All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

The Kurt Vonnegut Book Club ZOOMed again on Thursday, March 25, 2021, to discuss Kurt’s first novel“Player Piano” (1952).   Our in-house manufacturing engineer, Bill Briscoe, enthusiastically led the palaver about this 1950’s era take down of a company Kurt imagined after his brief unsatisfactory career as a flack with General Electric.  Others participating were:  Jay Carr, Gene Helveston, Kathleen Angelone, John Sturman (from Los Angeles), Sarona Burchard (from Phoenix) and Dave Young.

Bill gave the background on this, Kurt’s first novel.  Kurt acknowledged that he was indebted to some previous dystopias  namely Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”  (1932)  which stole its theme from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 novel “We.”    Although the novel was a little light on humor and satire,  it did employ some typical Vonnegutian devices.  The chapters were short, what humor there was was black, and there was a science fiction element.   Kurt never wanted to be considered a science fiction writer as he did not want to be type-cast as a pulp-fiction writer.    When the book didn’t sell well, his publishers brought it out under another title “Utopia 14” in hopes it would bring in more SF readers.

That led to a rather long discussion about the definition off  “Science Fiction.”  Those of us who think conventionally like to think of SF as little green men zapping earthlings with ray guns.   More enlightened types see SF as a projection of real-world science and engineering on some future society.  The novelist then imagines how that society adapts to the challenge.  Kurt could go either way.  He loved his little Tralfamadorians whom he fashioned as “plumber’s helpers.”

“Player Piano” was never made into a movie, but the character of Dr.Paul Proteus appeared in a 1972 television movie produced by National Education Television.  “Between Time and Timbuktu or Prometheus-5.”  The movie is based on a number of Kurt’s works, but he did not write the script.  He did  advise and contribute to the project and is generally credited for the entire work.    The screen version does not seem to be available but a kindle version (or a very expensive paperback version) can be had through Amazon. The comedy team Bob and Ray had a hand in the script and Jill Krementz (whom he had just met after leaving Jane) contributed some of the photography.

Kurt liked to pepper his work with mantras.  A bit that frequently pops up in “Player Piano” is a piece of dialogue between Paul and his wife, Anita.   “I love you Anita, I love you Paul.”  Rather prosaic, but it underlined the phoniness of their marriage.  Anita was a corporate wife and a social climber.  Paul had been born into the corporate world and was too sensitive to rise in it as his father had.   It was inevitable that the relationship would end.

Some comedic relief comes through the Shah of Bratpuhr, a visitor from another culture whom Kurt uses to illuminate the problems arising from over-reliance on machinery.  KV works in some autobiographical material when the Shah visits Kurt’s erstwhile alma mater, Cornell. Briscoe’s and Kurt’s social fraternity, Delta Upsilon, gets a mention.   

We were amused by the computerized chess program “Checker Charlie” which competed with Dr. Paul.  That led to talk about artificial intelligence and chess.  Our resident chess expert, Jay Carr, gave us some pointers and alerted us to a major chess event for Indiana. Computers have been teaching themselves how to play chess for seventy years and they are winning. In mid-May, 2021, under the auspices of the International Chess Federation (FIDE), Indianapolis will host the Circle City Open at the Airport Marriott.   We wish him well!    We also hashed over the Netflix series “Queen’s Gambit” which Jay assured us was pretty realistic.

Those who might take pleasure in the downfall of GE (Kurt would have loved this!) might want to take a look at Jeff Immelt’s recent memoir “Hot Seat.”  When Immelt took over GE from Jack Welsh in 2001 it was capitalized at $600 Billion.  When Immelt was forced out in 2017, it had sunk to $116 Billion.  Immelt puts much of the blame on Welch’s reckless conglomeration strategy and his promotion of financial products over electrical/mechanical products.   GE fell because it de-emphasized its core business.

Now to the end.  Dr. Paul and Finnerty, the shabby genius (and insistent player of the Player Piano) who inspired him to revolt against the corporate world have failed in their revolution.  Society wants its machines. They are waiting for the authorities to come and arrest them and are reflecting on their lost cause. The revolution does eat its children.

This seventy year old book seemed somewhat dated, but Kurt was perhaps ahead of his time in foreseeing the problems automations would cause for our workforce and our culture.   We nevertheless gave it an average rating of 8.0 on the exacting KV ten-point scale.  In previous years we rated it 7.75, 8.00, and 8.80 so we are at least consistent.  

Looking forward to our next ZOOM meeting, we will gather at 11AM on Thursday,  April 22, 2021, which is also Earth Day.  Our selection is Erik Larson’s  “In the Garden of  Beasts.”    This is a 2011 non-fiction work that reads like a novel.  The NYT reviewer calls it a “novelistic history.”   It follows an aging history professor and his family as he is posted to Berlin in the role of American Ambassador during the rise of Hitler.  One of the sub-plots involves some sex scenes between his daughter and some high level Nazis.  Is that what we call “intersectionality?”   I will get out the ZOOM link to those on the email list (and whomever else might be interested) as soon as I receive it.   The Vonnegut Library is starting to reopen and we are looking forward to meeting again in person.  Perhaps we can use a hybrid form of ZOOM so we can stay in touch with our very valuable out-of-state members.  

Dave Young 

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Excerpted from Wikipedia

Player Piano is the first novel by American writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr., published in 1952. The novel depicts a dystopia of automation partly inspired by the author’s time working at General Electric, describing the negative impact technology can have on quality of life.[2] The story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. The widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class, the engineers and managers, who keep society running, and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines. The book uses irony and sentimentality, which were to become hallmarks developed further in Vonnegut’s later works.[2]

Player Piano is set in the near future, after a third world war. While most Americans were fighting overseas, the nation’s managers and engineers faced a depleted workforce and responded by developing ingenious automated systems that allowed the factories to operate with only a few workers. The novel begins ten years after the war when most factory workers have been replaced by machines. The bifurcation of the population is represented by the division of Ilium, New York into “The Homestead,” where every person, not a manager or an engineer lives, and the other side of the river, where all the engineers and the managers live.

Player Piano develops two parallel plotlines that converge only briefly and then insubstantially, at the beginning and the end of the novel. The more prominent plotline follows the protagonist, Dr. Paul Proteus (referred to as Paul), an intelligent, 35-year-old factory manager of Ilium Works. The secondary plotline follows the American tour of the Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of six million residents in a distant, underdeveloped nation.

The purpose of the two plotlines is to give two perspectives of the system: one from an insider who is emblematic of the system, and one from an outsider who is looking in on it. Paul, for all intents and purposes, is the living embodiment of what a man within the system should strive to be, and the Shah is a visitor from a very different culture and so applies a very different context to whatever he sees on his tour.

The main plotline follows Paul’s development from an uncritical cog in the system to one of its outspoken critics. Paul’s father, George, was the first “National, Industrial, Commercial Communications, Foodstuffs, and Resources Director.” George had almost complete control over the nation’s economy and was more powerful than the President of the United States, who by then had effectively become a puppet. Paul has inherited his father’s reputation and social status but harbors a vague dissatisfaction with the industrial system and his contribution to society. His struggle with that unnameable distress is heightened when Ed Finnerty, an old friend whom Paul has always held in high regard, informs him he has quit his important engineering job in Washington, DC. Paul and Finnerty visit a bar in the “Homestead” section of town, where workers who have been displaced by machines live out their meaningless lives in mass-produced houses. There, they meet an Episcopal minister, Lasher, with a M.A. in anthropology, who puts into words the unfairness of the system that the two engineers have only vaguely sensed. Paul eventually learns that Lasher is the leader of a rebel group known as the “Ghost Shirt Society,” though Finnerty instantly takes up with him. Paul is not bold enough to make a clean break, as Finnerty has done, until his superiors ask him to betray Finnerty and Lasher. However, Paul purchases a rundown farm, managed by an elderly heir of the prior owners. Paul’s intention is to start a new life by living off the land with his wife, Anita, but Anita is disgusted by Paul’s wishes to change their lifestyle radically. Paul and Anita’s relationship is one of emotional distance and personal disagreements. She and Paul had married quickly when it seemed that she was pregnant, but it turned out that Anita was barren and that it was just a hysterical pregnancy.[3] “Of all the people on the north side of the river, Anita was the only one whose contempt for those in Homestead was laced with active hatred…. If Paul were ever moved to be extremely cruel to her, the cruelest thing he could do… would be to point out to her why she hated [Homesteaders] as she did: if he hadn’t married her, this was where she’d be, what she’d be.”[4]

She temporarily convinces Paul to stay in his position, and to continue to compete with two other engineers, Dr. Shepherd and Dr. Garth, for a more prominent position in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

After rumors of Paul’s disloyalty to the system and suspicious activity during the hosting of “the Meadows,” an annual competition for high class engineers, begin circulating, Paul determines that with or without Anita, he must work with his friend Finnerty, among others, to stop the socioeconomic “system” of having machines replace humans. He quits his job and is captured by the “Ghost Shirt Society” in which he is made the public figurehead of the organization although the position is merely nominal. By his father’s success, Paul’s name is famous among the citizens and so the organization intends to use his name to its advantage by making him the false ‘leader’ to gain publicity. In the first Ghost Shirt Society meeting Paul attends, the police raid it and capture Paul.

Paul is put on public trial but is freed as the Ghost Shirt Society and the general population begins to riot, destroying the automated factories. The mob, once unleashed, goes further than the Ghost Shirt leaders had planned, destroying both food production plants and the superfluous plants. Despite the brief and impressive success of the rebellion, the military quickly surrounds the town, and the citizenry, used to the comforts of the system, begin to rebuild the machines of their own volition. Paul, Finnerty, Lasher, and other members of the Ghost Shirt Society acknowledge that at least they had tried to stop the government’s system before they surrender themselves to the military.

Major themes

The automation of industry and the effect that it has on society are the predominant themes of Player Piano. It is “a novel about people and machines, and machines frequently got the best of it, as machines will.”[5] More specifically, it delves into a theme to which Vonnegut returns, “a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by the sophistication of machines. The problem is this: How to love people who have no use.”[6] Unlike much dystopian fiction, the novel’s society was created by indifference, both of the populace and the technology that replaced it. As such, it is the sense of purposelessness of those living in a capitalistic society that has outgrown a need for them that must be rectified.[7]

Mankind’s blind faith in technology and its usually-disastrous effect on society as well as the dehumanization of the poor or oppressed later became common themes throughout Vonnegut’s work.[8] Throughout his life, Vonnegut continued to believe the novel’s themes were of relevance to society, writing, for example, in 1983 that the novel was becoming “more timely with each passing day.”[9]

Style

Player Piano displays the beginnings of the idiosyncratic style that Vonnegut developed and employed throughout much of his career. It has early inklings of the hallmark Vonnegutian flair of using meta-fiction, such as when a writer’s wife describes her husband’s dilemma to the Shah of Bratpuhr in the back of the limousine: that the writer’s “anti-machine” novel cannot get a passing “readability quotient” under the reading machine’s scoring algorithm. However, the fourth wall does not get broken, as in later writings. His style of self-contained chapters “of no more than five hundred words, often as few as fifty,” which would come to define his writing, had yet to be developed.[7]

Influences

In a 1973 interview Vonnegut discussed his inspiration to write the book:[10]

I was working for General Electric at the time, right after World War II, and I saw a milling machine for cutting the rotors on jet engines, gas turbines. This was a very expensive thing for a machinist to do, to cut what is essentially one of those Brâncuși forms. So they had a computer-operated milling machine built to cut the blades, and I was fascinated by that. This was in 1949 and the guys who were working on it were foreseeing all sorts of machines being run by little boxes and punched cards. Player Piano was my response to the implications of having everything run by little boxes. The idea of doing that, you know, made sense, perfect sense. To have a little clicking box make all the decisions wasn’t a vicious thing to do. But it was too bad for the human beings who got their dignity from their jobs.

In the same interview he acknowledges that he “cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We.”[10]

Title

A player piano is a modified piano that “plays itself.” The piano keys move according to a pattern of holes punched in an unwinding scroll. Unlike a music synthesizer, the instrument actually produces the sound itself, with the keys moving up and down, driving hammers that strike the strings. Like its counterpart, a player piano can be played by hand as well. When a roll is run through the instrument, the movement of its keys produce the illusion that an invisible performer is playing the instrument. Vonnegut uses the player piano as a metaphor to represent how even the most simple of activities, such as teaching oneself how to play the piano in one’s spare time, has been replaced by machines instead of people. Early in the book, Paul Proteus’s friend and future member of the Ghost Shirt Society, Ed Finnerty, is shown manually playing a player piano, suggesting the idea of humans reclaiming their animus from the machines. The book’s most tragic character is Rudy Hertz, the machinist who was the prototype recorded by the machines. They are player pianos replicating his physical motions.

Publication history[edit]

This satirical take on industrialization and the rhetoric of General Electric[11] and the big corporations, which discussed arguments very topical in the postwar United States, was instead advertised by the publisher with the more innocuous and marketable label of “science fiction,” a genre that was booming in mass popular culture in the 1950s. Vonnegut, surprised by that reception, wrote, “I learned from reviewers that I was a science-fiction author. I didn’t know that.” He was distressed because he felt that science fiction was shoved in a drawer which “many serious critics regularly mistake… for a urinal” because “[t]he feeling persists that no one can simultaneously be a respectable writer and understand how a refrigerator works.”[5]

Player Piano was later released in paperback by Bantam Books in 1954 under the title Utopia 14[2] in an effort to drive sales with readers of science fiction. Paul Proteus’ trial was dramatized in the 1972 TV movie Between Time and Timbuktu, which presented elements from various works by Vonnegut.[12]

In 2009, Audible.com produced an audio version of Player Piano, narrated by Christian Rummel, as part of its Modern Vanguard line of audiobooks.

In the Italian translation, Player Piano is rendered as Piano meccanico, a double-entendre, which, without any other words in the phrase, can mean either “player piano” or “mechanical plan.”

Reception

The science fiction anthologist Groff Conklin reviewed the novel in Galaxy Science Fiction, declaring it “a biting, vividly alive and very effectively understated anti-Utopia.”[13] The founding editors of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas, named Player Piano to their “year’s best” list, describing it as “Human, satirical, and exciting;… by far the most successful of the recent attempts to graft science fiction onto the serious ‘straight’ novel.”[14] They praised Vonnegut for “blending skillfully a psychological study of the persistent human problems in a mechanistically ‘ideal’ society, a vigorous melodramatic story-line, and a sharp Voltairean satire.[15]

Player Piano was nominated for the International Fantasy Award in 1953.[16]

 

 

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

Eight inches of snow and two weeks of sub-freezing weather were behind us as everything is melting.  But we don’t care because we are  still ZOOMing while the COVID19 crisis seems to be abating.  Jay Carr got our meeting underway, but had to leave to tend to business. That left Mike Hudson, Bill Briscoe, Kathleen Angelone and Dave Young (who took responsibility for the selection) to talk over William Faulkner’s 1931 potboiler Southern Gothic novel “Sanctuary.” 

This choice was unfortunate.   Decades ago, when I was a lit major and William Faulkner was still a fairly warm corpse,  I was caught up in Faulknermania.  Times have changed and Faulkner has fallen out of fashion.  Reading “Sanctuary” which was a sensational hit in the 1930’s reminds me of an era full of racism, anti-semitism, and misogyny.   Faulkner himself was not proud of this book and called it a cheap thrill, written because he needed the money.  When his agent saw the first draft, he protested that they would both go to jail if the work were ever published.  Faulkner, a high-school drop out and part-time alcoholic, always had trouble with spelling and punctuation.  He considered himself a poet early on and did not attempt a novel until he was in his mid-twenties.  The book underwent several revisions and he claims he set it aside and forgot about it for awhile.   

We started off by comparing the book to the two films based upon it;  “The Story of Temple Drake” (1933) starirng Miriam Hopkins and “Sanctuary” (1961) starring Lee Remick.   Faulkner had nothing to do with the script in either and both were wildly different from the novel.  Popeye appears in the first as “Trigger” and is shot to death by Temple.  In the second film, Popeye is styled as “Candy Man.”  This film incorporates some of the material from Faulkner’s 1951 novel “Requiem for a Nun”  in which he attempts to redeem Temple through her suffering and self-sacrifice. The 1933 film, very tame by today’s standards, is thought to have been one of the factors that led to Hollywood’s censorious Hays Code (named after William H. Hays from Sullivan, IN).  Faulkner had a love-hate relationship with Hollywood and in his characteristic contemptuous style he called script writing “hack work.”   Although he is often described as a life long resident of Oxford, he spent much of the next twenty years, beginning in May 1932, working there.  It started out as a money deal.   The publisher of “Sanctuary” went bankrupt and couldn’t pay him, so he was broke.

He was offered $500 a week to do script work in Hollywood and he took it.   He stayed because he developed a relationship with a drinking buddy, Howard Hawks.  Kurt always said “wherever you go there is always a Hoosier doing something important.”   Hawks was born and raised in Goshen, Indiana before he became a tremendously successful director and producer.   Faulkner also had a sixteen year extra-marital relationship with Hawk’s secretary, Meta Carpenter.   Novelists were often hired by Hollywood to add prestige to studios whether they contributed to scripts or not.   Faulkner was talented and Hawks used him to fix scripts and to write “treatments” of suggested plots.  In his off and on Hollywood days, he worked on over fifty scripts.  So much for Mississippi.     Faulkner was also a regular diner at Musso and Frank’s Grill in Hollywood.   I had a three month assignment to Los Angeles in the late 1970’s and went there several times for burgers.  Being a Hoosier Hick,  I had no idea until years later that it was a hang out for the rich and infamous.  

The novel gets off to a slow start, not unusual for Southern Gothic.  There is a lot of description of landscape and the obligatory rotting plantation house, wrapped in fog and vegetation.  Faulkner does not do a very good job of fleshing out the characters.  The only one who gets a backstory is the extremely evil Popeye and that doesn’t come until the end of the novel.  Faulkner’s dialog is indirect and it is sometimes difficult to tell who is doing what to whom.  I often found myself backtracking thinking I had missed something.   The central figure appears to be a rural Mississippi lawyer named Horace Benbow who is running away from an unhappy marriage.  He represents what was left of the Southern Aristocracy and is incomplete as a human being and ineffective as a lawyer.  Nevertheless, he is sort of a narrator and the story is told from his point of view as he gives way to the more dramatic Temple Drake.  The novel does not pick up until a third of it is frittered away.  That happens when the impotent Popeye rapes Temple with a corn cob and murders the half-wit Tommy who tries to protect her.   Popeye then kidnaps Temple and holds her captive in a brothel in Memphis (about 60 miles northwest of Oxford, Ms which might be the seat of the fictional Yoknapatawpha County).  The characterization of the aging madam, Miss Reba, and the operation of the brothel provide some comic relief.  There are no heroes in this novel.  All of the men are corrupt and/or ineffectual and all of the women are facilitators.

