Mothers and Other Monsters

November 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Woman in White.

Reading next: Guilty Pleasures, by Donald Barthelme.

This book really does have more than its fair share of monsters, doesn’t it?  People monstrous — grotesque might be another way of putting it (but then I couldn’t use that killer title, lifted from this Maureen McHugh collection) — in their self-interest, their willful disavowal of wrongdoing or even wrongful impulse, their superficial gentility.

Fosco is an obvious example — like Milton’s Satan, he seems something of a heroic villain until you remember the bodies he’s buried under rhetoric, charm, and rationalization (it’s more complicated with the rather defensible Satan, of course, but that’s a whole other topic) — and I’ve already talked a little about Frederick Fairlie, who is so indifferent to everything in the world but his own comfort as to be rather delightful.  But I’m thinking here of other monsters.

The monstrous mother is Mrs. Catherick.  In her discussion with Walter, and especially in the letter she sends him, Mrs. Catherick displays her absolute lack of interest in her daughter’s well being; the coldness with which she dismisses news of Anne is matched only by the warmth with which she justifies her abandonment of Anne.  It’s a magnificent portrait, this little sketch of Mrs. Catherick.  There’s her pride at being bowed to by the minister, this tiny measure of civility and her rehabilitated status in her community to be clung to at all costs.  And, especially, there’s her magnificent sign-off to Walter, which, in context, seems like the epitome of that hoary old chestnut, the banality of evil: “My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody.”

Is it wrong to argue that Walter Hartright himself is something of a monster, too?  What brought this to mind for me was his insistence that he bore no blame for Glyde’s death.  Of course, Glyde never would have been where he was if Walter were not digging into Glyde’s past — it’s not like he bears no responsibility.  And one of the main conflicts throughout the Third Epoch is Walter’s internal struggle between the need for vengeance and the need to protect Marian and Laura.  Collins kind of bails Walter out of this conflict, in the end.  But the conflict hews awfully close to that classic noir trope of the detective as the other side of the criminal coin: capable of impulses as dark as any murderer’s.  Interesting, that this proto-detective novel already contains the DNA of hardboiled novels and The French Connection.

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