Katherine Mansfield and “The Garden Party”

Americans don’t pay much attention to social class. Most of us think of ourselves as middle class, especially the “self-made” with their considerable wealth, and we’ve proved relatively resistant to the class envy found in other societies. It’s different for those who remained part of the British Empire for a longer period of time than did American colonials, because they seem to have inherited that particularly English obsession with relative social standing.

Katherine Mansfield

Outsiders and the excluded are often close observers of the world around them—which helps explain why a long line of authors and film-makers from former British colonies so tellingly limn the English class system. Take, for example, Jamaica Kincaid or Philip Michael Ondaatje or Timothy Mo—recent post-colonial outsiders with sharp insights into English manners and prejudices.

Katherine Mansfield fits this outsider profile. Born in 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand into a proper, bourgeois family, Mansfield left her comfortable and conventional existence to move to England to write. Her life in Europe was, to use the euphemism of the time, unconventional: affairs with men and women; a first marriage that lasted only a few days; a stint as an opera extra; the shame of catching gonorrhea; a second (happier) marriage to editor John Middleton Murry (a one-time tenant in her flat); friendship with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda; and death in January 1923 of a pulmonary hemorrhage, following a long bout with tuberculosis.

A story of memory

Mansfield wrote “The Garden Party” while being “treated” for TB at the mystic guru George Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau; it is a story of memory, drawn from her privileged New Zealand childhood. Mansfield is direct and unflinching in her description of the prevailing class structure, one imported from England, yet it would be a mistake to see “The Garden Party” as exclusively about social class; for it is also about the coming-of-age of a sensitive girl, Laura Sheridan, the protagonist of the story.

As the story opens, Laura’s upper class family is holding a garden party. We watch the interaction between her family and the servants and other working people as they prepare for the party; we see how their world is carefully ordered (“The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns and sweeping them, until the grass and the dark flat rosettes where the daisy plants had been seemed to shine.”) When a group of workmen come to set up a marquee for the party, Laura finds herself drawn to them, although Mansfield has some fun with Laura’s youthful flightiness (“Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn’t she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these.”) We learn that Laura has no use for “stupid convention” or “absurd class distinctions,” or at least that is what she tells herself.

The story darkens when we learn that a young working man who lives nearby in a small cottage with his wife and five children has been killed in an accident (a tumble from a horse). Laura’s first impulse: the garden party must be canceled. Her sister, Jose, is astonished at the idea.

“Stop the garden-party? My dear Laura, don’t be so absurd. Of course we can’t do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don’t be so extravagant.”

“But we can’t possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate.”

When Jose makes a nasty remark about the dead man (“You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental”) Laura turns to her mother for support, but discovers she shares Jose’s world-view (“People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now.”) The party goes on, and Laura “goes along to get along.”

Her mother then encourages Laura to visit the grieving family, bringing a basket of sandwiches left-over from the party. (Is her mother guilty? Or does she want to jolt Laura by exposing her to the non-romantic realities of the working class?) To Laura’s dismay, once at the cottage she is brought to see the body of the dead man. Yet her reaction to the body surprises her (and us):

…He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy . . . happy . . . All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.

Laura has found death to be quite different from what she expected. When her brother meets her outside the cottage and asks “Was it awful?”, Laura struggles to capture her feelings in words, unable to fully explain the epiphany that she has experienced. That is where Mansfield ends the story.

An inevitable beauty

A Marxist critique of “The Garden Party” would see Laura’s coming-of-age as an awakening to “the hypocrisy of bourgeois society” and “middle class ruthlessness” (in the words of critic Simon Korner). While it is true that Mansfield touches on class and how it unites and divides us, there’s much more going on in “The Garden Party” than a simple parable about the evils of class. What propels the story is Laura’s perceptions, her feelings, the mix of her emotions, and her newly-awakened understanding of some of the contradictions of life—more so than any political or ideological lesson (although Mansfield’s sharp portraits of Laura’s mother and sister suggests that she despises upper class snobbery).