We all felt that Faulkner was anxious to wrap up the ending.  It came quickly and without much of a set up.   There is a trial and Temple shows up and lies to protect Popeye, falsely laying the blame on the very passive Lee Goodwin.  She apparently believed that she and Popeye had actual intercourse but was puzzled as to why she hurt and bled so much afterwards.  It came clear when the bloody corn cob was introduced as evidence that they did not have normal sex.   Horace Benbow, having failed to save his innocent client, Lee Goodwin, whom he took on pro bono, slinks back to his wife who is not particularly happy to see him. The mob breaks Goodwin out of jail, douses him with gasoline and burns him up.   Popeye, having gotten away with the murder of Tommy, his buddy Red, and another unfortunate Mississippian, heads for Florida to visit his mother and makes the mistake of lingering too long in another small town where he is charged, convicted, and executed for a murder he did not commit.  Like Goodwin, he is fatalistic.  He has nothing to live for.

Temple and her father, a respected judge who does not get a name,  have escaped to Paris.   They walk to the Luxembourg gardens, which has a Gothic vibe all of its own, and Temple sees her face in the mirror of her compact.  Her face is sullen, discontented, and sad.  And there, the story ends.

Faulkner was apparently troubled by his portrayal of Temple and attempted to rehabilitate her 20 years later in “Requiem for a Nun.”   In this novel, set 8 years after the first,  Temple has married the drunk, Gowan, and has had a child.  The child is murdered by their maid who has become a confidant of Temple.  Temple rethinks her life and regrets having lied about Lee Goodwin.

Sarona could not join us because of her son’s birthday and Susie, who had some work commitment relayed her vote through Bill.   So the composite score came out to a lowly 5.0 on the indisputably accurate ten point KV scale.   Our next venture will be on March 25, 2021, when Bill Briscoe will lead us through Vonnegut’s first (1952) novel “Player Piano.”  It will be good to get back to the Vonnegut canon after our run of depressing early 20th century Americana.  This will be our fifth treatment of this important work in eleven years!   So come together with us via ZOOM at 11AM on Thursday 3/25/21.  All are welcome, even if all haven’t read the book!   I will get the ZOOM connection out as soon as I get it.

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Plot summary from Wikipedia (excerpted):

Sanctuary is a novel by the American author William Faulkner about the rape and abduction of a well-bred Mississippi college girl, Temple Drake, during the Prohibition era. It is considered one of his more controversial works, given its theme of rape. First published in 1931, it was Faulkner’s commercial and critical breakthrough, establishing his literary reputation. It is said Faulkner claimed it was a “potboiler“, written purely for profit, but this has been debated by scholars and Faulkner’s own friends.[citation needed]

The novel provided the basis for the films The Story of Temple Drake (1933) and Sanctuary (1961). It also inspired the novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish as well as the film of the same title and The Grissom Gang, which derived from No Orchids for Miss Blandish. The story of the novel can also be found in the 2007 film Cargo 200.[2]

Faulkner later wrote Requiem for a Nun (1951) as a sequel to Sanctuary.

See also: Requiem for a Nun

The novel is set in Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi and takes place in May/June 1929.

In May 1929, Horace Benbow, a lawyer frustrated with his life and family, suddenly leaves his home in Kinston, Mississippi, and hitchhikes his way back to Jefferson, his hometown in Yoknapatawpha County. There, his widowed sister, Narcissa Sartoris, lives with her son and her late husband’s great-aunt, Miss Jenny. On the way to Jefferson, he stops for a drink of water near the “Old Frenchman” homestead, which is occupied by the bootlegger Lee Goodwin. Benbow encounters a sinister man called Popeye, an associate of Goodwin, who brings him to the decrepit mansion where he meets Goodwin and the strange people who live there with him. Later that night, Benbow catches a ride from Goodwin’s place into Jefferson. He argues with his sister and Miss Jenny about leaving his wife, and meets Gowan Stevens, a local bachelor who recently has been courting Narcissa. That night, Benbow moves back into his parents’ house, which has been sitting vacant for years.

After meeting Benbow, Stevens leaves to go to a dance in Oxford that same night. Stevens has returned to Jefferson after graduating from the University of Virginia, where he “learned to drink like a gentleman.” He is from a wealthy family and prides himself on having adopted the worldview of the Virginia aristocracy. His date that night is Temple Drake, a student at the University of Mississippi (“Ole Miss”), who has a reputation of being a “fast girl.” Temple also comes from a wealthy Mississippi family and is the daughter of a powerful judge. While they are out, Gowan and Temple make plans to meet the next morning to travel with her classmates to Starkville for a baseball game. But, after taking Temple home after the dance, Gowan learns from some locals where he can find moonshine and spends the night drinking heavily. He passes out in his car at the train station where he is supposed to have a rendezvous with Temple the next morning.

Gowan wakes the next morning to discover that he’s missed Temple’s train. He speeds to the next town to intercept it, meeting Temple in Taylor, and convincing her to ride with him to Starkville—a violation of the university’s rules for young women. On the way, Gowan, still drunk, and an obvious alcoholic, decides to stop at the Goodwin place to find more moonshine. He crashes his car into a tree that Popeye had felled across the drive in case of a police raid. Popeye and Tommy, a good-natured “halfwit” who works for Goodwin, happen to be nearby when the accident happens, and take Temple and Gowan back to the old mansion. Temple is terrified, both by Gowan’s behavior and by the strange people and circumstances into which he has brought her. Upon arriving at the Goodwin place, she meets Goodwin’s common-law wife, Ruby, who advises her to leave before nightfall. Gowan is given more liquor to drink.

After nightfall, Goodwin returns home and is upset to find Gowan and Temple staying there. All the men continue to drink; Gowan and Van, a member of Goodwin’s bootlegging crew, argue and provoke each other. Van makes crude advances toward Temple, rousing in the drunken Gowan a sense that he needs to protect Temple’s honor. By this point, Temple is deeply distressed. She is apprehensive of the bootleggers, truant from school, and afraid of being discovered for fear of her family’s disapproval. She is condescending, which angers Popeye, and tries to hold court in the room where the men are drinking despite Ruby’s advice that she stay away from them. After being harassed, Temple finds a bedroom to hide. Gowan and Van finally fight, and Gowan is knocked out. The other men carry him into the room where Temple is cowering and throw him on the bed. Ruby and Tommy keep the men, including Popeye, from bothering Temple. Finally, the men leave on a whiskey run in the middle of the night.

The next morning, Gowan wakes and silently leaves the house, abandoning Temple. Tommy, who dislikes and fears Goodwin’s other men, hides Temple in a corn crib in the barn. But Popeye, who has obviously been devising a scheme, soon discovers them there. He murders Tommy with a gunshot to the back of the head and then proceeds to rape Temple with a corncob. Afterward, he puts her in his car and drives to Memphis, Tennessee, where he has connections in the criminal underworld.

Meanwhile, Goodwin discovers Tommy’s body at his barn. When the police arrive on the scene, they assume Goodwin committed the crime and arrest him. Goodwin knows of Popeye’s guilt, but doesn’t implicate him out of fear of retaliation. In Jefferson, Goodwin is jailed, and Benbow takes up his legal defense, even though he knows that Goodwin cannot pay him. Benbow tries to let Ruby and her sickly infant child stay with him in the house in Jefferson, but Narcissa, acting as half-owner, refuses because of the Goodwin family’s reputation. In the end, Benbow has no choice but to put Ruby and her son in a room at a local hotel.

Benbow tries unsuccessfully to get Goodwin to tell the court about Popeye. He soon finds out about Temple and her presence at Goodwin’s place when Tommy was murdered, heads to Ole Miss to look for her. He discovers that she has left the school. On the train back to Jefferson, he runs into an unctuous state senator named Clarence Snopes, who says that the newspaper is claiming that Temple has been “sent up north” by her father. In reality, Temple is living in a room in a Memphis bawdy house owned by Miss Reba, an asthmatic, widowed madam, who thinks highly of Popeye and is happy that he’s finally chosen a paramour. Popeye keeps Temple at the brothel for use as a sex slave. However, because he is impotent, he brings along Red, a young gangster, and forces him and Temple to have sex while he watches.

When Benbow returns from Oxford, he learns that the owner of the hotel has kicked out Ruby and her child. After Narcissa again refuses to give them shelter, Benbow finds a place for Ruby to stay outside of town. Meanwhile, Snopes visits Miss Reba’s brothel and discovers that Temple is living there. Snopes realizes that this information might be valuable to both Benbow and Temple’s father. After Benbow agrees to pay Snopes for the information, Snopes divulges Temple’s whereabouts in Memphis. Benbow immediately heads there and convinces Miss Reba to let him talk to Temple. Miss Reba is sympathetic to the plight of Goodwin and his family, but she still admires and respects Popeye. Temple tells Benbow the story of her rape at Popeye’s hands. Benbow, shaken, returns to Jefferson. Upon his return home, he reflects on Temple and is reminded of Little Belle, his stepdaughter. He looks at a picture of Little Belle, and then becomes ill while being disturbed by images of her naked, conflated with images from what he has heard from Temple about her night at the old mansion.

At this point, Temple has become corrupted thoroughly by life in the brothel. After bribing Miss Reba’s servant to let her leave the house, she runs into Popeye, who is waiting outside in his car. He takes Temple to a roadhouse called The Grotto, intending to settle whether she permanently stays with Popeye or Red. At the club, Temple drinks heavily and tries to have furtive sex with Red in a back room, but he spurns her advances for the moment. Two of Popeye’s friends frog-march her out of the club and drive her back to Miss Reba. Popeye kills Red, which turns Miss Reba against him. She tells some of her friends what has happened, hoping he will be captured and executed for the murder.

Narcissa visits the District Attorney and reveals she wants Benbow to lose the case as soon as possible, so that he will cease his involvement with the Goodwins. After writing to his wife to ask for a divorce, Benbow tries to get back in touch with Temple through Miss Reba, who tells him that both she and Popeye are gone. At around this time, Goodwin’s trial begins in Jefferson. On the second day of the trial, Temple makes a surprise appearance and takes the stand, giving false testimony that it was Goodwin, not Popeye, who had raped and brutalized her, and that Goodwin had shot Tommy dead. The district attorney also presents the stained corncob used in Temple’s rape as evidence.

The jury finds Goodwin guilty after only eight minutes of deliberation. Benbow, devastated, is taken back to Narcissa’s house. After wandering from the house that evening, he finds that Goodwin has been lynched by the townsfolk with his body set ablaze. Benbow is recognized in the crowd, which speaks of lynching him, too. The next day, a defeated Benbow returns home to his wife. Ironically, on his way to Pensacola, Florida to visit his mother, Popeye is arrested and hanged for a crime he never committed. Temple and her father make a final appearance in the Jardin du Luxembourg, having found sanctuary in Paris.

Characters[edit]

Major characters[edit]

Minor characters[edit]

  • “Pap” – Probably Goodwin’s father; a blind and deafmute old man who lives at the Goodwin place.
  • Van – A young tough who works for Goodwin
  • Red – A Memphis criminal who has intercourse with Temple, at Popeye’s request, so that Popeye (who is impotent) can watch; Popeye later tires of this arrangement and murders Red
  • Minnie – Miss Reba’s maidservant
  • Narcissa Benbow – Horace’s younger sister (the widow of Bayard Sartoris)
  • Miss Jenny – Narcissa’s deceased husband’s great-aunt, who lives with Narcissa and young Bory
  • Benbow Sartoris, aka “Bory” – Narcissa’s ten-year-old son
  • Little Belle – Horace Benbow’s stepdaughter
  • Miss Lorraine, Miss Myrtle – friends of Miss Reba

Development[edit]

Faulkner stated that he wrote the novel for financial gain and was not motivated by internal passion. He did the first draft in a three-week period in 1929 and later made a new version with toned-down elements when the publisher expressed reluctance to publish the original.[7]

According to Muhlenfeld initially Temple was not the primary character, but this was changed in a revision.[8] E. Pauline Degenfelder of Worcester Public Schools argued that Temple, Popeye, and Horace were all main characters even though the work presented itself as mainly being about Temple.[9]

Reception[edit]

Most reviews described the book as horrific and said that Faulkner was a very talented writer. Some critics also felt that he should write something pleasant for a change.[10]

Faulkner once headed a troop of Boy Scouts but the administrators removed him from his position after the release of the book.[7]

Gene D. Phillips of Loyola University of Chicago wrote that because audiences were preoccupied with lurid scenes instead of its moral philosophy, the book was a “best seller for all of the wrong reasons”.[11]

Time commented that “A favorite question on Shakespeare examinations is ‘Distinguish between horror and terror.’ Sanctuary is compact of both. The horrors of any ghost story pale beside the ghastly realism of this chronicle. […] When you have read the book you will see what Author Faulkner thinks of the inviolability of sanctuary. The intended hero is the decent, ineffectual lawyer. But all heroism is swamped by the massed villainy that weighs down these pages. Outspoken to an almost medical degree, Sanctuary should be let alone by the censors because no one but a pathological reader will be sadistically aroused.”[12]

Editions[edit]

In 1931, Sanctuary was published by Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith.[13][14] In 1932, a cheaper hardcover edition was published by Modern Library. This second edition is notable in that it contains an introduction by Faulkner explaining his intentions in writing the book and a brief history of its inception. In it, Faulkner explains that he wished to make money by writing a sensational book. His previous books were not quite as successful as he had hoped. However, after submitting the manuscript in 1929, his publisher explained that they would both be sent to prison if the story was ever published. Faulkner forgot about the manuscript. Two years later, Faulkner, surprised, received the galley copies and promptly decided to rewrite the manuscript as he was not satisfied with it. He thought that it might sell 10,000 copies. This version was published in 1931.[15][16][17][18] All later editions featured the text from the 1931/32 editions; however, a plethora of typographical errors existed, some of which were corrected in the later editions.[19]

In 1958, a new edition was published by Random House with the co-operation of Faulkner, the entire text was reset and errors corrected. The copyright year is listed as “1931, 1958” in this edition.[20] In 1981, Random House published another edition titled Sanctuary: The Original Text, edited by Noel Polk. This edition features the text of Faulkner’s original manuscript as submitted in 1929, with errors corrected.[21]

In 1993, another version was published by Vintage Books titled Sanctuary: The Corrected Text which corrects additional errors. This is the only edition currently in print, though reprints of it bear the original novel’s title, simply Sanctuary.

Analysis[edit]

Various observers had their own interpretations on the themes of the novel. André Malraux characterized it as, in the words of E. Pauline Degenfelder of Worcester Public Schools, “a detective story with overtones of Greek tragedy“.[22] Cleanth Brooks believed that the work was a “mood piece” on, in Degenfelder’s words, “the discovery of evil”.[22]

Doreen Fowler, author of “Reading for the “Other Side”: Beloved and Requiem for a Nun,” wrote that “it could be argued that the title” refers to the main character’s sexual organs, which are attacked by Popeye.[23]

Adaptations[edit]

In 1933, Sanctuary was adapted into the Pre-Code film The Story of Temple Drake starring Miriam Hopkins, with the rapist character “Popeye” renamed “Trigger” for copyright reasons. According to film historian William K. Everson, the film was largely responsible for the Motion Picture Production Code crackdown on risque and controversial subject matter.[24]

The novel was later a co-source, with its sequel Requiem for a Nun (1951), for the 1961 film Sanctuary, starring Lee Remick as Temple and Yves Montand as her rapist, now renamed “Candy Man”.

Faulkner stated that initially he wished to end the plot at the end of Sanctuary but he decided that, in Degenfelder’s words, “Temple’s reinterpretation would be dramatic and worthwhile.”[25] Degenfelder believes that he may have gotten inspiration for the sequel from The Story of Temple Drake due to common elements between the two.[25]

Phillips wrote that due to the difficulties of adapting the novel into a film with the same spirit that would attract major audiences, “no film so far has retold Faulkner’s story of Temple Drake with quite the impact of the original. And at this point it seems safe to predict that none ever will.”[26]

 

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

Okay, let’s get at it.  On 1/28/21 eight humans and one dog tore into John Steinbeck’s 1936 potboiling novel “In Dubious Battle.”   The dog didn’t have much to say (she doesn’t like ZOOM) and didn’t get a vote.  Those that did were:  John Hawn, Gene Helveston (from Cabo San Lucas), Jay Carr, Kathleen Angelone, Sarona Burchard (from Phoenix),  Dave Young,  and Suzanne Windell/Bill Briscoe and their dog.  No one copped to having suggested this depression era work and we did not have a discussion leader.

We started by talking over the 2016 movie of the same name, produced and directed by James Franco who also starred in the movie as the union organizer Mac McLeod (that should be a clue as to its artistic integrity).   Franco did have an all-star ensemble but that didn’t help the reviews, although the lefties had to applaud his good intentions.  The language in this period piece seemed stilted and the characters were insufficiently developed.  Our group noted some significant diversions from the novel, but in the end the little guys lost and the nasty capitalistic fruit growers won.   You might say that Steinbeck is a pessimist, but the overall message is that even though battles may be lost, the struggle is worthwhile and must go on.  The journey is more important than the destination.   Although Steinbeck is undoubtably sympathetic toward the “heat can” bindle stiffs, he is certainly “dubious” about the “reds” and the forces behind the labor movement. After Steinbeck dispenses with the scenery of the Salinas Valley, most of the action is revealed through dialogue.

Mention was made of J.Lo and her rendition of  Woody Guthrie’s 1940 protest song “This Land is Your Land”at the recent presidential inauguration.  She did not translate it into  Spanish as she did the Pledge of Allegiance.   The song captures the aspirations of the underclass during The Great Depression. J.Lo’s estimated net worth is $400 Million.  Plus she is married to A-Rod who has dough of his own.

Another parallel with our present situation concerned the barricades.  The growers barricaded the roads so that the strikers couldn’t get through to the scabs working in the apple orchards.  The Capitol Police erected a flimsy  barricade to keep the allegedly pro-Trump mob from lobbying their elected representatives.  Neither mob seemed to have any clear plan of action once the barricades were breached.  Questions arose.  Can change happen without violence?  Can a mob have a unified voice?  Here Steinbeck seems to speak through “Doc” Burton, the hard-working, self sacrificing medic who works tirelessly to keep the striker’s camp clean and legal and to care for the injured.  Doc is  practical, tireless and very detail oriented.  He refuses to be drawn into the larger picture and in somewhat preachy dialogue offers his cynical philosophy of mass movements.  This passage from page 199 (Penguin Classics) sums it up – after Jim opines “All great things have violent beginnings.” 

“There aren’t any beginnings,” Burton said.  “Nor any ends.  It seems to me that man has engaged in a blind and fearful struggle out of a past he can’t remember, into a future he can’t forsee nor understand.  And man has met and defeated every obstacle, every enemy except one.  He cannot win over himself.  How mankind hates itself.”

