problematic nature of her “change you” or “don’t change you” distinction for the moment, I’ll go on to her other topics—essential elements of fiction.

To illustrate the universality of what she considers the most basic elements—complication, resolution—she uses two examples: Sophocles’ drama Oedipus Rex and Beatrix Potter’s nursery tale Jemima Puddle-Duck. The complication in the former is the prophecy that baby Oedipus would grow up to murder his father and kill his mother. The complication in Jemima’s life is her reaction to the farmer’s wife’s habitually giving Jemima’s eggs to a hen to sit on, as hens are better sitters than ducks. Both Oedipus and Jemima defy the “gods” (the supposed natural order of things). Jemima comes out all right in the end. Oedipus, of course, does not.

Both Oedipus’ and Jemima’s complication engendered by arrogance, or hubris (or, as some Southerners and Appalachians might put it, “getting above their raising.” Oedipus was sort of doomed from the start. His parents defied the gods by sending baby Oedipus away to escape his and their fate. He himself evidenced overweening pride in murdering a stranger who offended him and in thinking himself, nonetheless, worthy of ruling a kingdom. Jemima’s arrogance is in thinking she can sit on her own eggs just fine. She gets into danger but is saved by a wise collie. She loses her batch of eggs but doesn’t end up blinded and homeless as Oedipus does. Had she been a more heroic figure, her fate no doubt would’ve been worse. Aristotle, among others, claimed that only the high-born noble could be tragic figures.

Tom Claiborne, hero of Gordon’s 1956 novel, The Malefactors, would, we might predict, be in for some trouble; even though he’s not high-born, he’s a celebrated poet, known and admired by critics and the poetry-reading public. However, he has become an alcoholic and is unable to write the poetry he once did.  Disgruntled and unhappy, he’s alienated from the world around him. His view of his wife is often cold and distant, as evidenced in a passage in which she is portrayed recommending a seamstress with what the narration implies is a foolish enthusiasm. The “he” in this passage is Tom himself—

“Meraude!” Vera said, “Oh, by all means, Meraude!”

Meraude was the name of a sewing woman she had discovered a year or so ago on the East Side and who, under her patronage, was being encouraged to give herself the airs of a grande couturiere. Vera always called her by the name Max had thought up for her and made Molly and Marcia and all the other women go to her. The thought of her protégée animated her now. She sat up straighter and for a moment lost her air of fatigue as she turned her brilliant eyes on her cousin. The eyes are the mirror of the soul. He had seen—or had he only fancied that he had seen?—strangers in the act of being introduced to Vera involuntarily take a step backward as if to avoid some impact.

By the time I read this passage, I was feeling pretty distant myself. Gordon’s style put me off because her long, detailed paragraphs reminded me way too much of Henry James’s and H. P. Lovecraft’s turgid prose, but unrelieved by any real or imagined ghosts. Before putting the novel down, however, I got intrigued by what Gordon might call “primitive astonishments” that made me sit up and pay more attention to her story.

One of these astonishments was Tom’s telling Marcia (his best friend’s wife) that if she were his wife, he would hang her upside down by her heels to let the shit drain out of her. Now I’m not extolling this as a wonderful sentiment; but it’s one of those shocking crudities that says volumes about someone’s distance from the norm, be that distance geographical or emotional. This, other shocks, and the bulls that form a motif through the novel, reminded me of William Faulkner, at least some of whose novels Gordon considers art.

Another technique, indirectly showing Tom’s awareness of others’ disapproval and his denial of his problem with alcohol, also caught my attention. This brief passage engendered my sympathy for her hero in a dinner-party scene showing Tom’s vague awareness of others’ disapproval and his denial of any problem with alcohol:

Vera did not answer, only eyed him mournfully. He withdrew his gaze from hers and stared at the wine stain on the tablecloth. It was spreading. The last two times he had drunk from his glass he had spilled some of the wine.  . . . They all thought he was drunk, but he did not see how he could be. He had had only two drinks before dinner and not more than five or six glasses of wine.