There are clues to this in a 1922 letter about “The Garden Party” to novelist and playwright William Gerhardi (who later spelled his last name with an “e”—Gerhardie), Mansfield wrote that she was trying to convey “[t]he diversity of life and how we try to fit everything in. Death included.” She added:

That is bewildering for a person of Laura’s age. She feels things ought to happen differently. First one and then another. But life isn’t like that. We haven’t the ordering of it. Laura says, “But all these things must not happen at once.” And Life answers, “Why not? How are they divided from each other.” And they do all happen, it is inevitable. And it seems to me there is beauty in that inevitability.

What happens in “The Garden Party” is what happens in life. Confronted with tragedy, or injustice, we avert our eyes, or we do what we can (or some of us do), but life goes on. Cathedrals are built, bread baked, weddings celebrated, satellites launched, classes taught, legislatures convened and yes, fatuous summer garden parties are held. The ridiculous and the sublime, the comic and the tragic, are all mixed up together. Mansfield asks: how could it be otherwise?

Perhaps Mansfield was thinking about her own isolated and desperate situation at Gurdjieff’s “clinic” as she wrote “The Garden Party,” wondering whether there would there be any interruption in the garden parties of her literary friends when death came for her. There is an air of resignation about “The Garden Party,” a sense that the world will indeed spin on, and a desperately ill Mansfield may indeed have accepted the “beauty in that inevitability.”

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Joseph Conrad and “The Secret Sharer”

Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” is usually grouped with his other sea stories for critical consideration, but the nautical setting is incidental—it is the “conflict within” that fascinated the Polish-English writer, a reflection, we can conjecture, of Conrad’s own identification as a homo duplex—a “double man.”

The Secret Sharer

English was Conrad’s second language, and he acknowledged his own dual loyalties when he told a British friend in 1903: “Both at sea and on land, my point of view is English, from which the conclusion should not be drawn that I have become an Englishman. That is not the case. Homo duplex has in my case more than one meaning.”

The immigrant Conrad struggled with this dual national identity, balancing two cultures and allegiances, knowing that he would always be considered somewhat less than truly English. Conrad understood full well the potential for alienation and conflict that such a straddling act could produce.

“The Secret Sharer,” published in 1911 in Harper’s Magazine, was, according to Conrad, based on both his own experiences as a young captain and on the highly publicized murder of a sailor on the clipper ship Cutty Sark in 1880 by the first mate (who subsequently killed himself).

Not much occurs in the “The Secret Sharer”per se: there are no shipwrecks or mutinies, no sea battles or feats of seamanship. The drama, for the most part, takes place in the mind (and heart) of the unnamed young English captain—the narrator—who has recently assumed command, his first, of an unnamed ship off the coast of Cambodia in the Gulf of Siam (Thailand).

As the story opens, another young Englishman, Lassatt, swims to the ship, a fugitive from justice. An officer aboard the ship Sephora, Lassatt has killed a sailor during a crisis in bad weather; he openly explains his situation and acknowledges his guilt in the matter to the captain. Like the story’s narrator, Lassatt has been schooled on the Conway—the training vessel for the Royal Navy and British Merchant Marine—and the young captain immediately identifies with him.

He decides to shelter Lassatt, hiding him in his cabin, concealing his presence from the crew. It’s never made clear why he identifies with the fugitive so deeply: is it the bond between two sensitive men of the same social class? Is there an element of sexual attraction? Is Lassatt his doppelganger, his double?

Conrad’s unnamed narrator struggles with this, drawn to the fugitive, and yet aware of the twisted aspects to the relationship.

He was not a bit like me, really; yet, as we stood leaning over my bed place, whispering side by side, with our dark heads together and our backs to the door, anybody bold enough to open it stealthily would have been treated to the uncanny sight of a double captain busy talking in whispers with his other self.

“The Secret Sharer” is about duality (the text is crammed with references to “my other self,” “my double, “the secret sharer of my life,” “my intelligent double”), a common theme in 19th century literature: think of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Poe’s William Wilson, Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” In fact, Conrad revised the title of the story from “The Secret-Sharer” to “The Secret Sharer” so that dualism was recognized from the start.