On the other hand, we have the various types of fanaticism in the characters of Joy, Jim and Mac.  Joy, a fruit picker who is an apparent alcoholic and career criminal, would rather die than cooperate with authority and die he does.  The movement is happy to use him as a martyr.  As Rahm Emmanuel famously said: “Never let a crisis go to waste.”   Jim, who may be the central character in the book, does seem to evolve.  He stumbles into the movement, is mentored by Mac, and becomes radicalized.  Wounded in battle, he becomes a charismatic leader.  At the same time, Mac, who was sent to organize the workers becomes dubious.  He has been a masterful tactician who keeps the mob from drifting apart by arranging to keep them fed and motivated by the bloody rags of the downtrodden.   As his protege grows in his leadership skills, Mac learns from Jim and cedes his control.

All’s fair in love and war.  The object is to win by any means necessary and both labor and management do not hesitate to use dirty tricks.  In the ultimate dirty trick, the growers use a decoy to lure Jim into the woods in a futile search for the missing Doc Burden.  There Jim (who “didn’t want nothing for himself”) is murdered.

As the novel ends, Mac has a new martyr.   

We voted this work a 7.5 on the vaunted KV 10.0 scale (guaranteed to be more accurate than your last COVID-19 test).   Our next ZOOM meeting will happen on February 25, 2021 when Dave will coral the jabber over William Faulkner’s 1931 novel of rape and violence. “Sanctuary.”  Which will prove that nothing good has ever come out of Memphis.   Those who worry that the club has fallen into a spate of negativity what with all the dystopias and portrayals of the downtrodden need to take heart.  Our reading list is open and surely someone will offer to lead us through “The Wind in the Willows”  or something by Dr. Suess. Where is Mary Poppins when we need her so badly? Join us at 11AM on Thursday,  2/25/21 for 90 minutes of hand-to-hand combat.   I will get the ZOOM link out as soon as I get it.  [update 2/24/21:

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88574455173

Dave Young

 

We met again, via ZOOM to discuss “Follow the River” by James Alexander Thom. We had hoped that Jim would join us as he has in the past, but he had a conflict. So we went ahead with our small crew: Sarona Burchard (from Phoenix), Kathleen Angegolone, Dave Young, and Jay Carr. Susie and Bill Briscoe led the discussion. Thom, who has joined our meetings in the past, sent his greetings in an email to Bill. Those of us who have met Thom know him to be a wonderful story teller and a very accessible human being. Perhaps because he is married to a Native American, Dark Rain, he did an excellent job of balancing the negative traits of the Shawnee, their cruelty and obstinacy, with their caring for their own community and their sense of honor and dignity. Thom, who is very active in the Vonnegut Library, shares Kurt’s interest in anthropology and the importance of community in human affairs.

There was something forbidding about this 400 page tome. Tracking this brave woman who was following the Ohio River and its tributaries over several weeks with minimal resources and terrible circumstances was a grim task. Nevertheless, those of us who stuck with her to the end felt somewhat rewarded. Susie skillfully guided us through a work which she thought was written from a woman’s perspective. She was particularly impressed with the way the protagonist, Mary Draper Ingles, handled childbirth under horrible conditions and her ability to disassociate herself from her infant when she had to leave him with the Shawnee when she made her escape. Mary was motivated by the need to go home, even though she knew her home and its village had been destroyed in a massacre. While being taken away, she memorized the scenery along the river so that she could find her way back. She believed that if she could remain dignified she would win the respect of the Shawnee. The book is a study of human nature. Both Mary (who felt guilt for leaving her infant behind) , and her husband, Will (who let her be taken hostage as his resistance would have been futile) both learned to put shame and guilt behind them to get on with their difficult lives.

Mary’s dignity is rewarded when Wildcat, chief of the Shawnee tribe that captured her, is impressed by her stoic child bearing experience and demeanor and spares her from running the gauntlet to which the other hostages are subjected. Wildcat clearly wants Mary to be his squaw but does not force himself on her. Mary realizes that she would be respected and live a fairly comfortable life in terms of the tribal culture but rejects him in the hope that she can return to her husband and Draper’s Meadow. We noted that the gauntlet was not much different than the old fraternity hazing routine. It sorted out who was fit enough to join the club.

Most of the book is consumed by the long foot march along the Ohio and its tributaries from the Cincinnati area to the western regions of Virginia. She and her fellow escapee “Gretel” traversed what appears to be about 600 miles at the rate of ten to twenty miles a day surviving on what food they could find. Hunger is a major theme and Thom himself underwent a long fast so he could better understand how hunger affected one’s disposition. If you want to know how Thom prepared for this novel you might want to check out an hour long interview John Krull had with Thom on his WFYI show “No Limits.” https://www.wfyi.org/programs/no-limits/radio/hoosier-authors-james-alexander-thom-and-dark-rain. This trek is rather tedious and nasty – the thought of eating grubs, rotten carcasses, and combing through feces looking for digestibles can ruin one’s dinner. Nevertheless, it is so well-written and destination driven that it is hard to put down. Thom has apparently taken artistic license with what the human body can tolerate. How the two scantily clad women avoided hypothermia fording frozen tributaries and overcame infections and digestive problems is nothing short of miraculous. Well, people were a lot tougher in those days!

Mary’s relationship with Gretel forms an interesting subplot. Mary is in her early twenties and Gretel is described as an older Dutch woman (probably in her thirties) who came from a village of German settlers in Eastern Pennsylvania. Gretel is not as fit as Mary, but she is just as tough although completely ruled by her stomach. Their conversation is minimal due to Gretel’s limited knowledge of English. After weeks of near starvation she is ready to cannibalize Mary and puts a plan in motion. Mary manages to separate from her and they spend the last part of the trek following opposite sides of the river but staying in touch. Mary is fascinated when Gretel spreads herself out on a rock and pretends to be dead so that she might capture a buzzard coming to feed off her carcass. When Mary reaches Draper’s Meadow she convinces the men to search for Gretel although they think she deserves to perish. She is rescued and Mary, being the super human that she is, forgives her as she is carted off to join her village in Pennsylvania.

In the happy ending, Mary has a joyous reunion with Will (after he overcomes his disgust at what he thinks the savages have made of her) and they rebuild their lives. Mary has a sixth sense about Indian raids and believes that it is not safe to stay in Draper’s meadows. They leave and escape disaster. In real life, they have many more children and Mary lives to a ripe old age. Mary is a superwoman and there is little in this novel that would displease a feminist.

Jay and Dave reminisced their personal knowledge of the Ohio River watershed. Jay has hiked the New River Gorge and Dave has white-water rafted the Cheat and Monongahela Rivers. Dave also spent a few months in Portsmouth, Ohio (lower Shawneetown) working on a federal project. We don’t usually think of southern Ohio as Appalachia, but those who have travelled the region know of its grinding poverty which has been detailed in two recent novels: “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance and “Knockemstiff” by Donald Ray Pollock.

We gave this heavy page-turner an 8.6 score on the exquisitely designed KV ten point scale. Doubtless it would have been higher if Thom had participated! Our next meeting will kick off 2021 (a better year, we hope) with “In Dubious Battle,” the third novel in John Steinbeck’s dustbowl trilogy. Its all about organizing agricultural workers in California in the 1930’s – at least that is the surface story! So please join us at 11AM on Thursday, January 28, 2021 for ninety minutes of spirited discussion. I will get the ZOOM connection out to everyone as soon as it comes to hand. [Updated 1/13/21: Thanks to Jay Carr the ZOOM connection for 1/28/21 will be: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/86700135643%5D.   

 

Dave Young

**************************

Kirkus Review 1981

Fleshed out from historical accounts and records, this is a strong novelization of a true woman-versus-nature ordeal. In 1755 Mary Draper Ingles, 23, pregnant mother of two, is kidnapped by Shawnees following their massacre of Mary’s West Virginia settlement–a vivid bloodletting. She, her two sons, and sister-in-law Bettie are taken downstream on Sinking Creek–as Mary gives birth to a daughter, then next morning must ride horseback or be slaughtered. (Almost bleeding to death, she nonetheless keeps a cheerful face for the Indians, who respect strength.) They spend 17 days at a salt lick, killing and salting game for winter, then push on to the great O-y-o (Ohio) River and follow that until reaching the Shawnee village–where prisoners are stripped and made to run a gauntlet of whippers before being adopted by Indian families. Mary has a sewing basket and goes into shirtmaking for profit. But when the Shawnee chief asks for her hand, she turns him down; so he sells her to a pair of French traders to work in their store, keeping her sons to raise as braves. And when the traders take Mary and old Dutch woman Ghetel to a second lick to collect salt, Mary decides to abandon her baby to a squaw and strike out for home with Ghetel. They sneak off and endure ever greater starvation for 43 days as they trek about 600 miles, following the rivers back to Mary’s settlement. . . while her husband rides into the Cherokee nation and tries to effect her ransom. The two women fail at fishing and hunting, are skin and bone in the fruitless fall, vomiting plant fibers, chewing a rotten doe’s head or acorns and grubs. Then it’s sleet, wolves, and fording deep streams. Ghetel becomes demented and hunts Mary to eat her. And finally: a crawl on skeletal hands and knees straight up a snowy stone 500-foot bank. . . and more banks beyond. More American Heritage than commercial romance, unusually convincing and often quite moving.

*******end*********

 

 

 

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

We met again, via ZOOM, to discuss John Steinbeck’s 1937 Novella “Of Mice and Men.”  Those participating were:  Gene Helveston, Mark Hudson, Susannah Windell, Jay Carr, Kathleen Angelone, Bill Briscoe, and Dave Young.  Sarona Buchard was unable to join us, but sent in her vote on the book’s merits.  Dave started the conversation with an overview of Steinbeck and the Novel.  Then the club pitched in with ninety minutes of spirited discussion.  We all had a lot to say.

“M&M” is the second of what is called “The Dustbowl Trilogy,”  the other two works being “In Dubious Battle” and “The Grapes of Wrath.”  Steinbeck started his writing career as a playwright and this work was written to be easily adaptable for the stage.  Minus the description of the natural scenery, it is mostly dialogue.  The narrator is unobtrusive and the talk carries the action.  The 107 page novella is broken down into six chapters which can be seen as a three act play with all the action taking place in (1) a clearing by a river close to the ranch;  (2)  The ranch bunkhouse; and (3) the barn and stable.   Out of this came at least four dramas with the following pairs playing George and Lennie.   The actors on stage in 1938 were Wallace Ford and Broderick Crawford.  In 1939 a movie was made with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr.  In 1981, Robert Blake and Randy Quaid played the roles in a TV movie.  Last but not least was 1992 remake with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich.

Our discussion was centered on three pivotal scenes in this rather short work.  (1) The shooting of Candy’s dog by Carlson; (2) the fight between Curley and Lennie; and (3) Curley’s wife’s put-down of Crooks, Candy, and Lenny in the stable.

Most of us had read M&M more than once.  Rereading it was a revelation in that so many scenes that seem simple on the surface are set-ups for later plot points.  Carlson’s badgering of the crippled Candy and his execution of Candy’s ancient dog seems to be a pointless act of cruelty.  However, Steinbeck uses the relationship between Candy and the diseased dog to reinforce the book’s theme of loneliness and friendship.  The gunshot to the dog’s head foreshadows George’s execution of Lennie, using the same Luger Carlson used to put the dog out of its misery.  Slim, the mule skinner, also figures into this scene.  Although he is not dominant in the novella, he is dominant on the ranch.  He seems to be the conscience of the novel, a bridge between the uncaring corporate management of the ranch and the rather pathetic migrant workers in the bunkhouse.  He is a highly skilled driver of the mule train and a man everyone in the bunkhouse respects.  He humanizes the scene by offering Candy a new pup from a litter he helped deliver.

Carlson and Whitt are practical sorts who round out the bunkhouse.  Why isn’t there a cook?  Who ever heard of a man camp without a cook?  Carlson has adapted to his world of loneliness and seems unable to imagine human feelings.  Whitt demonstrates his limitations by expounding on the whore houses in the nearby town,  Soledad (Spanish for solitude – reinforcing the theme).   He prefers prostitutes because the exchange of money (a day’s pay for a $2 “flop”) for sexual satisfaction  is a complete transaction and no commitment, obligation, or feelings are involved.

Curley was pissed that the men in the bunkhouse found his wife to be sexually attractive.   He was particularly concerned about Slim but did not have the nerve to confront him so he decided to pick on Lennie.  Curley was a little guy who had shown some promise as a prize fighter and had developed what was called a “Napoleon Complex.”   When he lit into Lennie, the gentle giant did not fight back and took a beating until George gave Lennie permission to retaliate.  Lennie did so by grabbing and crushing Curley’s hand.  There was some symbolism here as Curley was known for keeping the hand in a vasoline glove so it would be soft for his wife.  After the fight Slim stepped in to make sure that Curley wouldn’t complain to his dad, a.k.a. “The Boss,” and make trouble for Lennie.  

Curley’s wife, who was so objectified that Steinbeck did not bother to give her a name, was an aspiring actress and sexpot stuck on a boring ranch.  She hated her husband who mostly neglected her.  While Curley and most of the ranch hands were visiting  Susy’s whorehouse in Soledad,  Curley’s wife wanders down to the bunkhouse where she finds three damaged people who did not make it into town: Candy, the one-handed swamper; Crooks, the bitter Negro stable hand; and Lennie, the mentally-retarded big guy.  She rather viciously puts all of them down, but then warms to Lennie as she seems to appreciate the hurt that he visited on Curley. That leads to her death and the unravelling of the dream.

The dream is freedom from the drudgery of the ranch and perhaps of the world.  George projects a time when he and Lennie will have saved up a stake and can buy a ranchette where they can raise their own food and breed rabbits.  Lenny buys into the dream and fantasizes about raising rabbits he can pet.  George manipulates him by constantly holding forth this dream.  Even George seems to buy into it.  For awhile, Crooks and Candy want to be part of it.  After the murder of Curley’s wife, George acknowledges that it was never going to happen.  Steinbeck is telling us that the future of the underclass is hopeless.

Steinbeck was an agnostic, but he liked to use biblical imagery.  It is tempting to shoehorn the idyllic river clearing that Steinbeck so carefully describes into some kind of West of Eden.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?” cried Cain after he slew his brother in the fields of Eden.  God punished Cain by condemning him to roam the earth for the rest of his days.  So Cain was a bindlestiff too.  Curley and his wife might represent the evil of he outside world.

George’s murder of Lennie overpowers one’s memory of the books ending.  Frontier justice would probably not  have held George accountable.   Slim would support the theory that Lenny, not George, stole the fatal weapon and that, the shot in the back of the head notwithstanding, it was obviously a case of self defense.   What is forgotten is the classic Western walk-off that followed.  To the puzzlement of Carlson,  George and Slim hit the trail together as Slim seems to have warmed to the idea of friendship.   Think of Bogey and Rains walking off into the Casablanca fog after another covered-up murder as Bogey intones “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”   Here is the clip:  https://video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?fr=yhsibasyn4&hsimp=yhssyn4&hspart=iba&p=claude+rains+casablanca#id=5&vid=66d93988af4150efef327433f86c9e03&action=click

What does this have to do with Kurt?   Well, it is a “banned”  book!”     Just this year a school board in Burbank, CA “challenged” this work (along with “Huck Finn” and “Mockingbird”)  by removing it from its required reading list for high school students.  Their reasoning, following a few complaints from parents, was that no matter how sympathetic the works were to minorities, the language therein was a “trigger” which damaged the self image of African-America students.  A longish news article on this topic in the LA Times is attached to this blog in our external essays section.  Steinbeck was twenty years older than Kurt and his writing career was pretty much over after he received the Nobel Prize in 1962.  He was ridiculed by the literary establishment and gave up on publishing fiction, dying in NYC at the age of 66 in 1968.  Kurt was also held in disregard by academics.  Kurt was a transplanted New Yorker and Steinbeck was a Californian.  I can’t find any evidence that they ever met or had any influence on one another.  Both were liberals and heavy smokers.  Both had served in WWII.  Vonnegut was an infantryman and Steinbeck served as a War Correspondent. They probably would have hit it off.

Using the infamous KV ten-point rating scale we voted this work a solid nine, higher than average for our monthly selections.  Next month, Bill and Susie will lead the discussion on James Alexander Thom’s 1981 historical novel “Follow the River.”  Thom has attended two of our meetings in person and we hope we can get him to ZOOM in from Bloomington for this one.   Join us at 11AM on Thursday, December 16, 2020 when we will ZOOM back to 18th Century America and talk about the Shawnees and the Settlers fighting it out.   We are in the process of filling out our calendar for 2021 and have only a few offers so far.  Please select a book (and a month)  you think the club would enjoy.  You get to lead the discussion.  Bill is running the calendar and you can email him at: wfrb@att.net.  Don’t let the two middle initials throw you off!

Dave Young

Summary extracted from  Wikipedia

Of Mice and Men is a novella written by John Steinbeck.[1][2] Published in 1937, it narrates the experiences of George Milton and Lennie Small, two displaced migrant ranch workers, who move from place to place in California in search of new job opportunities during the Great Depression in the United States.

Steinbeck based the novella on his own experiences working alongside migrant farm workers as a teenager in the 1910s (before the arrival of the Okies that he would describe in The Grapes of Wrath). The title is taken from Robert Burns‘ poem “To a Mouse“, which reads: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley”. (The best laid schemes of mice and men / Often go awry.)

While it is a book taught in many schools,[3] Of Mice and Men has been a frequent target of censors for vulgarity, and what some consider offensive and racist language; consequently, it appears on the American Library Association‘s list of the Most Challenged Books of 21st Century.[4]

PLOT

Two migrant field workers in California on their plantation during the Great Depression—George Milton, an intelligent but uneducated man, and Lennie Small, a bulky, strong man but mentally disabled—are in Soledad on their way to another part of California. They hope to one day attain the dream of settling down on their own piece of land. Lennie’s part of the dream is merely to tend and pet rabbits on the farm, as he loves touching soft animals, although he always accidentally kills them. This dream is one of Lennie’s favorite stories, which George constantly retells. They had fled from Weed after Lennie grabbed a young woman’s skirt and would not let go, leading to an accusation of rape. It soon becomes clear that the two are close and George is Lennie’s protector, despite his antics.

After being hired at a farm, the pair are confronted by Curley— the Boss’s small, aggressive son with a Napoleon complex who dislikes larger men. Curley starts to target Lennie. Curley’s flirtatious and provocative wife, to whom Lennie is instantly attracted, poses a problem as well. In contrast, the pair also meets Candy, an elderly ranch handyman with one hand and a loyal dog, and Slim, an intelligent and gentle jerkline-skinner whose dog has recently had a litter of puppies. Slim gives a puppy to Lennie and Candy, whose loyal, accomplished sheep dog was put down by fellow ranch-hand Carlson.

In spite of problems, their dream leaps towards reality when Candy offers to pitch in $350 with George and Lennie so that they can buy a farm at the end of the month, in return for permission to live with them. The trio are ecstatic, but their joy is overshadowed when Curley attacks Lennie, who defends himself by easily crushing Curley’s fist while urged on by George.