Much of the novel holds little of what Gordon says is the true subject for fiction, “a hero or heroine . . . answering the call to adventure . . . comes to stand out from his or her fellows as a remarkable person.” By the end of the novel, however, she redeems Tom. He and his wife Vera are rejoined after a separation and both are suffused with generosity toward each other and the world, especially the weak and vulnerable—maybe because Tom was born on a farm in the country that he’s allowed a happy ending as opposed to the tragic one classically allowed only the high-born. More likely, as some critics believe, she was interested in portraying a need for and the wonder of religious conversion.

I found the most compelling discussion in How to Read a Novel her consideration of point of view. She identifies four perspectives, three of which are familiar to many contemporary readers: omniscient narrator, third-person narrator, and first-person narrator. The fourth, she terms the “effaced narrator.” Noting advantages and disadvantages of each, she seems to favor the last, offering examples from Flaubert, whose triumphs she considers based on his use of the effaced narrator (and whose use may have contributed to Henry James’s literary methods as well as to her own).

Noting that a magazine editor who serialized literature said James’s work “killed the subscribers off like flies,” she offers among the reasons she admires James’s writing greatly is his ability to convey the inward life of his characters and their longing for the comfort of “being right with themselves.” His use of the effaced narrator, she believes, allows him to combine the narrative and the dramatic. James, she says, has “practically obliterated himself as narrator. His stories are not told; they are acted out as if on a stage.”

Gordon admires the “dazzling metaphors” of Henry James’s work as well; but I was gratified to find her using one of my favorite passages from literature, the end of James Joyce’s short story, “The Dead,” as a brilliant use of a controlling metaphor, one that sheds radiance over an entire work. In James Joyce’s story, the snow is what she sees as the controlling metaphor. In The Malefactors, the bull is a controlling metaphor. Its strengths and stubbornness save it, perhaps, from being the kind of anti-hero Gordon is dead set against, such as the protagonist of Jean Paul Sartre’s novel, Age of Reason, whom she calls a “disconsolate chimera,” unreal and befitting the wrong-headed notion of writing a novel of ideas. The controlling image of her novel is stolid and surprising. In the first two paragraphs of the novel, we meet Tom, Tom’s friend Max, Tom’s wife Vera, and Vera’s prize bull: “The bull stood behind her on legs that might have been carved out of mahogany, moving his jaws from side to side, staring past them all out of eyes the color of old port.” Bulls appear in several places throughout the book. Near the novel’s end when Tom is moving toward enlightenment, he sees a religious artwork that features the animal:

The bull’s body, composed of metallic scales which overlapped each other, and gleamed even in this dim light, rested on four stocky pillars. Its head was lowered, its jaws closed. The elongated apertures which perhaps represented its eyes seemed to brood over the four figures that confronted it.

Caroline Gordon

Toward the end of the How to Read a Novel, Gordon gets to the “primitive astonishments” that even readers for entertainment alone seek. She says, “I do not know where the fiction maker is to find these astonishments if not in the family circle—that microcosm . . . of two alien worlds, the masculine and feminine consciousness, constitutes an inexhaustible reservoir of drama.” This claim led me to revisit her distinction between art and entertainment, with works of art defined as capable of changing the reader and works of entertainment not effecting change in the reader. Since the 1950s, psychology and neurology have found that almost everything we experience changes us. Defining which novels change us substantially and which affect us minimally is probably beyond objective judgment. I’m not that interested in novels about family dramas, and I’m pretty sure other fans of science fiction or mystery aren’t either. While I might agree that we read all novels in the context of deep, perhaps hidden, feelings based on our childhood family and may, in some sense, read major characters as avatars of our own mother, father, sister, or brother, I find her distinction between art and entertainment untenable and her view of fiction about family as more productive of primitive astonishments than other kinds of fiction too narrow.

Despite these quibbles, I think How to Read a Novel and The Malefactors have much to offer readers, particularly those who are interested in writing fiction themselves and—even more particularly, those who are interested in such slippery literary concepts as effaced narratives.

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