The question of command

While the Other Self fascinates Conrad, the story is also about command—command in the sense of commanding a ship, but also of commanding one’s destiny. One critical interpretation of the story sees the episode with Leggatt as the mechanism by which the young captain faces down his self-doubts and assumes his responsibilities as the authority figure on his own ship. Certainly the resolution of the story suggests that Conrad introduced the fugitive as a way to force his young narrator to confront the very question of command. It is an unabashedly male question for Conrad: does the captain have the strength and resolve to deserve command? Can he gain the respect of his crew—who wait to see that his titular authority is matched by competence and judgment?

Joseph Conrad

Where Conrad’s work rises above the conventional sea story is in his portrait of his hesitant, conflicted captain. The narrator confesses: “But what I felt most was my being a stranger to the ship; and if all the truth must be told, I was somewhat of a stranger to myself.” He doubts himself: “…I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one’s own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.”

In contrast to this hesitancy, C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower or Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey—perhaps the two best-known protagonists in 20th century nautical fiction—rarely if ever suffer from self-doubt or second thoughts: they are “men of action” and natural leaders, cool and collected in times of crisis.

It is now clear that neither Forester (the pen name of Cecil Louis Troughton Smith) nor O’Brian (named Richard Patrick Russ at birth) were the naval experts they made themselves out to be; both fashioned public biographies that veered sharply from the truth. Indeed, Patrick O’Brian, who was neither Irish nor a retired naval officer as assumed by many readers, apparently had limited hands-on sailing skills! It is a testament to his skills as a researcher, and his imaginative powers, that he could produce the Aubrey–Maturin series. Perhaps Conrad’s stint as a sea captain freed him to explore the ambiguity of command in ways that Forester and O’Brian—concerned about “authenticity”— could not.

By the close of “The Secret Sharer,” Conrad’s young captain embraces his command, just as he bids farewell to “the secret sharer of my life.” He confronts this alone, having faced down his prior doubts (made human in the form of Lassatt?), and he now turns eagerly to this new responsibility. “Nothing! no one in the world should stand now between us, throwing a shadow on the way of silent knowledge and mute affection, the perfect communion of a seaman with his first command.”

The Amazon.com link for the reviewed story:

Joseph Conrad: “The Secret Sharer” and Other Stories

©2006, 2015 by Jefferson Flanders

Reconsidering On the Waterfront

Reconsidering On the Waterfront


Another figure from post-war New York, from those golden years of the late 1940s and early 1950s, has slipped away: former middleweight prize fighter Roger Donoghue, Marlon Brando’s coach for his role as the washed-up boxer Terry Malloy in the remarkable film On the Waterfront, died this past week at the age of 75.

Budd Schulberg, who wrote the screenplay for the 1954 film credited Donoghue for inspiring the now-classic line from Malloy: “I could have been a contender.”

According to the New York Times, Donaghue saw athletic promise in Brando as he tutored the young actor in the sweet science:

To hear Mr. Donoghue tell it, Marlon Brando just might have been a contender himself. “I’ve got him shooting straight jabs, and he’s already learned to hook off the jab,” he said after the first lesson, according to Mr. Schulberg in a widely syndicated article. “I can make a hell of a middleweight out of this kid.”

“Roger,” Mr. Schulberg replied, “just let us get through this movie with him in it. Then you can have him back and take it from there.”

(Had Brando tried his hand at boxing, however, it’s unlikely he would have had the discipline to stay in the middleweight class—at least not judging from his massive weight swings later in his career.)

Donoghue knew his boxing. Before he was hired to train Brando, he had a brief career as a middleweight fighter. His one appearance at Madison Square Garden, in August 1951, ended in tragedy: Donoghue knocked out 20-year-old George Flores (a boxer he had defeated, also by KO, two weeks earlier) in the eighth round—and Flores died some five days later.

Donoghue donated his purse to the Flores family and stopped boxing shortly thereafter. He was promoting Rheingold Beer when he was recruited to coach Brando.

The best of the 20th century?