Nevertheless, George feels more relaxed, to the extent that he even leaves Lennie behind on the ranch while he goes into town with the other ranch hands. Lennie wanders into the stable, and chats with Crooks, the bitter, yet educated stable buck, who is isolated from the other workers due to being black. Candy finds them and they discuss their plans for the farm with Crooks, who cannot resist asking them if he can hoe a garden patch on the farm albeit scorning its possibility. Curley’s wife makes another appearance and flirts with the men, especially Lennie. However, her spiteful side is shown when she belittles them and threatens to have Crooks lynched.

The next day, Lennie accidentally kills his puppy while stroking it. Curley’s wife enters the barn and tries to speak to Lennie, admitting that she is lonely and how her dreams of becoming a movie star are crushed, revealing her personality. After finding out about Lennie’s habit, she offers to let him stroke her hair, but panics and begins to scream when she feels his strength. Lennie becomes frightened, and unintentionally breaks her neck thereafter and runs away. When the other ranch hands find the corpse, George realizes that their dream is at an end. George hurries to find Lennie, hoping he will be at the meeting place they designated in case he got into trouble.

George meets Lennie at their camping spot before they came to the ranch. The two sit together and George retells the beloved story of the dream, knowing it is something they will never share. He then kills Lennie by shooting him, because he sees it as an action in Lennie’s best interest. Curley, Slim, and Carlson arrive seconds after. Only Slim realizes what happened, and consolingly leads him away. Curley and Carlson look on, unable to comprehend the subdued mood of the two men.

Characters

  • George Milton: A quick-witted man who is Lennie’s guardian and best friend. His friendship with Lennie helps sustain his dream of a better future. He was bound in teasing Lennie since he was young[further explanation needed]. He is described by Steinbeck in the novel as “small and quick,” every part of him being “defined,” with small strong hands on slender arms. He has a dark face and “restless eyes” and “sharp, strong features” including a “thin, bony nose.”
  • Lennie Small: A mentally disabled, but gigantic and physically strong man who travels with George and is his constant companion.[5] He dreams of “living off the fatta’ the lan'” and being able to tend to rabbits. His love for soft things conspires against him, mostly because he does not know his own strength, and eventually becomes his undoing. Steinbeck defines his appearance as George’s “opposite,” writing that he is a “huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes” and “wide, sloping shoulders.” Lennie walks heavily, dragging his feet a little, “the way a bear drags his paws,” adding that his arms do not swing at his sides, but hang loosely.
  • Candy: An aging ranch handyman, Candy lost his hand in an accident and worries about his future on the ranch. Fearing that his age is making him useless, he seizes on George’s description of the farm he and Lennie will have, offering his life’s savings if he can join George and Lennie in owning the land.
  • Slim: A “jerkline skinner,” the main driver of a mule team and the “prince of the ranch”. Slim is greatly respected by many of the characters and is the only character whom Curley treats with respect. His insight, intuition, kindness and natural authority draw the other ranch hands automatically towards him, and he is significantly the only character to fully understand the bond between George and Lennie.
  • Curley: The Boss’ son, a young, pugnacious character, once a semi-professional boxer. He is described by others, with some irony, as “handy”, partly because he likes to keep a glove filled with vaseline on his left hand. He is very jealous and protective of his wife and immediately develops a dislike toward Lennie. At one point, Curley loses his temper after he sees Lennie appear to laugh at him, and ends up with his hand horribly damaged after Lennie fights back against him.
  • Curley’s wife: A young, pretty woman, who is mistrusted by her husband. The other characters refer to her only as “Curley’s wife”. Steinbeck explained that she is “not a person, she’s a symbol. She has no function, except to be a foil – and a danger to Lennie.”[5] Curley’s wife’s preoccupation with her own beauty eventually helps precipitate her death: She allows Lennie to stroke her hair as an apparently harmless indulgence, only for her to upset Lennie when she yells at him to stop him ‘mussing it’. Lennie tries to stop her yelling and eventually, and accidentally, kills her by breaking her neck.
  • Crooks: Crooks, the black stable-hand, gets his name from his crooked back. Proud, bitter, and cynical, he is isolated from the other men because of the color of his skin. Despite himself, Crooks becomes fond of Lennie, and though he claims to have seen countless men following empty dreams of buying their own land, he asks Lennie if he can go with them and hoe in the garden.
  • Candy’s dog: A blind dog who is described as “old”, “stinky”, and “crippled”, and is killed by Carlson.
  • Carlson: A “thick bodied” ranch hand, he kills Candy’s dog with little sympathy.
  • The Boss: Curley’s father, the superintendent of the ranch. The ranch is owned by “a big land company” according to Candy.
  • Whit: A young ranch hand.

Themes

In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

— John Steinbeck in his 1938 journal entry[6]

Steinbeck emphasizes dreams throughout the book.[clarification needed] George aspires to independence, to be his own boss, to have a homestead, and, most important, to be “somebody”. Lennie aspires to be with George on his independent homestead, and to quench his fixation on soft objects. Candy aspires to reassert his responsibility lost with the death of his dog, and for security for his old age—on George’s homestead. Crooks aspires to a small homestead where he can express self-respect, security, and most of all, acceptance. Curley’s wife dreams to be an actress, to satisfy her desire for fame lost when she married Curley, and an end to her loneliness.

Loneliness is a significant factor in several characters’ lives. Candy is lonely after his dog is gone. Curley’s wife is lonely because her husband is not the friend she hoped for—she deals with her loneliness by flirting with the men on the ranch, which causes Curley to increase his abusiveness and jealousy. The companionship of George and Lennie is the result of loneliness. Crooks states the theme candidly as “A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got anybody. Don’t make any difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you.”[7] The author further reinforces this theme through subtle methods by situating the story near the town of Soledad, which means “solitude” in Spanish.[8]

Despite the need for companionship, Steinbeck emphasizes how loneliness is sustained through the barriers established from acting inhuman to one another. The loneliness of Curley’s wife is upheld by Curley’s jealousy, which causes all the ranch hands to avoid her. Crooks’s barrier results from being barred from the bunkhouse by restraining him to the stable; his bitterness is partially broken, however, through Lennie’s ignorance.

Steinbeck’s characters are often powerless, due to intellectual, economic, and social circumstances. Lennie possesses the greatest physical strength of any character, which should therefore establish a sense of respect as he is employed as a ranch hand. However, his intellectual handicap undercuts this and results in his powerlessness. Economic powerlessness is established as many of the ranch hands are victims of the Great Depression. As George, Candy and Crooks are positive, action- oriented characters, they wish to purchase a homestead, but because of the Depression, they are unable to generate enough money. Lennie is the only one who is basically unable to take care of himself, but the other characters would do this in the improved circumstances they seek. Since they cannot do so, the real danger of Lennie’s mental handicap comes to the fore.

Regarding human interaction, evil of oppression and abuse is a theme that is illustrated through Curley and Curley’s wife. Curley uses his aggressive nature and superior position in an attempt to take control of his father’s farm. He constantly reprimands the farm hands and accuses some of fooling around with his wife. Curley’s Napoleon complex is evidenced by his threatening of the farm hands for minuscule incidents. Curley’s wife, on the other hand, is not physically but verbally manipulative. She uses her sex appeal to gain some attention, flirting with the farm hands. According to the Penguin Teacher’s Guide for Of Mice and Men, Curley and Curley’s wife represent evil in that both oppress and abuse the migrants in different ways.[9]

Fate is felt most heavily as the characters’ aspirations are destroyed when George is unable to protect Lennie (who is a real danger). Steinbeck presents this as “something that happened” or as his friend coined for him “non-teleological thinking” or “is thinking”, which postulates a non-judgmental point of view.[6]

Development

Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck’s first attempt at writing in the form of novel-play termed a “play-novelette” by one critic. Structured in three acts of two chapters each, it is intended to be both a novella and a script for a play. It is only 30,000 words in length. Steinbeck wanted to write a novel that could be played from its lines, or a play that could be read like a novel.[10]

Steinbeck originally titled it Something That Happened (referring to the events of the book as “something that happened” because nobody can be really blamed for the tragedy that unfolds in the story). However, he changed the title after reading Robert Burns‘s poem To a Mouse.[11] Burns’s poem tells of the regret the narrator feels for having destroyed the home of a mouse while plowing his field.[12]

Steinbeck wrote this book and The Grapes of Wrath in what is now Monte Sereno, California. An early draft of Of Mice and Men was eaten by Steinbeck’s dog, named Max.[13]

Reception

Attaining the greatest positive response of any of his works up to that time, Steinbeck’s novella was chosen as a Book of the Month Club selection before it was published. Praise for the work came from many notable critics, including Maxine Garrard (Enquirer-Sun),[14] Christopher Morley, and Harry Thornton Moore (New Republic).[15] New York Times critic Ralph Thompson described the novella as a “grand little book, for all its ultimate melodrama.”[16][17]

The novella has been banned from various US public and school libraries or curricula for allegedly “promoting euthanasia“, “condoning racial slurs”, being “anti-business”, containing profanity, and generally containing “vulgar” and “offensive language”.[18] Many of the bans and restrictions have been lifted and it remains required reading in many other American, Australian, Irish, British, New Zealand and Canadian high schools. As a result of being a frequent target of censors, Of Mice and Men appears on the American Library Association‘s list of the Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century (number 4).[19] In the UK, it was listed at number 52 of the “nation’s best loved novels” on the BBC‘s 2003 survey The Big Read.[20] Of Mice and Men has been challenged (proposed for censorship) 54 times since it was published in 1936.[21] However, scholars including Thomas Scarseth have fought to protect the book by arguing its literary value. According to Scarseth “in true great literature the pain of Life is transmuted into the beauty of Art.”[22]

Adaptations

Stage

Main articles: Of Mice and Men (play) and Of Mice and Men (opera)

The first stage production was written by Steinbeck, produced by Sam H. Harris and directed by George S. Kaufman. It opened on November 23, 1937, in the Music Box Theatre on Broadway.[23] Running for 207 performances, it starred Wallace Ford as George and Broderick Crawford as Lennie.[23] The role of Crooks was performed by Leigh Whipper, the first African-American member of the Actors’ Equity Association.[24] Whipper repeated this role in the 1939 film version.[25]

The production was chosen as Best Play in 1938 by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle.[26]

In 1939 the production was moved to Los Angeles, still with Wallace Ford in the role of George, but with Lon Chaney, Jr., taking on the role of Lennie. Chaney’s performance in the role resulted in his casting in the movie.

In 1958, a musical theater adaptation by Ira Bilowit (1925–2016) was produced Off-Broadway in New York City. The cast included several in-demand performers of their day, including Art Lund and Jo Sullivan, re-teamed after performing together in the hit musical The Most Happy Fella, as well as Leo Penn.[27] However, a newspaper strike negatively affected the production and it closed after six weeks.[28] A revival of the work was mounted at the Western Stage in Salinas in 2019.[28]

The play was revived in a 1974 Broadway production in the Brooks Atkinson Theatre starring Kevin Conway as George and James Earl Jones as Lennie.[29] Noted stage actress Pamela Blair played Curley’s Wife in this production.

In 1970 Carlisle Floyd wrote an opera based on this novella. One departure between Steinbeck’s book and Floyd’s opera is that the opera features The Ballad Singer, a character not found in the book.[30]

A new version of the play opened on Broadway at The Longacre Theater on March 19, 2014 for a limited 18-week engagement, starring James Franco, Chris O’Dowd, Leighton Meester and Jim Norton.[31][32]

Film

The first film adaptation was released in 1939, two years after the publication of the novella, and starred Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie, with Burgess Meredith as George, and was directed by Lewis Milestone.[25] It was nominated for four Academy Awards.[25]

A TV version, produced by David Susskind in 1968, starred George Segal as George, Nicol Williamson as Lennie, Will Geer as Candy, Moses Gunn as Crooks, and Don Gordon and Joey Heatherton as Curley and his wife, respectively.[33]

A 1972 Iranian film, Topoli, directed by Reza Mirlohi was adapted from and dedicated to John Steinbeck and his story.[citation needed]

In 1981, a TV movie version was released, starring Randy Quaid as Lennie, and Robert Blake as George, and directed by Reza Badiyi.[34]

Another theatrical film version was made in 1992, directed by Gary Sinise, who was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.[35] Sinise also played George in the film, and the role of Lennie was played by John Malkovich. For this adaptation, both men reprised their roles from the 1980 Steppenwolf Theatre Company production.[36]

The 1992 Malayalam film Soorya Manasam directed by Viji Thampi is also based on the novel.[3

**********end***********

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

Another fourth Thursday, another trouble-free ZOOM meeting.  Only five brave souls reported for duty and two were from out of state:  Jay Carr, Sarona Feeney (from Arizona), Bill Briscoe, Dave Young, and our very knowledgeable discussion leader Gene Helveston (from Michigan).  Under consideration was KV’s eleventh novel “Galapagos” which first appeared in 1985.

Gene delighted us by recounting his visit to the archipelago.  Climbing around on those wet rocks sounded rather tedious.  He was glad he went but wouldn’t want to do it again.  KV claims that he and his wife spent two weeks motor boating around the many islands in 1981.  As a trained anthropologist guided by marine biologists he was able to keep his big brain busy most of the time.   

KV’s eleventh novel was not a great hit with us.  The text rambled and pointless filler gobbled up space.  Promising plot lines and themes were started and never brought to completion.  The epilogue did not really clear anything up.  Was KV in his cups?  Who knows? This led to a discussion of editing.  Perhaps KV felt he did not need an editor at this stage of his career.  Are editors merely writers who couldn’t make the grade?  Someone said that writing and editing should be a marriage but you have to be sure you have the right partner.  But why should anyone tamper with a writer’s creation?  Did Jackson Pollock ever change one of his paintings because someone made a suggestion?

KV’s characters seemed rather flat.  There was little dialog and little heroism.  The Captain of the cruise ship provided some comic relief.  He was useless as a sailor, obtuse in his personal relationships, and made a fool of himself on the Johnny Carson show.

Vonnegut came up with a new device for indicating which characters would soon die.  He put an asterisk in front of the names of the ill-fated.  This became a little tiresome and gave the novel a kind of death-centric feel.  Another invention was the hand-held translation and information device which he called Mandarax.  This reminded us of Siri.  Kurt was thirty years ahead of his time!

Vonnegut’s big brain imagination took us through one million years of human species evolution and that probably puts this into the sci-fi category (KV did not want the Sci-Fi label) but it could just be seen as fantasy.   Gene, a trained ophthalmologist had some trouble with KV’s characterization of Selena MacIntosh as being blind from birth.  Her diseases presented more as regina pigmentosa which is progressive and usually starts later in life.  Dave, an amateur sexologist, was puzzled by a the in vivo fertilization method used by Mary Hepburn to transfer the sperm of Captain Adolph Von Kleist to the Kanka-Bono girls.  Incredibly successful and the salvation of the human race!  Dave has known couples who have paid $10K and received nada.  Ah, the freedom of poetic license.

There is a strong anti-war theme underlying this work.  Perhaps KV’s PTSD is coming through. The evolutionary story he puts forth is that the human race, fueled by its big brain could not figure out how to get along in the 20th Century and ultimately almost died out due to a pandemic that made females infertile.  The species survived only on the remote Galapagos and man evolved into a fish-like creature with flippers instead of hands.  The lack of a trigger finger made the world safer except for those goddamned sharks who were not peaceniks.

A few other works came up in our discussion.   The Netflix docudrama “The Social Dilemma”  (not to be confused with the docudrama “Social Fabric”) warns us, as if we didn’t already know, that we are constantly being manipulated by social media.   “Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time” by Dava Sobel tells about the 18th century clockmaker whose chronometer greatly improved navigation.  And, “Why Visit America” a collection of short stories by Matthew Baker which provides more evidence as to how screwed up our beloved country has become.

KV’s loyal fans could only muster a 6.4 rating (on the vaunted 10 point KV Scale)  for “Galapagos.”   We meet next on Thursday, November 19, 2020 at 11AM to discuss John Steinbeck’s 1939 Novel “Of Mice and Men” whose best-laid plans gang aft agley as Bobby Burns put it.  Dave will start the discussion of this 107 page tear-jerker describing the sad lives of two California losers trying to make it through the Great Depression. ZOOM connection for the meeting is https://us02web.zoom.us/j/84268165748.

Dave Young

From Wikipedia:

Galápagos is the eleventh novel written by American author Kurt Vonnegut. The novel questions the merit of the human brain from an evolutionary perspective. The title is both a reference to the islands on which part of the story plays out, and a tribute to Charles Darwin on whose theory Vonnegut relies to reach his own conclusions. It was first published in 1985 by Delacorte Press.

Plot Summary

Galápagos is the story of a small band of mismatched humans who are shipwrecked on the fictional island of Santa Rosalia in the Galápagos Islands after a global financial crisis cripples the world’s economy. Shortly thereafter, a disease renders all humans on Earth infertile, with the exception of the people on Santa Rosalia, making them the last specimens of humankind. Over the next million years, their descendants, the only fertile humans left on the planet, eventually evolve into a furry species resembling sea lions: though possibly still able to walk upright (it is not explicitly mentioned, but it is stated that they occasionally catch land animals), they have a snout with teeth adapted for catching fish, a streamlined skull and flipper-like hands with rudimentary fingers (described as “nubbins“).

The story’s narrator is a spirit who has been watching over humans for the last million years. This particular ghost is the immortal spirit of Leon Trotsky Trout, son of Vonnegut’s recurring character Kilgore Trout. Leon is a Vietnam War veteran who is affected by the massacres in Vietnam. He goes AWOL and settles in Sweden, where he works as a shipbuilder and dies during the construction of the ship, the Bahía de Darwin. This ship is used for the “Nature Cruise of the Century”. Planned as a celebrity cruise, it was in limbo due to the economic downturn, and due to a chain of unconnected events the ship ended up allowing humans to reach and survive in the Galápagos.

The deceased Kilgore Trout makes four appearances in the novel, urging his son to enter the “blue tunnel” that leads to the afterlife. When Leon refuses for the fourth time, Kilgore pledges that he, and the blue tunnel, will not return for one million years, which leaves Leon to observe the slow process of evolution that transforms the humans into aquatic mammals. The process begins when a Japanese woman on the island, the granddaughter of a Hiroshima survivor, gives birth to a fur-covered daughter.

Trout maintains that all the sorrows of humankind were caused by “the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain”. Natural selection eliminates this problem, since the humans best fitted to Santa Rosalia were those who could swim best, which required a streamlined head, which in turn required a smaller brain.

