I am reading The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder with my past professor of English. The novel is separated into the following chapters:
- I. “The Elms” 1885-1905
- II. Illinois to Chile 1902-1905
- III. Chicago 1902-1905
- IV. Hoboken, New Jersey 1883
- V. “St. Kitts” 1880-1905
- VI. Coaltown, Illinois, Christmas 1905
This post is on the prologue. This first section of the novel seems to be a mere statement of facts: John Ashely, father of four and husband to Beata, is convicted of the murder of another father and husband, Breckinridge Lansing.
“Why life? What for? To What End?”
These are the words of Dr. Gillies, the doctor of the town, an evolutionist. This strikes me, an avid Dostoevsky fan, as an existentially charged question. Why do we exist? As I have read the prologue and the first two chapters, I have noticed much suffering. John Ashley is convicted of a murder he did not commit. The Ashley family must live without their father. Sophia mourns the departure of her father and her brother. Beata seems to be growing insane without the presence of her husband. The Lansing’s must deal with the loss of their father.
Why live? Is life even worth living in suffering? Why does suffering exist? Why do we exist?
In Wilder’s novel, we experience with these characters and see how they live their lives in the midst of trials.
Nothing is more interesting than the inquiry as to how creativity operates in anyone, in everyone: mind, propelled by passion, imposing itself, building and unbuilding; mind–the latest-appearing manifestation of life–expressing itself in statesman and criminal, in poet and banker, in street cleaner and housewife, in father and mother–establishing order or spreading havoc; mind–condensing its energy in groups and nations, rising to an incandescence and then ebbing away exhausted; mind–enslaving and massacring or diffusing justice and beauty:
Pallas Athene’s Athens, like a lighthouse on a hill, sending forth beams that still illuminate men in council:
Palestine, for a thousand years, like a geyser in the sand, producing genius after genius, and soon there will be no one on earth who has not been affected by them.
Is there more and more of it, or less and less?
Is the brain neutral between destruction and beneficence?
Is it possible that there will someday be a “spiritualization” of the human animal?
It is absurd to compare our children of the Kangaheela Valley to the august examples of good and evil action I have referred to above (already in the middle of this century they are largely forgotten), but:
They are near,
They are accessible to our indiscreet observation.
In Thornton Wilder’s novel, The Eighth Day, an American epic of sorts, the ancients are compared to the moderns. Athens vs. America, Palestine vs. Europe. There are those that reminisce and say that the ancients are great, and we have lost something. There are the progressives that say we have something that those of the past didn’t have, and we are greater than those of the past for it. Are either of these true?–not in my opinion. Man is how he was yesterday and how he will be tomorrow. Not to say that there is no advancement in all of humanity. However, all men are the same over the generations–no greater, no worse. This might seem static to some people to say, but it really isn’t. This is where I think Wilder stood, but I have yet to finish the novel. Even at the conclusion of reading it, I may not know where he stands.
To see Christopher Benson’s post on the Prologue of Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day on his blog, Bensonian, click this.