Director Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront is a marvelous film and, it can be argued, the best American motion picture of the 20th century. The film was based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning series by New York Sun investigative reporter Malcolm Johnson which exposed the control of organized crime over New York’s waterfront. It is a testament to New York’s post-war Golden Age in journalism, literature, music, and theater, an amazing period of creativity and artistic innovation in the decade after the end of World War II.

On the Waterfront tells the story of an average man, Terry Malloy, an ex-boxer and longshoreman who slowly realizes that he must stand up to the corrupt and brutal union bosses who rule the docks through fear, intimidation and violence. Kazan captures Malloy’s struggle of conscience and follows his difficult path to redemption; Malloy knows that telling the truth means not only being branded a “snitch,” but also putting his own life and future at risk. While the movie closes with Malloy publicly defying the mobsters, despite a savage beating, and gaining the support of his fellow dockworkers, there is nothing triumphal about the ending, no sense that Malloy has won a permanent victory.

On the Waterfront‘s themes—of loyalty and betrayal, of courage and of compromise, of the morally ambiguous role of the informer—carried deep personal resonance for its director. In 1952 Kazan had renounced his Communist Party past and “named names,” identifying eight of his colleagues from the Group Theater in the 1930s as Communists, in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Kazan’s decision to testify, rather than plead the Fifth Amendment, outraged many in Hollywood, including playwright Arthur Miller, once a close friend.

It’s been argued that Kazan (and Schulberg, who was also a friendly witness before HUAC) sought to justify their actions in On the Waterfront, to show that an informer could be acting out of integrity, and that it took courage to testify against former friends, to “name names.” That may be so, but what ends up on the screen isn’t much of an advertisement for whistle-blowing, but rather a sobering consideration of the harsh consquences of informing.

Moreover, On the Waterfront deserves to be considered—or reconsidered—on its merits, not as propaganda or polemics, but as an artistic work.

Reconsidering the movie

One reason On the Waterfront remains vital today is because it is film-making at its best: the movie offers a blend of brilliant acting, sensitive cinematography and a complementary score coupled with a restrained direction that allows individual performances to emerge and dazzle.

The collection of talent employed in this low-budget black-and-white film, shot on location in Hoboken over some 36 days, was stunning. Many of the actors were alumni of the legendary New York Actors Studio. Kazan assembled a cast that included Marlon Brando, Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Eva Marie Saint, Pat Henning and James Westerfield (and Fred Gwynne and Martin Balsam in small roles). Three ex-heavyweight boxers, Abe Simon, Tony Galento, and Tami Mauriello played union thugs, and many of the extras were real life dockworkers.

The cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, worked wonders; he used the shabby Hoboken cityscape and the constrast between the cramped apartments and open roof-top skylines to give a sense of place and time. Kaufman proved to be a master at employing the winter afternoon light (helped by the judicious use of trash fires) to soften the look of the film. And composer Leonard Bernstein’s haunting themes, recurring throughout the film, provided additional emotional depth to the story.

Kazan was lucky just to get the movie made—the screenplay was initially turned down by the major studios (Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox dismissed the project with this memorable comment: “All you’ve got is a lot of sweaty longshoremen. Exactly what the American public doesn’t want to see.”) and the financing came from producer Sam Spiegel, a relative Hollywood outsider, who eventually persuaded Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures to take on the project.

Assembling the cast wasn’t easy, either. Brando supposedly balked at working with Kazan because of his HUAC testimony. Frank Sinatra was recruited for the part of Terry Malloy before (with Spiegel’s prodding) Brando relented and joined the project. Lee J. Cobb, who played the thuggish union boss Johnny Friendly, had no such problems—he had also testified before HUAC.

Eva Marie Saint was selected after Grace Kelly passed on the part of Edie Doyle in order to appear in the The Country Girl (for which Kelly won an Oscar). Kazan saw in Eva Marie Saint what audiences did: a beautiful young woman radiating innocence and an appealing gentleness, perfect for the part of the idealistic, yet passionate, Edie.