Main characters[edit]

  • Leon Trout, dead narrator and son of Kilgore Trout
  • Hernando Cruz, first mate of the Bahía de Darwin
  • Mary Hepburn, an American widow who teaches at Ilium High School
  • Roy Hepburn, Mary’s husband who died in 1985 from a brain tumor
  • Akiko Hiroguchi, the daughter of Hisako that will be born with fur covering her entire body
  • Hisako Hiroguchi, a teacher of ikebana and Zenji’s pregnant wife
  • Zenji Hiroguchi, a Japanese computer genius who invented the voice translator Gokubi and its successor Mandarax
  • Bobby King, publicity man and organizer of the “Nature Cruise of the Century”
  • Andrew MacIntosh, an American financier and adventurer of great inherited wealth
  • Selena MacIntosh, Andrew’s blind daughter, eighteen years old
  • Jesús Ortiz, a talented Inca waiter who looks up to wealthy and powerful people
  • Adolf von Kleist, captain of Bahía de Darwin who doesn’t really know how to steer the ship
  • Siegfried von Kleist, brother of Adolf and carrier of Huntington’s chorea who temporarily takes care of the reception at hotel El Dorado
  • James Wait, a 35-year-old American swindler
  • Pvt. Geraldo Delgado, an Ecuadorian soldier

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

We met again via ZOOM to discuss Betty Smith’s 1943 bestselling novel “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn .” Zoomers were Jay Carr (our host), Gene Helveston (from Michigan), John Hawn, Mark Hudson, Kathleen Angelone, Sarona Burchard (from Arizona), Dave Young, and our moderator, Bill Briscoe.We heard from John and Karen and Phil Watts who were unable to join us this month.

Some of us grumbled about the length of this 430 page tome.  Too much description, not enough plot they said.  Others who seemed to have re-read it several times were more forgiving.  Just right, timeless issues.  It was so enjoyable for themthat its length was not a problem.  Chacun à son goût.

Beyond the description we learned that women are strong and men are wimps.  The character of the women seems to have been formed by the grinding poverty they endured.  The men relied on booze and good intentions, but were still more or less loved.   There was a Dickensian aura to this work.  Juvenile rag and bottle pickers from the tenements of Brooklyn selling their acquired goods to somewhat perverted brokers in the squalid streets.  Defenders rejoined that it was not all that grim in old Brooklyn.  People had fun, thrived, and believed in education and the American Way.  Then there was that stinky tree, The Tree of Heaven.  This tree pushed its way through the asphalt and dared the elements to demolish it.  It was so odiferous that no pest or human bothered it.  A metaphor for the toughness it takes to survive in the Big Apple.

Of the many themes, much was made of education and the discrimination the poor had to put up with.  The heroine,

Francie, prevailed.  Of course, it helped that after her worthless father died her mother married up.  Here stepfather’s Tammany Hall connections improved her fortunes and at the age of seventeen she was off to the University of Michigan to don the maize and blue.  And there the novel ends as our heroine almost becomes of age.

The author, Betty Smith, spent enough time at Michigan and Yale to earn a Masters in Fine Arts,  but was never formally admitted to any degree program as she dropped out of high school to work.  Her husband was a law student at Michigan and she followed him there where her talents as a playwright were recognized and she won some prizes.

Strange how New York captures the imagination of so many.  At about the same time, a little rich girl escaped  Muncie, Indiana, and went to NYC as a young adult.  Emily Kimbrough later wrote (with Cornelia Otis Skinner)  a memoir about her young life,   “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay” which also became a best seller.   This was written in 1942, a year before “Tree.”   One wonders if Betty and Emily ever got together at some smokey jazz club.    Naaaah!  Hard to work in a Vonnegut connection.  If it hadn’t been for WWII, Kurt might have joined them.

Our ever-generous readers gave this coming of age page turner an enthusiastic 8.5 on the scientifically validated KV ten point scale.  

Our next meeting, also by ZOOM, will happen at 11AM on Thursday, October 22, 2020, when we take on Kurt’s 1985 novel “Galapagos.”  Gene Helveston will lead the discussion as we learn all we need to know about Charles Darwin and evolution.   [updated 10/10/20 – DEY]. Jay Carr has supplied us with the link necessary for the ZOOM connection: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83048919956

We have open dates for our November and December meetings.  If you would like to pick out a book and lead its discussion, let us know.  We prefer something at least remotely related to KV, but we are up for  almost anything.

Dave Young

Excerpts from Wikipedia summary of   “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a 1943 semi-autobiographical novel written by Betty Smith. The story focuses on an impoverished but aspirational adolescent girl and her family living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City, during the first two decades of the 20th century.

The book was an immense success. It was also released in an Armed Services Edition, the size of a mass-market paperback, to fit in a uniform pocket. One Marine wrote to Smith, “I can’t explain the emotional reaction that took place in this dead heart of mine…A surge of confidence has swept through me, and I feel that maybe a fellow has a fighting chance in this world after all.”[1]

The main metaphor of the book is the hardy Tree of Heaven, whose persistent ability to grow and flourish even in the inner city mirrors the protagonist’s desire to better herself.

Plot[edit]

The novel is split into five “books”, each covering a different period in the characters’ lives.

Book One[edit]

Book One opens in 1912 and introduces 11-year-old Francie Nolan, who lives in the Williamsburg tenement neighborhood of Brooklyn with her 10-year-old brother Cornelius (“Neeley” for short) and their parents, Johnny and Katie. Francie relies on her imagination and her love of reading to provide a temporary escape from the poverty that defines her daily existence. The family subsists on Katie’s wages from cleaning apartment buildings, pennies from the children’s junk-selling and odd jobs, and Johnny’s irregular earnings as a singing waiter. His alcoholism has made it difficult for him to hold a steady job, and he sees himself as a disappointment to his family as a result. Francie admires him because he is handsome, talented, imaginative, and sentimental, as she is. Katie has very little time for sentiment, since she is the breadwinner of the family who has forsaken fantasies and dreams for survival.

Book Two[edit]

Book Two jumps back to 1900, with the meeting of Johnny and Katie, the teenage children of immigrants from Ireland and Austria, respectively. Although Johnny panics and begins drinking heavily when Katie becomes pregnant with first Francie and then Neeley, Katie resolves to give her children a better life than she has known, resolving to follow her mother’s insistence that they receive a good education. Kate resents Francie because the baby is constantly ill, while Neeley is more robust. Katie makes a promise to herself that her daughter must never learn of her preference for Neeley. During the first seven years of their marriage, the Nolans are forced to move twice within Williamsburg, due to public disgraces caused first by Johnny’s drunkenness and later by the children’s Aunt Sissy’s misguided efforts at babysitting them. The Nolans then arrive at the apartment introduced in Book one.

Book Three[edit]

In Book Three, the Nolans settle into their new home, and seven-year-old Francie and six-year-old Neeley begin to attend the squalid, overcrowded public school next door. Francie enjoys learning, even in these dismal surroundings, and gets herself transferred to a better school in a different neighborhood with Johnny’s support. Johnny’s attempts to improve the children’s minds fail, but Katie helps Francie grow as a person and saves her life by shooting a child-rapist/murderer who tries to attack Francie shortly before her 14th birthday. When Johnny learns that Katie is pregnant once again, he falls into a depression that leads to his death from alcoholism-induced pneumonia on Christmas Day 1915. Katie cashes in the family’s life insurance policies on Johnny and the children and uses that money, along with their earnings from after-school jobs, to bury Johnny and keep the family afloat in 1916. The new baby, Annie Laurie, is born that May, and Francie graduates from grade school in June. Graduation allows Francie to finally come to terms with the reality of her father’s death.

Book Four[edit]

At the start of Book Four, Francie and Neeley take jobs because there is no money to send them to high school. Francie works in an artificial flower factory, then gets a better-paying job in a press clipping office after lying about her age. Although she wants to use her salary to start high school in the fall, Katie decides to send Neeley instead, reasoning that he will only continue learning if he is forced into it, while Francie will find a way to do it on her own. Once the United States enters World War I in 1917, the clipping office rapidly declines and closes, leaving Francie out of a job. After she finds work as a teletype operator, she makes a new plan for her education, choosing to skip high school and take summer college-level courses. She passes with the help of Ben Blake, a friendly and determined high school student, but she fails the college’s entrance exams. A brief encounter with Lee Rhynor, a soldier preparing to ship out to France, leads to heartbreak after he pretends to be in love with Francie, when he is in fact about to get married. In 1918, Katie accepts a marriage proposal from Michael McShane, a retired police officer who has long admired her and has become a wealthy businessman and politician since leaving the force.

Book Five[edit]

As Book Five begins in the fall of this same year, Francie, now almost 17, quits her teletype job. She is about to start classes at the University of Michigan, having passed the entrance exams with Ben’s help, and is considering the possibility of a future relationship with him. The Nolans prepare for Katie’s wedding and the move from their Brooklyn apartment to McShane’s home. Francie pays one last visit to some of her favorite childhood places and reflects on all the people who have come and gone in her life. She is struck by how much of Johnny’s character lives on in Neely who has become a talented jazz/ragtime piano player. Before she leaves the apartment, Francie notices the Tree of Heaven that has grown and re-sprouted in the building’s yard despite all efforts to destroy it, seeing in it a metaphor for her family’s ability to overcome adversity and thrive. In the habits of a neighborhood girl, Florry, Francie sees a version of her young self, sitting on the fire escape with a book and watching the young ladies of the neighborhood prepare for their dates. Francie says, “Hello, Francie”, to Florry, and then, “Goodbye, Francie” as she closes the window.

Characters[edit]

Mary Frances “Francie” Nolan is the protagonist. The novel begins when Francie is 11 years old. The rest of the novel tells of Francie’s life until she goes to college at 17. Francie grows up in Brooklyn in the early twentieth century; her family is in constant poverty throughout most of the novel. Francie shares a great admiration for her father, Johnny Nolan, and wishes for an improved relationship with her mother, hardworking Katie Nolan, recognizing similar traits in her mother and herself that she believes are a barrier to true understanding. The story of Francie traces her individual desires, affections, and hostilities while growing up in an aggressive, individualistic, romantic, and ethnic family and neighborhood; more universally it represents the hopes of immigrants in the early twentieth century to rise above poverty through their children, whom they hope will receive “education” and take their place among true Americans. Francie is symbolized by the “Tree of Heaven” that flourishes under the most unlikely urban circumstances.

Katie Rommely Nolan is Francie’s mother and the youngest of her parents’ four daughters. She is a first-generation immigrant with an evil father and an angelic mother who emigrated from Austria. She married Johnny Nolan when she was only 17 years old. Katie is a hardworking, practical woman whose youthful romanticism has been replaced by a frigid realism that often prevents her from sympathizing with those who love her most. She runs her home in such a way that her children are able to enjoy their childhood despite their extreme poverty. Because Johnny is an alcoholic and can rarely hold down a job, Katie becomes the family breadwinner by cleaning apartment buildings. Johnny, however, is more attuned to Francie’s hopes of graduating from high school and becoming a writer. As Francie matures and develops an inclination toward academia, Katie realizes she is more devoted to Neeley than to Francie. Katie becomes pregnant just before Johnny dies and survives on her own until she agrees to marry Sergeant Michael McShane, a pipe-smoking local policeman-turned-politician.

Sissy Rommely is Katie’s oldest sister and one of Francie’s three aunts. Because of her parents’ immigration and lack of knowledge in their new environment, Sissy never goes to school and is therefore illiterate. Sissy is kind, compassionate and beautiful, and many men fall in love with her. She is first married at 14, but after being unable to have any live children with her husband, Sissy leaves him. She marries two more times without ever getting a divorce. In between marriages, Sissy has a number of lovers. She calls each of her husbands and lovers by the name “John” until her final husband, who insists that she properly divorce her second husband and demands to be called by his own name, Steve. Sissy has ten stillborn children, but adopts an immigrant girl’s baby daughter born out of wedlock and eventually gives birth to a healthy son of her own.

Johnny Nolan is Francie’s father. He is a first-generation American; his parents immigrated from Ireland. He has a protective mother and had three brothers, all of whom died young. Johnny marries Katie Rommely at nineteen. He is charismatic, a loving husband and father, loved dearly by his family but especially by Francie. He is, however, an alcoholic. When he does hold a job, Johnny works as a singing waiter. He has a beautiful voice, a talent that is greatly admired but that is largely wasted because of his reputation as an alcoholic. After Katie tells him that she is pregnant with their third child, he stops drinking and immediately falls into a deep depression that ends with his death from alcoholism-induced pneumonia. He is a dreamer, in sharp contrast to Katie, whose view of the world is realistic.

Cornelius “Neeley” Nolan is Francie’s little brother. He is a year younger than Francie and is favored by his mother, Katie. Neeley is an outgoing child who is more widely accepted by the neighborhood children than Francie. He shows more emotion when his father dies than Francie, who reacts to the loss by becoming even more determined to get an education and rise above her mother’s limited vision. Neeley refuses to follow the tradition of Nolan men and determines to never become an alcoholic. Like Francie, he feels that their childhood was pleasant despite their poverty.

Eva “Evy” Rommely Flittman is Katie’s youngest sister and Francie’s other aunt, playing a role more minor than Sissy’s. While considered throughout most of the novel to be in less dire circumstances than Katie, Evy struggles with her lazy husband Willie, a milk-wagon driver. When Willie suffers an injury, Evy drives the route instead and proves surprisingly good at it, treating the horses much more kindly than Willie does. At the end of the novel, he leaves her to travel as a one-man band and she carries on without a husband. When McShane gives Katie $1,000 as a wedding present, she passes $200 on to Evy—the value of Willie’s life insurance policy. Unlike Sissy, Evy has had only one marriage and is not assumed to be promiscuous. She has three children, a girl (Blossom), and two boys (Paul Jones and Willie, Jr.).

Eliza Rommely is Francie’s third aunt who is only mentioned once. She became a nun because of her mother’s love of the Catholic church. Francie only met her once. At first Francie toyed with the idea of being a nun, but when she saw her aunt’s mustache-like facial hair, she thought that happened to all nuns, and changed her mind.

Thomas and Mary Rommely are the parents of Sissy, Eliza, Evy, and Katie; they emigrate to America from Austria just before Sissy is born. While Thomas hates America, enjoys tormenting Mary, and forbids the speaking of English at home, Mary patiently endures her hardships and serves as a moral/practical guide for her daughters. Mary cannot read or write English, but she encourages Katie to ensure that her children learn the language, and also to begin saving money so she can buy land someday. The Rommelys’ second oldest daughter, Eliza, is mentioned only briefly; she becomes a nun and joins a convent.

Flossie Gaddis is one of the Nolans’ neighbors, a single woman who scares men away as she constantly looks for new relationships. She keeps her right arm covered at all times to hide scars from a childhood accident with a tub of scalding water. She has a brother, Henny, who is dying of tuberculosis.

Lee Rhynor is Francie’s first love, a soldier on leave who tries to manipulate Francie into sleeping with him after he wins over her heart. When Francie refuses, he goes back to his fiancee.

Ben Blake is a boy Francie befriends during her first summer of college classes. Ben is driven and determined. While he is the object of Francie’s affection at first, she feels differently after falling in love with Lee. However, at the end of the novel, Francie goes to college with a promise ring from Ben and hope of a future with him.

Themes[edit]

Although the book addresses many different issues—poverty, alcoholism, lying, etc.—its main theme is the need for tenacity: the determination to rise above difficult circumstances. Although there are naturalistic elements in the book, it is not fundamentally naturalistic. The Nolans are financially restricted by poverty yet find ways to enjoy life and satisfy their needs and wants. For example, Francie can become intoxicated just by looking at flowers. Like the Tree of Heaven, Brooklyn’s inhabitants fight for the sun and air necessary to their survival.

Idealism and pragmatism are weighed and both found necessary to survival in Brooklyn. Johnny lies about his family’s address in order to enable Francie to attend a better school, presenting Francie with opportunities that might not have been available to her otherwise. Sissy helps Johnny recover from alcoholic withdrawals by appealing to his libido, helping Katie and Johnny to stay together despite Johnny’s disease. Katie explains love and sexuality to Francie from two somewhat clashing points of view: as a mother and as a woman. The book revises traditional notions of right and wrong and suggests pointedly that extreme poverty changes the criteria on which such notions, and those who embrace them, should be judged.

Gender roles are more fluid in A Tree than in previous novels about young people. Katie’s hands grow rough as she performs physical labor while Johnny’s hands remain smooth and he wears expensive clothing. Francie does not fully begin to realize her own femininity until she can prove useful to her mother in childbirth. As Francie discovers her desire for companionship, she begins to understand the injustices women are often forced to endure when pregnant out of wedlock.

Other issues the book addresses include:

  • Man vs. his environment
  • Education
  • Coming of age/loss of innocence
  • Family
  • Exploitation
  • Love
  • Poverty
  • The American Dream
  • Human Life/What it means to be human

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

Another Thursday, another ZOOM meeting!   Six of us got together to discuss Margaret Atwood’s 2019 Novel, “The Testaments,” a sequel to her blockbuster “The Handmaid’s Tale.”   Jay Carr, Kathleen Angelone, Sarona Burchard, Susannah Windell (our moderator) and Bill Briscoe were there.  Two of the guys admitted that they didn’t get all the way through the 415 page doorstop, so the gals ruled the discussion.  

Sussanah had some thought-provoking observations.  She felt that, compared to Handmaid, Testaments gave more insight into Aunt Lydia’s internal life, going deeper into her history and how she became the woman she was.   An underlying theme of the book was how different people make different choices to cope with life’s situations.  For example, Nicole (who appears under four different names) chose to become a nun-like Handmaiden to escape an unwanted arranged marriage.

Much of the novel deals with forced conformity, Atwood picks up the social commentary and an underlying motif is the old “it could happen here” song.   Lydia would appear to be bucking the male-pleasing world Atwood created.  However, the group felt that she was not entirely convincing as a resistance leader in the Mayday movement.  By becoming a mole in the Gilead universe she was trying to make a difference and redeem herself.   In the end, after helping bring down the Gilead establishment by exposing sexual infidelities and spousal murder (a logical step in a society that does not allow divorce!) she contemplated suicide, anticipating that the remnants of Gilead would do her in.

So the novel is a picture of a frightening society, full of dread and uneasiness.  Bad things are happening and things are changing in a slow and subtle way.  Is the novel a warning?  Are we blind-eyed sheep, stumbling as the rug is pulled out from under us?   Well, as the Man from Hibbing told us six decades ago, “the times they are a changin’… the answer is blowin’ in the wind.”   Or, if you want to kick it back another forty years listen to another pessimist:  William Butler Yeats whose depressing work “The Second Coming” has always given me pause:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep

Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

On that cheery note we concluded our 90 minute discussion.

We fired up the impeccable KV rating scale and came up with an average of 8 on the 10 point ladder.  Gene Helverson was unable to join us due to another commitment but sent his vote (which sank the average)  by email.  We look forward to his return.  Books mentioned, maybe even recommended, during the meeting were:  “Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me”  (Tavis and Aronson -2007) and “The Unpersuadibles” (George Monbiot – 2010).  Two books that take the deplorables to task for their cognitive dissonance and their refusal to accept the learned conclusions of their scientific betters.  A lesson for our times, no doubt.

Our next adventure will happen on September 24, 2020 when our founder, Phil Watts will lead us through a rite-of-passage novel from 1943,  “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” by Betty Smith who tells us what was like to be a young woman growing up in New York City early on in the 20th Century.

That particular tree was a “Tree of Heaven” which has an incredibly rotten smell.  I can relate to that as I have struggled with a magnificent Gingko tree in my front yard for almost 50 years.  Its rotten female fruit will make you want to vomit.  See you on Thursday, September 24, at 11AM.  I will forward the ZOOM instructions as soon as I hear from someone more tech savvy.

Dave Young

Excerpt from Wikipedia:

The Testaments is a 2019 novel by Margaret Atwood. It is a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).[2] The novel is set 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. It is narrated by Aunt Lydia, a character from the previous novel; Agnes, a young woman living in Gilead; and Daisy, a young woman living in Canada.[3]

The Testaments was joint winner of the 2019 Man Booker Prize, alongside Bernardine Evaristo‘s novel Girl, Woman, Other.[4] It was also voted ‘Best Fiction’ novel in the Goodreads Choice Awards 2019, winning by over 50,000 votes.[5]

Plot Summary:

The novel alternates between the perspectives of three women, presented as portions of a manuscript written by one (the Ardua Hall Holograph) and testimony by the other two.

Lydia, a divorced judge, is imprisoned with other women in a stadium during the establishment of Gilead. After enduring weeks of squalid conditions and solitary confinement, she and a small group of other women are handpicked by Commander Judd and Vidala, a pre-existing supporter of Gilead, to become Aunts – an elite group of women tasked with creating and overseeing the laws and uniforms governing Gilead’s women. The Aunts use Ardua Hall as their headquarters and enjoy certain privileges that include reading “forbidden” texts, such as Cardinal John Henry Newman‘s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. In secret, Aunt Lydia despises Gilead and becomes a mole supplying critical information to the Mayday resistance organization.

Fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, a girl named Agnes Jemima is growing up in Boston as the adopted daughter of Commander Kyle and his wife Tabitha. Agnes has a loving relationship with Tabitha, who later dies of ill health. Agnes and her classmates Becka and Shunammite attend an elite preparatory school for the daughters of Commanders, where they are taught to run a household, but not to read or write. Once widowed, Commander Kyle marries Paula, the widow of a deceased Commander. She despises Agnes, acquires a Handmaid who conceives a son, Mark, for herself, and arranges for Agnes to be married to Commander Judd, now a high-ranking official in charge of surveillance on the population of Gilead.

Agnes later learns that she is the daughter of a Handmaid. She manages to escape her arranged marriage by becoming a Supplicant, a prospective Aunt. In that pursuit she joins Becka, whose father – a prominent dentist – has been sexually abusing her and his other underage female patients for years. Later, Agnes is anonymously provided with files highlighting the corruption and hypocrisy at the heart of Gilead, specifically evidence of adultery between Commander Kyle and Paula and their murders of their respective spouses. She also learns that she is the sister of “Baby Nicole,” a girl who was smuggled out of Gilead to Canada by her Handmaid mother when she was young (and whose return the government of Gilead has been demanding).

Meanwhile, a girl named Daisy – several years younger than Agnes – grows up in Toronto‘s Queen Street West with her adoptive parents, Neil and Melanie. The couple owns a second-hand clothes shop that serves as a front for Mayday to smuggle women out of Gilead. On her 16th birthday, Daisy’s adoptive parents are murdered by undercover Gilead operatives, who also obtain information about the smuggling operations. Daisy is spirited into hiding by several Mayday operatives, who reveal that Daisy is actually Nicole.

Running out of hiding places for Nicole, the Mayday operatives enlist her in a mission to infiltrate Gilead in order to obtain invaluable intelligence from their mysterious mole. Nicole poses as a street urchin named Jade in order to be recruited by the Pearl Girls, Gilead missionaries who lure foreign women to Gilead with the promise of a better life. The plan works, and Nicole is picked up by the Pearl Girls and taken to Gilead.

The disguised Nicole is placed under the care of Agnes and Becka, who are now respectively named Aunts Victoria and Immortelle. Aunt Lydia confirms that “Jade” is Nicole through a tattoo and discloses her true identity and parentage to Agnes and Becka. Revealing herself as Mayday’s mole, Aunt Lydia enlists the three young women in a mission to smuggle incriminating information about Gilead’s elite into Canada. Nicole is tasked with carrying the files inside a microdot on her tattoo. Aunt Lydia’s plan is for Agnes and Nicole to enter Canada disguised as Pearl Girls, with Nicole impersonating Becka. The real Becka, disguised as Jade, is to remain at a retreat.

However, Aunt Lydia and the girls are forced to hasten their plans when Commander Judd learns about Nicole’s presence and plans to marry her in order to consolidate his political power. Under Aunt Lydia’s instructions, Agnes and Nicole travel by bus to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, then by boat along the Penobscot River. This boat takes them to a larger vessel whose captain is tasked with smuggling them to Canada. After reaching Canadian waters, Agnes and Nicole travel on an inflatable to Campobello Island, where they are picked up by a Mayday team.

Using the information inside Nicole’s microdot, the Canadian media leaks scandalous information about Gilead’s elite, which leads to a purge that in turn causes a military coup, bringing about the collapse of Gilead and the subsequent restoration of the United States. Agnes and Nicole are reunited with their mother. Aunt Lydia steals a vial of morphine and prepares to give herself a lethal overdose before she can be arrested and executed. It is also revealed that Becka died while hiding in a cistern to perpetuate the ruse that “Jade” had run off with a plumber.

The novel concludes with a metafictional epilogue, described as a partial transcript of an international historical association conference. The events of the novel are framed by a lecture read by Professor James Darcy Pieixoto at the 13th Symposium on Gileadean Studies, in 2197. He questions whether Aunt Lydia wrote the Ardua Hall Holograph. He is also curious about the identities of Agnes, Nicole, and their Handmaid mother.

Characters[edit]

Aunt Lydia[edit]

The first protagonist, Aunt Lydia, first appeared as an antagonist in The Handmaid’s Tale. She chronicles her life in an illicit manuscript, including details of her life before Gilead and how she came to be made an Aunt. She also meditates on the inner workings of Gilead’s theonomy, its hypocrisy, and endemic corruption. Lydia’s manuscript is later published as The Ardua Hall Holograph, also known as The Testaments. The provenance of the book, like that of Offred which was published as The Handmaid’s Tale, is in question. In The Testaments, Aunt Lydia emerges as a woman who accepts that she must do what is necessary to stay alive, but who quietly tries to work within the system to pursue a measure of justice, fairness, and compassion.[6][3]

Agnes Jemima[edit]

The second protagonist, Agnes Jemima, has been adopted by a Gileadean family, who are raising her to become the wife of a commander. When she becomes a Supplicant, she takes the name Aunt Victoria. [7] She is raised without any knowledge of her true origins.[6][3]

Nicole[edit]

The third protagonist, Nicole, also known as Daisy, is the daughter of a Handmaid who smuggled her out of Gilead and into Canada as a baby. She lives in Toronto with her adoptive parents Neil and Melanie, who own a second-hand clothing store called the Clothes Hound. Like Agnes, Nicole is raised without any knowledge of her true origins.[6] She takes an interest in human rights violations in neighboring Gilead.[3]

Becka[edit]

A primary supporting character. Like Agnes she is the daughter of a Handmaid adopted by a Gileadean family being prepared for a high status marriage.[8] However, her “father” is not a Commander but rather an important figure, a dentist, in the Gileadean Upper Class.[9] When she becomes a Supplicant, she takes the name Aunt Immortelle.[10]

Reception[edit]

Serena Davies of The Daily Telegraph described The Testaments as “a lurid and powerful sequel”. She concluded: “Atwood has given us a blockbuster of propulsive, almost breathless narrative, stacked with twists and turns worthy of a Gothic novel”.[11]

In an interview by Martha Teichner, for CBS News Sunday Morning, Atwood insisted the novel contains “tons of hope— lots and lots of hope” when questioned about the premise.[12] Michiko Kakutani, writing for The New York Times, contrasts Atwood’s thesis of writing one’s testimony being an “act of hope”, against “the pompous, myopic Gileadean scholars who narrate the satirical epilogues” of both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments.[13]

The book was shortlisted for the 2020 Fiction Book of the Year in the British Book Awards.[14]

Relationship to television series[edit]

Atwood wrote The Testaments in coordination with the ongoing The Handmaid’s Tale television series, letting the producers know where she was taking the sequel and affirming certain characters’ storylines are not impacted by how they appear in The Testaments, since the setting of the television series is several years away from directly portraying events in this novel.[15] Bruce Miller, producer of the television series, has acknowledged the new novel’s storyline will be taken into account as the series continues.[16]

Formats[edit]

The novel was released simultaneously as a book and as an audiobook featuring Ann Dowd narrating the lead role of Aunt Lydia. Atwood said that Dowd’s performance as Aunt Lydia on the series helped inspire the new novel.[17] The role of Agnes is read by Bryce Dallas Howard, while Daisy/Nicole is read by Mae Whitman. Tantoo Cardinal and Derek Jacobi read the roles of scholars in the epilogue. The audiobook also features Atwood herself.[18]

In a separate adaption, BBC Radio 4 serialized the novel in 15 quarter-hour episodes.[19]

All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

We met to discuss John Hersey’s 1947 non-fiction novel “Hiroshima” via ZOOM.  We had twelve bookclubbers on ten screens!  Participants were:  Jay Carr (our host),  Mark Hudson (our moderator),  Bill Briscoe and Susannah Wendell,  John Sturman and Karen Last, Sarona Burchard, Kathleen Angelone, Ron Elkins, John Hawn,  Gene Helveston, and Dave Young.

 I should start this summary with a second disclaimer.  I  spent 35 years of my life working with various nuclear weapons programs both in the military and the federal civil service.  Excuse me if I come across as somewhat jaded.  Just call me Cpl. Strangelove.  I never learned how to love the bomb, but I sure as hell learned how to live with it.  

Mark set the stage by telling us that he wanted to talk about this book because the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing is coming up this August.  John Hersey, a war correspondent, conceived this book after reading Thornton Wilder’s 1927 novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,”  which examines the lives of five people killed in a bridge collapse and raises all kinds of existential questions.  The book won a Pulitzer Prize.  Hersey, himself, went on to win a Pulitzer for a later novel,  “A Bell for Adono.”  In “Hiroshima,”  Hersey traces the lives of six survivors (two clergymen, two physicians, and two Japanese women – a clerk and a widow) from the moment of the blast until about one year afterwards.

The text of “Hiroshima” first appeared in an August 1946 issue of the New Yorker Magazine.  It was initially planned to be serialized in four installments but the magazine’s brilliant editor William Shawn made a last minute decision to devote a whole issue to the story.  Even the staff was surprised.  Ironically, the magazine cover which had been laid on in advance displayed a tranquil New York playground in its summer glory.  Almost 40 years later, Hersey added a fifth chapter “Aftermath,” in which he updated the six lives.  Unfortunately many of us were cheated out of this chapter as several recent editions chose not to include it.  Those who read Chapter 5 thought it improved the book.

We talked about the concept of total warfare.  Apparently our government knew that American GI’s were being held as prisoners of war in Nagasaki where the second A-bomb hit.  But that didn’t matter.   More people probably died from American fire-bombing of Japanese cities.  Not dramatic enough to get anyone’s attention.  Harry Truman was reportedly kept in the dark about the Manhattan project and didn’t learn about the A-Bomb until FDR’s death in April, 1945.  Some suggested HST was ignorant about the destructive power of the A-bomb and may not have used it if he had only known.  It was said that Truman spared Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, for sentimental reasons.  Even though Japan had been defeated in sea and air, a land war on Japanese soil would have cost thousands of American lives.  Was dropping the bomb a good thing?   Did we really have to drop the second A-bomb on Nagasaki three days later?  Some of us believe that the first bomb might have been necessary but the second bomb was an act of inhumanity.  Did the Japanese know that we only had two A-bombs ready to go?   So the Emperor Hirohito surrendered and cut a deal.  All he asked was that he be allowed to continue his ceremonial role of Emperor.  No Nurenberg trial for him!

John Dower’s critique of post-war Japan,  “Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of WWII” (1999),  deals with the way Japan recreated itself during the ten year American Occupation.  Sadly, the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (the Hibakusha)  suffered discrimination by their fellow Japanese.  They were a reminder of a period of shame and had difficulty getting jobs or finding a spouse.  There was an irrational fear that their unborn children would be defective.   Medical care was also a problem as Japan did not have a strong public health system.  Citizens relied on sole practitioners who set up hospitals with 20-30 patients and demanded cash payment.    In 1954, toward the end of the occupation, the Japanese government recognized the problem with the Hibakusha and passed laws to give them some support.

We demonstrated our moral superiority by being offended by an old TV production.  Those of us who grew up in the 1950’s will probably remember  creepy Ralph Edwards and his sappy weekly TV Show “This is Your Life.”   His shtick was to invite some unsuspecting subject to his studio on a pretext and then to ambush the subject with people who had made a difference in their lives.  Such an episode occurred in 1955, when survivor Rev.  Tanimoto  came on the show and was confronted by Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay who was overcome with guilt for his role in the bombing.  It was an awkward interface made even worse as Lewis was apparently drunk.  To complete the reality show, Edwards handed out prizes to the participants, remarking that it was the “American Way.”  Through the wonders of technology you  can watch the 30 minute show here: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/xl3jx5.  Capt. Robert Lewis appears around the 15th minute.

Sarona, who has apparently been watching way too much Fox News, told us about a recent book by Chris Wallace:   “Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World.”   This might answer some of your many questions.

We talked about historiography and how much writing about WWII was propaganda.  Hersey presented his account as fairly straight reportage even though it wasn’t straight non-fiction.  He must have supplemented the survivor’s account of their suffering with his imagination as to their thoughts and actions.  Later in life he took some pride in his contribution to the “New Journalism” and reportedly resented the attention Truman Capote and others received for their “non-fiction” novels.    “Hiroshima” was seen as an antidote to the propaganda America had generated during the war.  Japanese had been seen as less than human.  A blindly obedient people who would defend their Emperor to “the last man.”  Indeed, long after the surrender, some Japanese soldiers who did not get the word continued to fight in the more remote islands.  Someone noted that Americans had their own “last man” problem.  Remember the Alamo?  

Hersey’s contribution was to see the Japanese as real flesh and blood people in all their humanity.  They were resourceful and concentrated all their energy on surviving.  The efforts of the women to care for their children under almost impossible conditions were also touching. If Hersey was correct, this was not a time for them to blame the Americans or Hirohito for their plight.  We gave this rather flat and solid work a stunning 9 points on the all-knowing 10 point KV Scale.

Please join us next month at 11AM on Thursday, August 27, 2020 when Susannah will guide us through Margaret Atwood’s  “The Testaments.”   This 2019 novel is a sequel to  “The Handmaid’s Tale.” This will probably be by ZOOM as it is unclear when the KV Memorial Library will reopen.  I will update this blog when information becomes available.

Dave Young

*********************

From: Wikipedia (excerpts)

Hiroshima is a 1946 book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Hersey. It tells the stories of six survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It is regarded as one of the earliest examples of the New Journalism, in which the story-telling techniques of fiction are adapted to non-fiction reporting.

The work was originally published in The New Yorker,[1] which had planned to run it over four issues but instead dedicated the entire edition of August 31, 1946, to a single article.[2] Less than two months later, the article was printed as a book by Alfred A. Knopf. Never out of print,[3] it has sold more than three million copies.[1][4] “Its story became a part of our ceaseless thinking about world wars and nuclear holocaust,” New Yorker essayist Roger Angell wrote in 1995.[1]

Background[edit]

Before writing Hiroshima, Hersey had been a war correspondent in the field, writing for Life magazine and The New Yorker. He followed troops during the invasions of Italy and Sicily during World War II.[5] In 1944, Hersey began working in the Pacific Theater and followed Lt. John F. Kennedy through the Solomon Islands.[6] One of the first Western journalists to view the ruins of Hiroshima after the bombing, Hersey was commissioned by William Shawn of The New Yorker to write articles about the impact of a nuclear explosion by using witness accounts, a subject virtually untouched by journalists.[6] Hersey interviewed many witnesses; he focused his article on six in particular.

Publication in The New Yorker[edit]

The issue of August 31, 1946, arrived in subscribers’ mailboxes bearing a light-hearted cover of a summer picnic in a park. There was no hint what was inside. Hersey’s article began where the magazine’s regular “Talk of the Town” column usually began, immediately after the theater listings. At the bottom of the page, the editors appended a short note: “TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use. The Editors.” One of the few people other than the principal editors of The New Yorker tipped to the forthcoming publication was the magazine’s principal writer E. B. White, to whom Harold Ross confided his plans. “Hersey has written thirty thousand words on the bombing of Hiroshima (which I can now pronounce in a new and fancy way)”, Ross wrote to White in Maine, “one hell of a story, and we are wondering what to do about it … [William Shawn, managing editor of The New Yorker] wants to wake people up, and says we are the people with a chance to do it, and probably the only people that will do it, if it is done.”[7]

Literary reception[edit]

Containing a detailed description of the bomb’s effects, the article was a publishing sensation. In plain prose, Hersey described the horrifying aftermath of the atomic device: people with melted eyeballs, or people vaporized, leaving only their shadows etched onto walls.[8] The New Yorker article Hiroshima was an immediate best seller and was sold out at newsstands within hours.[5] Many requests for reprints were received by the magazine’s offices. The ABC Radio Network preempted regular programming to broadcast readings of the complete text by well-known actors in four half-hour programs.[9] Many radio stations abroad did likewise, including the BBC in Britain, where newsprint rationing that continued after the war’s end prevented its publication; Hersey would not permit editing of the piece to cut its length.[3][10] The Book of the Month Club rushed a copy of the article into book format, which it sent to members as a free selection, saying “We find it hard to conceive of anything being written that could be of more important [sic] at this moment to the human race.”[3][7]

Published a little more than a year after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the American public was shown a different interpretation of the Japanese from what had been previously described in the media.[11] The Americans could let go of some of the guilt knowing that the Japanese did not blame them for this terrible act of war.[11] After reading Hiroshima, a Manhattan Project scientist wrote that he wept as he remembered how he had celebrated the dropping of the atomic bomb.[11] Scientists along with the American public felt shame and guilt at the suffering of the people of Hiroshima.[11] As voiced by witnesses in Hiroshima, the people of Hiroshima did not blame the Americans for the infliction but instead their own government.[4][12] Many Japanese believe that the dropping of the atomic bomb saved Japan and it was widely thought that the Japanese Government would have destroyed the entire country before losing the war.[11]

The 31,000 word article was published later the same year by Alfred A. Knopf as a book.[13] Hersey’s work is often cited as one of the earliest examples of New Journalism in its melding of elements of non-fiction reportage with the pace and devices of the novel. Hersey’s plain prose was praised by critics as a model of understated narrative. Hersey rarely gave interviews and abhorred going on anything resembling book tours, as his longtime editor Judith Jones recalled. “If ever there was a subject calculated to make a writer overwrought and a piece overwritten, it was the bombing of Hiroshima”, wrote Hendrik Hertzberg; “yet Hersey’s reporting was so meticulous, his sentences and paragraphs were so clear, calm and restrained, that the horror of the story he had to tell came through all the more chillingly.”[14]