Rod Steiger was cast as Charlie “the Gent” Malloy, Terry’s older brother, because a better-known actor, Lawrence Tierney, had demanded too much money. Steiger later claimed he would not have participated if he had known about Kazan’s testimony (a claim that is hard to believe), and he proved to be particularly nasty over the years about what he saw as Kazan’s connection (however strained) to the Hollywood blacklist.

Kazan clearly got lucky, I think, with the cast, especially with his two leads. It’s hard to envision On the Waterfront with Frank Sinatra as Terry Malloy and Grace Kelly as Edie Doyle: Sinatra is too sharp, too self-aware for the role, and Kelly seems too elegantly upper-class to be believable as the sheltered Edie. Brando and Eva Marie Saint seem to have been born to play their parts.

Quiet scenes

What makes On the Waterfront such a marvel, I would argue, is not only the acting, but the restraint in Kazan’s direction.

Take the scene where Terry Malloy walks Edie Doyle home through the park. When she drops one of her gloves, Malloy picks it up, and (an action Brando improvised in rehearsal) plays with it, eventually slipping his hand into it. Kazan kept the improvisation in the scene—and it works on several levels: it foreshadows Terry’s sexual interest in Edie, and also, some have argued, his “trying on” Edie’s “white glove” morality.

Kazan also left untouched a risky scene written by Schulberg. When Terry confesses his role in the death of Edie’s brother, he unburdens himself to her by the waterfront. As Terry begins to explain to Edie, we can not hear his words—they are drowned out by the blast of a whistle from a departing ship—and the camera shows us only Edie’s horrified reaction. Instead of being distracted by Terry’s dialog we focus solely on the crushing impact of the news on the sensitive Edie.

These two quiet scenes are part of what gives On the Waterfront some of its lasting power. They connect us to the story in personal, not political, ways.

That is not to say that there isn’t some message-heavy clumsiness in the film. Kazan and Schulberg lay on the Christian symbolism of sacrifice a bit too thick at the end of the film—but they can be forgiven that lapse, for the movie as a whole has a unity rarely found in American film.

Taking stock

On the Waterfront received critical acclaim in its own time—eight Academy Awards including best picture, best actor, best supporting actress, best art directon, best cinematography, directing, film editing, and screenplay for 1954. There were also nominations for Bernstein’s score and for best supporting actor for Cobb, Malden, and Steiger.

Beyond its sheer technical excellence, I think the reason the movie remains compelling more than half-a-century after its initial release is that it deals with questions that time has not (can not) neatly resolve. When is informing the morally correct choice? What are the costs of compromising in the face of wrongdoing? What loyalties must we honor? What sacrifices must we make? (Sometimes overlooked is the moral decision Charlie Malloy makes at the end of On the Waterfront: he can not betray his brother to Johnny Friendly, and that loyalty costs him his life).

To inform, to become a whistleblower, is to challenge often unspoken assumptions. Our uneasiness with the idea is illustrated by the harsh words used to describe an informer: tattle-tell, rat, fink, snitch, pigeon, cheese-eater, stool pigeon, stoolie. Much of the world looks askance at those who “drop a dime” or “sell out” their buddies, their comrades. In On the Waterfront, the dockworkers credo is “D and D”—deaf and dumb.

What culture, corporate or political, doesn’t prize loyalty? The roots of loyalty are tribal; from a time when unquestioning obedience, unity, and “closing the ranks” had life-or-death ramifications. The informer rejects those bonds of comradeship and cohesiveness.

Ideally, the whistleblower answers to individual conscience and the more abstract call of justice for the larger community—which often means justice for strangers—although in practice he or she may also be motivated by baser motives of ambition or revenge, or a desire to avoid prosecution.

Some of our ambivalence may be traced to our suspicions about the mixed motives of informers, especially those who seek anonymity. To recite the names of famous (or infamous) American political whistleblowers—W. Mark Felt, John Dean, Daniel Ellsberg, Whittaker Chambers, Scooter Libby—is to illuminate the problem. They may not be completely free of culpability themselves. They may be plagued by a guilty conscience. They may be out for revenge or vindication.