The author said he adopted the plain style to suit the story he strove to tell. “The flat style was deliberate”, Hersey said 40 years later, “and I still think I was right to adopt it. A high literary manner, or a show of passion, would have brought me into the story as a mediator. I wanted to avoid such mediation, so the reader’s experience would be as direct as possible.”[7]

The founder of The New Yorker Harold Ross told his friend, author Irwin Shaw: “I don’t think I’ve ever got as much satisfaction out of anything else in my life.” But The New Yorker’s publication of Hersey’s article caused trouble with respect to Hersey’s relationship with Henry Luce, the co-founder of Time-Life and Hersey’s first mentor, who felt Hersey should have reported the event for one of Luce’s magazines instead. Despite Luce’s misgivings about Hersey’s choice of The New Yorker to print the Hiroshima story, the magazine’s format and style allowed the author much more freedom in reporting and writing. The Luce publications – Time, Life and Fortune – had nothing similar. Moreover, The New Yorker went to unprecedented lengths to keep the Hersey story secret. The weekly magazine’s top editors observed complete secrecy about the printing of the article. While editors Harold Ross and William Shawn spent long hours editing and deliberating every sentence, the magazine’s staff was not told anything about the forthcoming issue. Staffers were baffled when the normal weekly proofs were not returned, and their inquiries were not answered. Even the advertisement department was deliberately not informed.[7]

Time magazine said about Hiroshima:

Every American who has permitted himself to make jokes about atom bombs, or who has come to regard them as just one sensational phenomenon that can now be accepted as part of civilization, like the airplane and the gasoline engine, or who has allowed himself to speculate as to what we might do with them if we were forced into another war, ought to read Mr. Hersey. When this magazine article appears in book form the critics will say that it is in its fashion a classic. But it is rather more than that.[11]

The magazine later termed Hersey’s account of the bombing “the most celebrated piece of journalism to come out of World War II.”[15]

It was also met with approval by The New Republic which said “Hersey’s piece is certainly one of the great classics of the war”.[16] While the majority of the excerpts praised the article, Mary McCarthy said that “to have done the atomic bomb justice, Mr. Hersey would have had to interview the dead”.[17] It was quickly a book in the Book-of-the-Month Club; it was distributed for free because of the questions it raised about the humanity of the human race.[18] Hiroshima was also read word for word on the radio by the American Broadcasting Company, amplifying its effects.[2][19]

Publication in Japan[edit]

Although the US military government (headed by Douglas MacArthur)[20] dissuaded publishers from bringing out the book in Japan, small numbers of copies were distributed; in January 1947 Hersey gave a reading in English in Tokyo.[2] A Japanese translation of Hiroshima was first published in 1949 Japan (it has not been out of print since).[5][21][22] According to Gar Alperovitz in The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, “Occupation authorities suppressed various accounts of the atomic bombings. A noteworthy instance involved the denial in later 1946 of a request by the Nippon Times to publish John Hersey’s Hiroshima (in English).”[23] MacArthur said in 1948 that despite numerous charges of censorship made against the censors office by the US news media Hiroshima was not banned in Japan.[24]

Outline[edit]

The article begins on the morning of August 6, 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped, killing an estimated 135,000 people.[25] The book begins with the following sentence:

At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.

— Hiroshima, John Hersey, 1946[26]

Hersey introduces the six characters: two doctors, a Protestant minister, a widowed seamstress, a young female factory worker and a German Catholic priest.[27] It describes their mornings before the bomb was dropped. Through the book, the lives of these six people overlap as they share similar experiences. Each chapter covers a time period from the morning of the bombing to one year later for each witness. An additional chapter covering the aftermath 40 years after the bombing was added in later editions.

The six characters are:

Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto

Tanimoto was 3,500 yards from center. He was pastor at Hiroshima Methodist Church, a small man in stature, “quick to talk, laugh and cry”, weak yet fiery, cautious and thoughtful, educated in theology at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, US, speaks excellent English, obsessed with being spied on, Chairman of Neighborhood Association.[4]

Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura

Nakamura was 1,350 yards from explosion center. She is a widow of a tailor who is raising her three children (10-year-old boy Toshio, eight-year-old girl Yaeko, and five-year-old girl Myeko), husband recently died in Singapore in the war effort.

Dr. Masakazu Fujii

Fujii was 1,550 yards from explosion center. He is described as hedonistic, owns private hospital that contains 30 rooms for patients with modern equipment, family living in Osaka and Kyushu, convivial and calm.

Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge (Makoto Takakura)

Kleinsorge was 1,400 yards from explosion center. Kleinsorge was 38 years old at the time, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, weakened by wartime diet, feels unaccepted by the Japanese people, “thin face, with a prominent Adam’s apple, a hollow chest, dangling hands, big feet.”.[4] His father superior within the mission station is Hugo Lassalle.[28]

Dr. Terufumi Sasaki

Sasaki was 1,650 yards from the center of the explosion. He was 25 years old, a young surgeon at the Red Cross Hospital. He lived with his mother in Mukaihara, an idealist, upset with poor health services and practiced medicine in communities with poor health care without a permit, not related to Miss Toshiko Sasaki.

Miss Toshiko Sasaki (Sister Dominique Sasaki)

Sasaki was 1,600 yards from the center of the explosion. She was 20 years old and engaged to soldier, as well as working as a “clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works”[4]

“A Noiseless Flash”[edit]

This chapter introduces the characters and details the witnesses’ accounts of the morning before and their perception of the explosion of the atomic bomb. The explosion occurred at exactly 8:15 am, local time. Miss Toshiko is at her desk and talking to a fellow employee at the Tin factory when the room filled with ” a blinding light”.[4] and the flash was so powerful that it pushed over a bookshelf crushing Miss Toshiko’s leg while she went unconscious. She was covered with a bookshelf while the building collapsed around her. While sitting on his porch, Dr. Masakuza Fujii witnessed a “brilliant yellow” flash and toppled into the river.[4] He injured his shoulder severely. After returning to her home from a safe area, Mrs. Nakamura saw a flash “whiter than any white she had” seen before.[4] She was thrown into the next room while her children were buried in debris. While reading his morning paper, Father Wilhem Kleinsorge witnesses a “terrible flash … [like] a large meteor colliding with the earth”.[4] He found himself in the vegetable garden of the missionary with only small cuts. Standing alone in a corridor, Dr. Terufumi Sasaki saw a “gigantic photographic flash”.[4] The explosion ripped the hospital apart but Dr. Sasaki remained untouched except his glasses and shoes had been blown off his body. Dr. Sasaki was now the only doctor to be unhurt in the hospital and the hospital was quickly filled with patients. Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto saw a “tremendous flash of light cut across the sky”.[4] Tanimoto threw himself against a wall of his home and felt pressure, splinters, and debris falls on him.

“The Fire”[edit]

Chapter 2 documents the time immediately after the explosion where the fires are spreading and the witnesses are trying to save others and find safety for themselves. Immediately after the explosion, Reverend Tanimoto ran in search of his family and parishioners. He puts aside the search for his family when he comes across people in need of help and then resumes the search for his family. Mrs. Nakamura travels with her children and neighbor to Asano Park at the Jesuit mission house. Mrs. Nakamura and her children are continuously vomiting. Father Kleinsorge is found wandering the mission grounds with numerous pieces of glass in his back. Father Kleinsorge ran into his room and grabbed a first aid kit and his suitcase containing money and paperwork of the mission. Father Kleinsorge and others go out and bring food back for everyone at Asano Park.

Dr. Fujii’s hospital was in the nearby river while he was trapped between its beams, unable to move. Dr. Fujii looks at the city and calls it “an endless parade of misery”.[4] Dr. Sasaki “worked without method” in deciding which patient would receive care next.[4] Patients filled every inch of the hospital. People were throwing up everywhere. He became like a robot, repeating treatment on patient after patient. Miss Sasaki still lies unconscious under the bookshelf and crumbled building. Her leg is only severely broken. She is propped up alongside two badly wounded people and left. Father Kleinsorge sets off for Asano Park. Mr. Tanimoto has crossed town to find his family and parishioners. He apologizes to the wounded as he passes by for not being injured. Only out of luck does he run into his wife and child on the banks of the Ōta River. They split up so that she may return to Ushida and he may take care of the church.

“Details are Being Investigated”[edit]

Chapter three chronicles the days after the dropping of the bomb, the continuing troubles faced by the survivors, and the possible explanations for the massive devastation that the witnesses come across.

On August 12, the Nakamuras continued to be sick and discovered the rest of their family had perished. Mr. Tanimoto continues to ferry people from one side of the river to the other in hopes of bringing them to safety from the fires. Father Kleinsorge, weakened by his injuries and previous illness, remains in the Park. He is finally welcomed by the Japanese and no longer feels like a foreigner. Dr. Fujii sleeps on the floor of his destroyed family’s home. His left clavicle is broken and is covered in many deep cuts. Ten thousand wounded have shown up at the Red Cross Hospital. Dr. Sasaki is still trying to attend to as many people as possible. All that can be done is to put saline on the worst burns. Dead patients were lying everywhere. Miss Sasaki is still left with no help outside the factory. Finally friends come to locate her body and she is transferred to a hospital.

At the end of the chapter, on August 15, the war is over.

“Panic Grass and Feverfew”[edit]

It has been twelve days since the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Four square miles of the city had been completely destroyed. Since the bombing, Hiroshima has been flooded which continued chaos and destruction. Many people are now developing radiation sickness and a hatred for the Americans has been festering but decreased once Hiroshima was designated to have safe radiation levels. Father Kleinsorge’s wounds were examined and found to have reopened and become inflamed. Even into September, Father Kleinsorge is getting worse. He was taken to the hospital for a high fever, anemia and low leukocyte levels. Mrs. Nakamura still felt nauseated and her hair began to fall out. Once given the okay that the radiation levels in Hiroshima were acceptable and her appearance was presentable, she returned to her home to retrieve her sewing machine but it was rusted and ruined. Mr. Tanimoto also fell ill without any notice. His fever reached 104 degrees Fahrenheit and he was given Vitamin B1 injections to combat the radiation disease. Miss Sasaki remains hospitalized and in pain. The infection has prevented doctors from being able to set her fractured leg. She was discharged from the hospital at the end of April but was severely crippled. Dr. Fujii is still living in a friend’s summer home and his injuries have progressed well. He has been noting that many survivors are continuing to experience strange problems. He bought a new clinic in a Hiroshima suburb and once healed began a successful practice. Dr. Sasaki has been studying the progression of patients and assigned three stages to the disease. After six months, the Red Cross Hospital began to function normally. He remained the only surgeon on staff but finally had time to get married in March.

One year after the bombing, Miss Sasaki was a cripple; Mrs. Nakamura was destitute; Father Kleinsorge was back in the hospital; Dr. Sasaki was not capable of the work he had once done; Dr. Fujii had lost the thirty-room hospital it took him many years to acquire, and no prospects of rebuilding it; Mr. Tanimoto’s church had been ruined and he no longer had his exceptional vitality.[4]

“The Aftermath”[edit]

This chapter was added forty years after the initial publication in The New Yorker.[1]:p66 It appeared in the July 15, 1985 issue of The New Yorker.[6] Hersey returned to Hiroshima to learn what has become of the six survivors. His record of what he found became chapter 5 in subsequent editions of the book.[5] The survivors of the Hiroshima bombing are now referred to as hibakusha (explosion-affected people). The Japanese initially refused to take any responsibility for the American atomic bombing or the population affected. The victims were discriminated against, and many employers refused to hire a hibakusha because they could not work as hard. Their exposure, called “A-bomb sickness” in Japan, left them with chronic weakness, dizziness and digestive issues, among others. In 1954, the Lucky Dragon No. 5 contamination incident created a political movement for the hibakusha and created the A-bomb Victims Medical Care Law. This law allowed for medical attention for the hibakusha and a monthly allowance for them.

For a time, Mrs. Nakamura made only enough income to get by and feed her family. She fell ill and could no longer work. To receive treatment, she was forced to sell her sewing machine. She worked odd jobs like delivering bread where she could take three or four days off to recover before working again. She continued to earn just enough to survive. She worked at a mothball factory for 13 years but did not immediately sign up for her health allowance through the A-bomb Victims Medical Care Law. She was invited to be a member of the Bereaved Family Association and traveled the world.

Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, who suffered no side effects from the bombing, was haunted by the images of the Red Cross Hospital after the bombing. In 1951, Dr. Sasaki quit working at the Red Cross Hospital. He started his own practice in his hometown and normally performed simple surgeries. He decided to build a geriatric hospital. He continued to regret not keeping better track of all the cremated bodies at the hospital.

Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge continued to suffer from radiation exposure. In 1958, he was named the priest at a much larger church in another part of town. He became a Japanese citizen and changed his name to Father Makoto Takakura. He fell into a coma and died on November 19, 1977. There were always fresh flowers on his grave.

Toshiko Sasaki was abandoned by her fiancé after being left crippled. Over a 14-month period she underwent orthopedic surgery to improve the condition of her leg. After working in an orphanage for five years, she became a nun with the Society of the Helpers of Holy Souls. Taking her final vows in 1953, she adopted the name of Sister Dominique. She was quickly noticed for her potential and made a director of the Garden of St. Joseph, an old people’s home. She retired in 1978 and was rewarded with a trip to the Holy See. She did volunteer work and spent two years as Mother Superior at Misasa, where she had undergone her novitiate.

In 1948, Dr. Fujii built a new medical practice in Hiroshima. He was lucky and faced no long-lasting effects of the A-bomb sickness. Dr. Fujii died on January 12, 1973.

Kiyoshi Tanimoto continued to preach the gospel to the people rebuilding in Hiroshima. He was brought to the United States by the Methodist Board of Missions to raise money for his church. On March 5, 1949, his memorandum, Hiroshima Ideas, was published. In 1950, he returned to America for his second speaking tour. On this trip, he spoke to members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Because of his worldwide tours, he was nicknamed “The A-bomb minister”. In 1955, he returned to America with more Hiroshima Maidens, women who were school-age girls when they were seriously disfigured as a result of the bomb’s thermal flash, and who went to the U.S. for reconstructive surgery. During this trip, he appeared on This Is Your Life with Ralph Edwards. He was surprised to meet Captain Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay.

Lasting impact[edit]

The publication of the article placed Hiroshima and the atomic bomb at the heart of the nuclear war debate. In Hiroshima in History and Memory, Michael J. Hogan writes that Hiroshima created a realization of the magnitude of the event and an entrance into the analysis of the event.[29] It put forward three issues that before had not been faced: the force of modern science, the bomb and the future of nuclear weapons.[29]

The events of the dropping of the atomic bomb live in the psyche of everyone and were brought to gruesome light by Hersey.[29] Hiroshima has and will continue to be “part of our ceaseless thinking about world wars and nuclear holocaust”.[30] The effects of the radiation sickness have continued to be a concern for the world and the safety of nuclear power.[31] These concerns have resurfaced since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor incident.[31] The images brought to the public after the publishing of Hiroshima were revived in the world’s eyes.[31][32]

The grotesque images depicted in Hiroshima led the way for a new wave of science fiction literature. A wave of “future-war” stories such as Flash Gordon are “narrated from the point of view of an ‘everyman’ who witnesses the invasion of his country first hand. As the narrators struggle to survive, we get to witness the horror of the attack through their eyes, and come to loathe the enemy aliens that have so cruelly and unjustly invaded their country.”[2]

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All entries in this blog are freely submitted by members of the Kurt Vonnegut Book Club and are uncensored. Opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library, its staff, or its management.

We met via ZOOM for ninety minutes and had a well-attended and rousing discussion of Albert Camus’ 1947 novel “The Plague.”   We were led by the very knowledgeable John Sturman, who informed us about the various forms of plague and helped us relate them to the current COVID-19 crisis.  Those joining in were Celia Latz, Mark Hudson, Ron Elkins, Susan Wendell, Bill Briscoe, Kathleen Angelone, Jay Carr, Sarona Burchard, and Dave Young.

This less than cheerful novel opens with the mysterious death of hordes of rats, who come out of the sewers to die in heaps in the filthy gutters of Oran.  The high point of this 308 page novel seems to come on page 265, when the rats return to be welcomed by the citizens as a sign that the plague is almost over after almost a year of misery.

After our update on yersinia pestsis, we focused on the Algerian port city of Oran, Algeria’s second city located about 200 miles southwest of Algiers.  Camus was born there in 1913 and lived there as a pied noir (except for periods of education in Algiers) until the Nazis set up the Vichy regime in 1940 at which time he fled to Paris.  Paris soon fell also and he was trapped there until the end of the war.  During the war he was active in La Resistance, primarily as a writer.   Camus lived another twenty years in France before dying in an automobile wreck in 1960 at the age of 47.

Camus spends a lot of time describing Oran’s unappealing landscape.  Hot, dry, and colorless, the city is at sea level and there is little view of the great natural harbor.  In 1940, there were about 200,000 souls living in Oran, half of them European settlers or their descendants (the pied noir) and half a mix of Arab and Berber,  who were treated as second-class French Citizens.  We noted that Camus barely mentioned Arabs or women.

Later in the novel, Camus speaks of the city gates which are closed to prevent the citizens of Oran from escaping.  We thought that Camus was probably taking artistic license as it seemed unlikely that such a remote city would have walls or gates at this time in history.  The novel is set in the 1940’s and does not describe any historical event, although Oran had been ravaged by many plagues in its long history.

Camus is usually lumped in with others as an “existentialist,” a categorization that has become so broad that it has little meaning.  He preferred to be called an “absurdist.”  For an absurdist, the human condition is to constantly search for meaning  in a life which is essential meaningless.  The rational man addresses this problem in one of three ways, all of which are illustrated by characters in “The Plague.”   The first is suicide, the solution Cottard attempts because he is confused about his role.  The second is a “leap to faith” such as that taken by Father Panelouxz who decides that clarity demands an absolute choice between everything and nothing.  He chooses to go with an unquestioning belief in Catholic doctrine.  The third choice, taken by the narrator,  Dr. Rieux, is to accept the absurdity and to continue on the life course one has chosen.  He completely dedicates himself to his medical profession.  

Right in the middle of the book, Camus indulges in a little metafiction.   Drawing on his earlier experience as a producer of plays, he has two of his characters go to a performance of Gluck’s”Orpheus.”  In the opera as in legend, Orpheus descends into Hell to rescue his lover, Eurydice.  On the way back to the surface, the actor portraying Orpheus is overcome by the plague and pitches himself into the orchestra pit.  The audience flees in terror. Art imitates life.