What gives On the Waterfront its timelessness is that Kazan understood this ambivalence. How could he not? The movie reflects this moral ambiguity—for those who testify against former friends and colleagues, and for those who will judge them—through the awakening of Terry Malloy, a reluctant hero, one with no appetite for what he is driven to do. There is no “cheap grace” (to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s term) for those who inform, whatever the reason and no matter how virtuous their cause may seem, a truth that Kazan knew only too well.

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”

We have been drawn to stories from the time our ancestors huddled around the fire and listened and learned and were entertained and enthralled by the tales of others.

Joseph Conrad
Those stories with mythic qualities have even more power, for they tap into our collective unconscious, those memories that seem hard-coded into us. The Hero’s Journey, what Joseph Campbell called the “monomyth,” borrowing from James Joyce, has always seemed right to me in its depiction of an underlying collective memory that storytellers tap into (Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers admirably decodes literary myth-making with its incisive analysis of both classic literature and more popular fiction). The power of storytelling and myth is real, whether or not Jung’s theory about archetypes is correct. We respond instinctively to certain symbolic tales, and find literary themes that address elemental human concerns to be compelling.

Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” is—she has written—based on the “psychomyth” of the scapegoat; she says she was inspired by William James’ statement that “one could not accept a happiness shared with millions if the condition of that happiness were the suffering of one lonely soul.” The story, which won the Hugo Award, has been included in a number of literary short story anthologies—even though the prolific Le Guin is best known for her science fiction and fantasy—and it surfaces on the reading list in some English and Philosophy classes.

The story is very simple. Le Guin introduces us to an exotic, mystical city, Omelas, “bright-towered by the sea,” whose fortunate residents (“the people of Omelas are happy people”) enjoy a Utopian existence, with plentiful creature comforts (drugs, sex, and music–if not rock-and-roll), magnificent public buildings, ideal weather, and without “monarchy and slavery… the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb.” And, as the narrator hastens to tell us, without guilt. (Is Omelas the model society Swedish socialists thought they were building?)

But this fairy tale has a flaw. This society is founded on the misery and degradation of one child, imprisoned in a dirty, dark cellar room furnished with a bucket and two mops, kept from human contact and sunlight. (A number of critics have seen Christ-like symbolism in the description of the child). What is worse, everyone in this “joyous city” knows about the child; they are complicit in its inhumane treatment.

…Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

It is carefully explained to every citizen of the city that freeing the child will destroy all “the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas.” So, while they may come to view the child, no one intervenes.

And it is easy to rationalize the situation with a coldly logical Utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. The narrator tells us that “the terrible justice of reality” is that this child has been so damaged by its environment that freedom would be relatively meaningless. Indeed, perhaps (drawing from Eastern religious thought) the wretchedness of the child makes possible the beauty of Omelas by stirring the compassion of the city’s denizens.

Except, we are told, there are some who cannot accept the rationalizations and the treatment of the child. These are “the ones who walk away,” who are so disgusted and troubled by the “wretched child” in the basement that they leave. Where they are bound when they leave Omelas is not revealed, but “they seem to know where they are going.”

There is some ambiguity about their departure. Unlike Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People,” where we can identify with the heroic Dr. Thomas Stockmann, who risks all to expose the contaminated water supply in his town, the “ones who walk away” are—by comparison—passive, not active, in their resistance. By choosing exile they have tacitly accepted the continued depravity of the child’s imprisonment. They have walked away.

What should we think of those who do leave? Are they to be admired or pitied? Have they just enough moral clarity to separate themselves from the ongoing evil at the heart of Omelas, but not enough courage to resist?

The acceptance of the necessary evil, always in the name of the greater good, has a long (if not admirable) history. It was the argument used by otherwise thoughtful American Southerners to justify slavery. In the days before the collapse of Communism, I remember those on the Left who would quote Mao that you could not make an omelette without breaking a few eggs–a rationalization of the horrid things done to the Chinese people in order to create a “soclalist paradise.” There is always a justification available.