What does this novel have to say about tyranny?  Tyranny is a theme in this novel but never well developed.  Living under Nazi rule, Camus certainly would have had some opinions.  We have become so accustomed to big government that what seems understated today was perhaps damning seventy years ago.   “Never let a crisis go to waste” so allegedly said Obama’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel.   The municipal government of Oran uses the plague to tightly control the populace, yanking families apart in quarantines, shooting those who try to exit the city’s gates.  Even the good Dr. Rieux is a tool of the state as he determines which family members must be taken away to buildings requisitioned for quarantine.   The only functionary mentioned is M. Othon, a magistrate whose son dies an agonizing death described in detail.  Like Rieux, Othon is a man committed to his work and does not resist the establishment.   Everyone, except Rambert, is passive in the face of authority.   Rambert, a writer who was visiting Oran and was trapped when the plague erupted, desperately wants to return to France and his lover.  After plans for his escape are laboriously put into motion, he has a change of heart and decides to stay with the people of Oran for the duration of the plague.  There was some talk of masks.  On page 207, Tarrou gives Rambert a sterilized mask of cotton wool encased in muslin.  “The journalist asked if it was really any use.  Tarrou said no, but it inspired confidence in others.”  And here we are today!

The novel ends on this baleful note: “…[Yersinia Pestis] never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”  What would Kurt think of this?  We know he hated semi-colons.

We voted this work an 7.8 on the immaculately conceived KV ten point scale.  Most agreed that it was not a fun read, but was timely and thought-provoking.…..Susie and Bill announced their recent marriage.  In better times we would have taken them to lunch, but oh well!

The Vonnegut Library does not intend to re-open until August, so our next gathering in July will also be via ZOOM.    We hope that we will be able to do a hybrid format after we resume in-person meetings so that we can stay in touch with Karen and John who will be permanently relocating to California and Sarona whose Hoosier roots have been transplanted to Phoenix.   So we will meet at 11AM on Thursday, July 23, 2020 via ZOOM to discuss John Hersey’s 1946 “non-fiction” novel  “Hiroshima.”  It is mercifully short and the print is large.  Another work of death and destruction!   Please join us.  The link to join the meeting via ZOOM (thanks to Jay Carr) is: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89613724168.

Dave Young

Excerpt from Wikipedia

The Plague (French: La Peste) is a novel by Albert Camus, published in 1947, that tells the story from the point of view of an unknown narrator of a plague sweeping the French Algerian city of Oran. The novel presents a snapshot of life in Oran as seen through the author’s distinctive absurdist point of view.[1]

Camus used as source material the cholera epidemic that killed a large proportion of Oran’s population in 1899, but situated the novel in the 1940s.[2] Oran and its surroundings were struck by disease several times before Camus published his novel. According to an academic study, Oran was decimated by the bubonic plague in 1556 and 1678, but all later outbreaks (in 1921 – 185 cases, 1931 – 76 cases, and 1944 – 95 cases) were very far from the scale of the epidemic described in the novel.[3]

The Plague is considered an existentialist classic despite Camus’ objection to the label.[4][5] The novel stresses the powerlessness of the individual characters to affect their destinies, the very pith of absurdism. The narrative tone is similar to Kafka’s, especially in The Trial, whose individual sentences potentially have multiple meanings; the material often pointedly resonating as stark allegory of phenomenal consciousness and the human condition. Camus included a dim-witted character misreading The Trial as a mystery novel as an oblique homage.[citation needed]

  • Dr. Bernard Rieux: Dr. Bernard Rieux is described as a man about age 35, of moderate height, dark-skinned, with close-cropped black hair. At the beginning of the novel, Rieux’s wife, who has been ill for a year, leaves for a sanatorium. It is Rieux who treats the first victim of plague and first uses the word plague to describe the disease. He urges the authorities to take action to stop the spread of the epidemic. However, at first, along with everyone else, the danger the town faces seems unreal to him. He feels uneasy but does not realise the gravity of the situation. Within a short while, he grasps what is at stake and warns the authorities that unless steps are taken immediately, the epidemic could kill off half the town’s population of two hundred thousand within a couple of months.
  • During the epidemic, Rieux heads an auxiliary hospital and works long hours treating the victims. He injects serum and lances the abscesses, but there is little more that he can do, and his duties weigh heavily upon him. He never gets home until late, and he has to distance himself from the natural pity that he feels for the victims; otherwise, he would not be able to go on. It is especially hard for him when he visits a victim in the person’s home because he knows that he must immediately call for an ambulance and have the person removed from the house. Often, the relatives plead with him not to do so since they know they may never see the person again.
  • Rieux works to combat the plague simply because he is a doctor and his job is to relieve human suffering. He does not do it for any grand, religious purpose, like Paneloux (Rieux does not believe in God), or as part of a high-minded moral code, like Tarrou. He is a practical man, doing what needs to be done without any fuss, but he knows that the struggle against death is something that he can never win.
  • Jean Tarrou: Jean Tarrou arrived in Oran some weeks before the plague broke out for unknown reasons. He is not there on business since he appears to have private means. Tarrou is a good-natured man who smiles a lot. Before the plague came, he liked to associate with the Spanish dancers and musicians in the city. He also keeps a diary, full of his observations of life in Oran, which the Narrator incorporates into the narrative.
  • It is Tarrou who first comes up with the idea of organising teams of volunteers to fight the plague. He wants to do so before the authorities begin to conscript people, and he does not like the official plan to get prisoners to do the work. He takes action, prompted by his own code of morals; he feels that the plague is everybody’s responsibility and that everyone should do his or her duty. What interests him, he tells Rieux, is how to become a saint even though he does not believe in God.    Later in the novel, Tarrou tells Rieux, with whom he has become friends, the story of his life. His father, although a kind man in private, was also an aggressive prosecuting attorney who tried death penalty cases, arguing strongly for the death penalty to be imposed. As a young boy, Tarrou attended one day of a criminal proceeding in which a man was on trial for his life. However, the idea of capital punishment disgusted him. After he left home before 18, his main interest in life was his opposition to the death penalty, which he regarded as state-sponsored murder. However, years of activism, and fighting for the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War have left him disillusioned.   When the plague epidemic is virtually over, Tarrou becomes one of its last victims but puts up a heroic struggle before dying.
  • Raymond Rambert: Raymond Rambert is a journalist who is visiting Oran to research a story on living conditions in the Arab quarter of the town. When the plague strikes, he finds himself trapped in a city with which he feels he has no connection. He misses his girlfriend who is in Paris and uses all his ingenuity and resourcefulness to persuade the city bureaucracy to allow him to leave. When that fails, he contacts smugglers, who agree to help him escape for a fee of ten thousand francs. However, there is a hitch in the arrangements, and by the time another escape plan is arranged, Rambert has changed his mind. He decides to stay in the city and continue to help fight the plague, saying that he would feel ashamed of himself if he pursued a merely private happiness. He now feels that he belongs in Oran, and that the plague is everyone’s business, including his.
  • Joseph Grand: Joseph Grand is a fifty-year-old clerk for the city government. He is tall and thin. Poorly paid, he lives an austere life, but he is capable of deep affection. In his spare time, Grand polishes up his Latin, and he is also writing a book, but he is such a perfectionist that he continually rewrites the first sentence and can get no further. One of his problems in life is that he can rarely find the correct words to express what he means. Grand tells Rieux that he married while still in his teens, but overwork and poverty took their toll (Grand did not receive the career advancement that he had been promised), and his wife Jeanne left him. He tried but failed to write a letter to her, and he still grieves for his loss.   Grand is a neighbor of Cottard, and it is he who calls Rieux for help, when Cottard tries to commit suicide. When the plague takes a grip on the town, Grand joins the team of volunteers, acting as general secretary, recording all the statistics. Rieux regards him as “the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups.” Grand catches the plague himself and asks Rieux to burn his manuscript, but then makes an unexpected recovery. At the end of the novel, Grand says he is much happier; he has written to Jeanne and made a fresh start on his book.
  • Cottard: Cottard lives in the same building as Grand. He does not appear to have a job and is described as having private means although he describes himself as “a traveling salesman in wines and spirits.” Cottard is an eccentric figure, silent and secretive, who tries to hang himself in his room. Afterwards, he does not want to be interviewed by the police since he has committed a crime by attempting suicide and fears arrest.
  • Cottard’s personality changes after the outbreak of plague. Whereas he was aloof and mistrustful before, he now becomes agreeable and tries hard to make friends. He appears to relish the coming of the plague, and Tarrou thinks it is because he finds it easier to live with his own fears now that everyone else is in a state of fear, too. Cottard takes advantage of the crisis to make money by selling contraband cigarettes and inferior liquor.
  • As the epidemic wanes, Cottard’s mood fluctuates. Sometimes he is sociable, but at other times, he shuts himself up in his room. Eventually, he loses his mental balance and shoots at random at people on the street, wounding some and killing a dog. The police arrest him.
  • Father Paneloux: Father Paneloux is a learned, well-respected Jesuit priest. He is well known for having given a series of lectures in which he championed a pure form of Christian doctrine and chastised his audience about their laxity. During the first stage of the plague outbreak, Paneloux preaches a sermon at the cathedral. He has a powerful way of speaking, and he insists to the congregation that the plague is a scourge sent by God to those who have hardened their hearts against him. However, Paneloux also claims that God is present to offer succor and hope. Later, Paneloux attends at the bedside of Othon’s stricken son and prays that the boy may be spared. After the boy’s death, Paneloux tells Rieux that although the death of an innocent child in a world ruled by a loving God cannot be rationally explained, it should nonetheless be accepted. Paneloux joins the team of volunteer workers and preaches another sermon saying that the death of the innocent child is a test of faith. Since God willed the child’s death, so the Christian should will it, too. A few days after preaching this sermon, Paneloux is taken ill. He refuses to call for a doctor, trusting in God alone, and dies. Since his symptoms did not seem to resemble those of the plague, Rieux records his death as a “doubtful case.”

Minor characters[edit]

  • The Narrator: the narrator presents himself at the outset of the book as witness to the events and privy to documents, but does not identify himself with any character until the ending of the novel.
  • The Prefect: The Prefect believes at first that the talk of plague is a false alarm, but on the advice of his medical association, he authorizes limited measures to combat it. When they do not work, he tries to avoid responsibility, saying he will ask the government for orders. Then, he takes responsibility for tightening up the regulations relating to the plague and issues the order to close the town.
  • Dr. Castel: Dr. Castel is one of Rieux’s medical colleagues and is much older than Rieux. He realizes after the first few cases that the disease is bubonic plague and is aware of the seriousness of the situation. He works hard to make an antiplague serum, but as the epidemic continues, he shows increasing signs of wear and tear.
  • M. Othon: M. Othon is a magistrate in Oran. He is tall and thin and, as Tarrou observes in his journal, “his small, beady eyes, narrow nose, and hard, straight mouth make him look like a well-brought-up owl.” Othon treats his wife and children unkindly, but after his son dies of the plague, his character softens. After he finishes his time at the isolation camp, where he is sent because his son is infected, he wants to return there because it would make him feel closer to his lost son. However, before Othon can do this, he contracts the plague and dies.
  • Philippe Othon: Philippe Othon is M. Othon’s young son. When he contracts the plague, he is the first to receive Dr. Castel’s antiplague serum. But the serum is ineffective, and the boy dies after a long and painful struggle.
  • Mme. Rieux: Mme. Rieux is Dr. Rieux’s mother, who comes to stay with him when his sick wife goes to the sanatorium. She is a serene woman who, after taking care of the housework, sits quietly in a chair. She says that at her age, there is nothing much left to fear.
  • Dr. Richard: Dr. Richard is chairman of the Oran Medical Association. He is slow to recommend any action to combat the plague for fear of public alarm. He does not want even to admit that the disease is the plague, referring instead to a “special type of fever.”
  • M. Michel: M. Michel is the concierge of the building in which Rieux lives. An old man, he is the first victim of the plague.
  • Raoul: Raoul is the man who agrees, for a fee of ten thousand francs, to arrange for Rambert to escape. He introduces Rambert to Gonzales.
  • Gonzales: Gonzales is the smuggler who makes the arrangements for Rambert’s escape and bonds with him over football.
  • Asthma Patient: the asthma patient receives regular visits from Dr. Rieux. He is a seventy-five-year-old Spaniard with a rugged face, who comments on events in Oran that he hears about on the radio and in the newspapers. He sits in his bed all day and measures the passing of time by putting peas from one jug into another.
  • Louis: Louis is one of the sentries who take part in the plan for Rambert to escape.
  • Marcel: Marcel, Louis’s brother, is also a sentry who is part of the escape plan for Rambert.
  • Garcia: Garcia is a man who knows the group of smugglers in Oran. He introduces Rambert to Raoul.

Plot summary[edit]

The text of The Plague is divided into five parts.

Part one[edit]

“… Dr Rieux resolved to compile this chronicle …”

In the town of Oran, thousands of rats, initially unnoticed by the populace, begin to die in the streets. Hysteria develops soon afterward, causing the local newspapers to report the incident. Authorities responding to public pressure order the collection and cremation of the rats, unaware that the collection itself was the catalyst for the spread of the bubonic plague.

The main character, Dr. Bernard Rieux, lives comfortably in an apartment building when strangely the building’s concierge, M. Michel, a confidante, dies from a fever. Dr. Rieux consults his colleague, Dr. Castel, about the illnesuntil they come to the conclusion that a plague is sweeping the town. They both approach fellow doctors and town authorities about their theory but are eventually dismissed on the basis of one death. However, as more deaths quickly ensue, it becomes apparent that there is an epidemic. Meanwhile, Rieux’s wife has been sent to a sanatorium in another city, to be treated for an unrelated chronic illness.

Authorities, including the Prefect, are slow to accept that the situation is serious and quibble over the appropriate action to take. Official notices enacting control measures are posted, but the language used is optimistic and downplays the seriousness of the situation. A “special ward” is opened at the hospital, but its 80 beds are filled within three days. As the death toll begins to rise, more desperate measures are taken. Homes are quarantined; corpses and burials are strictly supervised. A supply of plague serum finally arrives, but there is enough to treat only existing cases, and the country’s emergency reserves are depleted. When the daily number of deaths jumps to 30, the town is sealed, and an outbreak of plague is officially declared.

Part two[edit]

The town is sealed off. The town gates are shut, rail travel is prohibited, and all mail service is suspended. The use of telephone lines is restricted only to “urgent” calls, leaving short telegrams as the only means of communicating with friends or family outside the town. The separation affects daily activity and depresses the spirit of the townspeople, who begin to feel isolated and introverted, and the plague begins to affect various characters.

One character, Raymond Rambert, devises a plan to escape the city to join his wife in Paris after city officials refused his request to leave. He befriends some underground criminals so that they may smuggle him out of the city. Another character, Father Paneloux, uses the plague as an opportunity to advance his stature in the town by suggesting that the plague was an act of God punishing the citizens’ sinful nature. His diatribe falls on the ears of many citizens of the town, who turned to religion in droves but would not have done so under normal circumstances. Cottard, a criminal remorseful enough to attempt suicide but fearful of being arrested, becomes wealthy as a major smuggler. Meanwhile, Jean Tarrou, a vacationer; Joseph Grand, a civil engineer; and Dr. Rieux, exhaustively treat patients in their homes and in the hospital.  Rambert informs Tarrou of his escape plan, but when Tarrou tells him that there are others in the city, including Dr. Rieux, who have loved ones outside the city whom they are not allowed to see, Rambert becomes sympathetic and offers to help Rieux fight the epidemic until he leaves town.

Part three[edit]

In mid-August, the situation continues to worsen. People try to escape the town, but some are shot by armed sentries. Violence and looting break out on a small scale, and the authorities respond by declaring martial law and imposing a curfew. Funerals are conducted with more speed, no ceremony and little concern for the feelings of the families of the deceased. The inhabitants passively endure their increasing feelings of exile and separation. Despondent, they waste away emotionally as well as physically.

Part four[edit]

In September and October, the town remains at the mercy of the plague. Rieux hears from the sanatorium that his wife’s condition is worsening. He also hardens his heart regarding the plague victims so that he can continue to do his work. Cottard, on the other hand, seems to flourish during the plague because it gives him a sense of being connected to others, since everybody faces the same danger. Cottard and Tarrou attend a performance of Gluck‘s opera Orpheus and Eurydice, but the actor portraying Orpheus collapses with plague symptoms during the performance.After extended negotiations with guards, Rambert finally has a chance to escape, but he decides to stay, saying that he would feel ashamed of himself if he left.  Towards the end of October, Castel’s new antiplague serum is tried for the first time, but it cannot save the life of Othon’s young son, who suffers greatly, as Paneloux, Rieux, and Tarrou tend to his bedside in horror.  Paneloux, who has joined the group of volunteers fighting the plague, gives a second sermon. He addresses the problem of an innocent child’s suffering and says it is a test of a Christian’s faith since it requires him either to deny everything or believe everything. He urges the congregation not to give up the struggle but to do everything possible to fight the plague.A few days after the sermon, Paneloux is taken ill. His symptoms do not conform to those of the plague, but the disease still proves fatal.Tarrou and Rambert visit one of the isolation camps, where they meet Othon. When Othon’s period of quarantine ends, he chooses to stay in the camp as a volunteer because this will make him feel less separated from his dead son. Tarrou tells Rieux the story of his life and, to take their mind off the epidemic, the two men go swimming together in the sea. Grand catches the plague and instructs Rieux to burn all his papers. However, Grand makes an unexpected recovery, and deaths from the plague start to decline.

Part five[edit]

By late January the plague is in full retreat, and the townspeople begin to celebrate the imminent opening of the town gates. Othon, however, does not escape death from the disease. Cottard is distressed by the ending of the epidemic from which he has profited by shady dealings. Two government employees approach him, and he flees. Despite the epidemic’s ending, Tarrou contracts the plague and dies after a heroic struggle. Rieux is later informed via telegram that his wife has also died.

In February, the town gates open and people are reunited with their loved ones from other cities. Rambert is reunited with his wife. Cottard goes mad and shoots at people from his home, and is soon arrested after a brief skirmish with the police. Grand begins working on his novel again. The narrator of the chronicle reveals his identity and states that he tried to present an objective view of the events. He reflects on the epidemic and declares he wrote the chronicle “to simply say what we learn in the midst of plagues : there are more things to admire in men than to despise”.

Critical analysis[edit]

Germaine Brée has characterised the struggle of the characters against the plague as “undramatic and stubborn”, and in contrast to the ideology of “glorification of power” in the novels of André Malraux, whereas Camus’ characters “are obscurely engaged in saving, not destroying, and this in the name of no ideology”.[6] Lulu Haroutunian has discussed Camus’ own medical history, including a bout with tuberculosis, and how it informs the novel.[7] Marina Warner has noted the lack of female characters and the total absence of Arab characters in the novel, but also notes its larger philosophical themes of “engagement”, “paltriness and generosity”, “small heroism and large cowardice”, and “all kinds of profoundly humanist problems, such as love and goodness, happiness and mutual connection”.[8].  Thomas L Hanna and John Loose have separately discussed themes related to Christianity in the novel, with particular respect to Father Paneloux and Dr Rieux.[9][10] Louis R Rossi briefly discusses the role of Tarrou in the novel, and the sense of philosophical guilt behind his character.[11] Elwyn Sterling has analysed the role of Cottard and his final actions at the end of the novel.[12]