In portraying the “happy people of Omelas” Le Guin borrows a bit from an earlier science fiction master, H.G. Wells. The Eloi, his hedonistic “beautiful people” of 802,701 AD in “The Time Machine,” are also apathetic; they passively allow the evil race of subterranean Morlocks to periodically consume some of their own people in exchange for their comfort. In the 1960 film version of the novel, Wells’ hero, The Time Traveller (played by Rod Taylor) incites the Eloi to successfully resist the Morlocks (blue monsterish creatures designed to scare millions of American children).

Le Guin will have none of the Hollywood heroics. Her story—this myth of Omelas—has no figure who prizes justice above the status quo in Utopia. There is no one saying “Fiat justitia, ruat coelum“—“Let justice be done, though Heavens fall.”

I think she sells us short with this—by us, I mean humans. Doesn’t history teach that there will always be someone who resists injustice (real or perceived)? We are too cranky a lot, in some ways, too volatile, too violent. Too skeptical of authority. We are not the Eloi, nor the “happy people of Omelas.” We don’t always settle for scapegoats.

Where in Omelas is Spartacus? Andrei Sakharov? Joan of Arc? Cesar Chavez? Harriet Tubman? Rosa Park? William Wallace? Oskar Schindler? Aung San Suu Kyi? Nelson Mandela? Lech Walesa? Whether you accept force as an appropriate way to confront injustice and oppression, or believe only in non-violent means of resistance, where are those who say no, the individuals who resolutely confront that which is wrong? Don’t we have something hard coded in us that occasionally drives us to fight for human dignity? True, courage is often in short supply, and compromise—looking the other way—is a classic survival technique. But I think of the times when someone has refused to get in line when the personal and societal consequences were severe: The Ones Who Stay and Fight.

So while “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” cannot be faulted for its technique or structure, nor for its prose, there is something hollow, something writerly and contrived, about Le Guin’s tale. Or perhaps more precisely, there is something inhuman about it: the people of Omelas do not share the DNA of homo sapiens, or at least not the ones trapped in this stage of our evolutionary history.

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

The Amazon.com link for the reviewed story: Ursula K. Le Guin: “The Wind’s Twelve Quarters”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

All rights reserved

Doris Lessing and A Woman on a Roof

Doris Lessing’s short story “A Woman on a Roof” transports us to a less complex time, to the early 1960s, when the roles of men and women were clearer, before the Sexual Revolution and feminism, to a time when “bourgeois” morality and patriarchy ruled.

Doris Lessing

Yet this deceptively simple story doesn’t seem dated, even nearly some 45 years later, in an age of “Sex and the City” reruns and “Girls Gone Wild” videos, because in it Lessing surfaces some elemental questions about male aggression and female sexuality, and about class and power.

“A Woman on a Roof” relies on a minimalist plot. “It was during the week of hot sun, that June,” Lessing begins, and tells a story of three London workmen—Harry, Stanley and Tom—who are replacing gutters on a roof, one with “a fine view across several acres of roof.” When they spot an attractive woman sun-bathing who “wore a red scarf tied around her breasts and brief red bikini pants,” they are annoyed and yet excited. Stanley, recently married, and Tom, seventeen, keep walking over to stare at her, to the dismay of Harry, who is older and responsible for the crew completing the gutter job.

The next morning when they return she is “already there, face down, arms spread out, naked except for the little red pants” and when Stanley whistles, she picks up her head, looks straight at him, and drops her head. This is enough to spark their hostility:

At this gesture of indifference, they all three, Stanley, Tom and old Harry, let out whistles and yells. Harry was doing it in parody of the younger men, making fun of them, but he was also angry. They were all angry because of her utter indifference to the three men watching her.

“Bitch,” said Stanley.

“She should ask us over,” said Tom, snickering.

Lessing has set her scene carefully: the men are both attracted and repelled by the woman (that peculiar English mixture of randiness and Puritanism) and, in turn, they are angered by the woman’s indifference. But how can we blame her? She wants to sun bathe in peace, to be left alone, and she has done nothing provocative…except for who she is and what she looks like. The men are stung at being dismissed by a desirable young woman—her indifference hits at their male pride, leaving them feeling powerless. As this is England, there is also the class question: is she ignoring them because they are working men? Does her indifference suggest that they are so far below her on the social ladder that they no longer count as male in her eyes?

(What is it about the 1960s and swimsuits and class envy? Lessing’s unnamed female protagonist wears the equivalent of a bikini; John Updike’s upper-class summer girls invade the local grocery store wearing scanty swimsuits in his classic “A&P.” It seems the bikini represents a challenge to working-class propriety, and the unattainable long-legged females who wear them can do so because their money and privilege allows them to ignore the rules.)

The roofers in “A Woman on a Roof” won’t leave the situation alone: they have been diminished and they resent it. Later, Stanley and Tom scramble across several rooftops so they can move closer to the woman. They find her reading a book and smoking and, once again, feel compelled to bother her.

They whistled. She looked up at them, cool and remote, then went on reading. Again, they were furious. Or rather, Stanley was. His sun-heated face was screwed into a rage as he whistled again and again, trying to make her look up. Young Tom stopped whistling. He stood beside Stanley, excited, grinning, but he felt as if he were saying to the woman: Don’t associate me with him, for his grin was apologetic.

The harassment continues over the next few days (even when she has moved her sunning spot to avoid them) until Harry “to save some sort of scandal or real trouble over the woman” pulls the crew off the roof. Tom, who has been fantasizing about the woman, convinced that he has acted to protect her from Stanley, sneaks over to see her, and is rebuffed. She tells him to go away and “in a low reasonable voice, where anger was kept in check, though with difficulty” she adds “if you get a kick out of seeing women in bikinis, why don’t you take a ride a sixpenny ride to the Lido? You’d see dozens of them, without all this mountaineering.”

It is a few minutes before Tom accepts that his fantasy-lover is just that—a fantasy. Lessing tells us:

Resentment of her at last moved him off and away down the ladder, through the building, into the street. He got drunk then, in hatred of her.

Next day when he woke the sky was gray. He looked at the wet gray and thought, vicious: Well, that’s fixed you, hasn’t it now? That’s fixed you good and proper.

The story concludes with the workmen returning to finish their work on “damp drizzling roofs where no one came to sun themselves.” There is something raw and disturbing about the whole thing. This innocent woman, trying only to enjoy the summer weather, has become the target of abuse and hostility. The men see her as a “bitch,” and Tom, who has dreamed about her, now hates her.

At least Lessing allows her nameless character to have a voice, to say “go away,” to express some of her anger at being hassled, but this is England in 1963 (the same year Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is published) and that is probably as much as we can expect.

The story, seen from a feminist perspective, illuminates how easily men can be threatened by female independence (especially in sexual matters) and how they can respond violently when their sense of control and mastery is challenged. We are not far from the territory of degradation and rape, here, where the motivation is power, not sex.

What makes the story hold up well, even today, is that while much has changed, much has not. Even with the greater sexual openness of the past 45 years, and the advent of “sexual liberation,” even with more gender equality and autonomy for women, male sexual aggression—often expressed in ugly terms—has not disappeared from the scene.

Some of the work done in evolutionary psychology over the past few decades has helped explain the tension between male and female conceptions of sexuality, and why the hard-coded behavior of men has proven hard to change. (Sexual harassment remains a continuing problem, even in the most seemingly “progressive” institutions—universities, hospitals, the United Nations—despite years of consciousness-raising and training.)

Yet things are different. “You’ve come a long way, baby” is more than an advertising slogan; there has been a social revolution in the status of women since 1963. In most Western societies a woman is expected to control her own sexual destiny; barriers to employment and schooling have been dropped; domestic violence is now prosecuted; sexual harassment is frowned upon; male supremacy is considered an outmoded concept.

Certainly a woman sunning herself on a London roof today could encounter male hostility, but I’d like to think that the underlying dynamics have changed somewhat from Lessing’s time. The woman could, and would, respond more assertively, perhaps matching any verbal aggression with some choice words of her own. The men might very well back off, letting her enjoy the sunny weather in peace. Small beer, the English might say, as far as progress goes, but progress nonetheless.

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

The Amazon.com link for the reviewed story: Doris Lessing: “Stories”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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