The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder: II. Illinois to Chile 1902-1905

In this chapter, my question and commentary/favorite quote overlap decently. This chapter switches from the Ashley family home to John Ashley after his conviction. He travels from Illinois, having been rescued from the train, all the way down to Chile in search of work. He ends up heading back to Coaltown because of his feigned death.

David Mikics in his book Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, speaks of novels, saying:

More than any other literary form, the novel asks us to identify with its characters. We get to know the novel’s hero from inside; we sink into someone else’s identity, utterly absorbed by a new, fascinating person.

In Thornton Wilder’s, The Eighth Day, I am struggling with the main character. This is not a bad struggle. It’s a struggle to pin down John, which is wrong of me to expect. This struggle I am having has provoked the question I want to ask of this chapter and of the novel as a whole.

What are we to make of John Ashley as a character? Is he good or bad? It seems difficult to pin him down.

On the very fist page of the novel, we hear of the “miscarriage of justice” that has been delivered to John. He was found guilty of murdering Breckenridge Lansing. We are told, however, that he is innocent.

A few pages later we witness a Coaltown New Years:

John Ashley and Eustacia Lansing–who loved on another–kissed, for the only time in their lives, and evasively (p. 15)

John is married to a woman, Beata, and they love each other. John loves his family. How could he kiss another woman? On the other hand, it was just a kiss, and only one time. Despite that, Wilder tells us that they love each other. What does all of this do to our vision of John.

Then we come to this newest chapter, the most Odyssey type chapter of the book, marking out John Ashley’s departure and return. This amount of time spent mainly with just John allowed me to struggle with John, while also accepting him as a character outside of whether I can pin him down. Wilder seemed to be pushing me towards this type of resolution with the following:

1) The Character Foil of Mr. Wellington Bristow

Mrs. Wickersham, who owns a town by the mining town of John’s helps him escape the hands of Mr. Wellington Bristow. Mr. Bristow possesses a ‘Rat List’ of fugitives. He figured out that ‘James Tolland,’ John’s Canadian pseudonym, actually is John Ashley by stealing a couple of John’s pictures. They later fake the death of James Tolland/John Ashley, but Mr. Bristow remains suspicious. But in this minor character, we get someone to compare John to:

“Captain Rui, that man on the floor, that SERPENT [Mr. Bristow], from his black, black heart accused that ANGEL [John] of crimes too horrible to mention.–Remove those handcuffs and put them on the wrists of that LIAR and THIEF, and my God be merciful to him.” (p. 201)

Here we see The Angel, John, directly against The Serpent, Mr. Bristow. We have John, who we believe to be good, even though we cannot define him as wholly good; we also have Mr. Bristow, who we believe to be bad, even though we cannot define him as wholly bad. This along with the following two insights, allows me to understand our main character more.

2) Dr. MacKenzie and the 12 Greek Gods

Dr. MacKenzie, who runs the mine in Chile where John found work, grows close with John. They get in this conversation of Dr. MacKenzie’s fascination, and even belief, in the 12 Greek gods and godesses. He believes that every person resembles one or a few of the gods. But we get an insight into the gods that show us something about John:

Each of the gods and goddesses had two sides (p. 165)

I’m not claiming that John has multiple personalities. I merely see this line as a clue into human nature. That man has two sides. The side that does wrong, even though it doesn’t wish to, and the side that wants to do right, even though it cannot. Paul writes:

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:15-20)

This small line and scene about the Greek gods and goddesses shows us one thing: that humans aren’t so simple to be boiled down to one thing: good or bad. I cannot pin John Ashley as a “good’ character or a “bad” character in an absolute sense.

3) Man’s Heart

After asking Mr. Smith, another one of John’s bosses, to give the miners raises (he wouldn’t get a raise given that he is the engineer), and provide a full time priest in the mine after seeing the death of a miner’s child, he says this:

“I think we’re all bad judges of what goes on in other people’s minds about God, Mr. Smith. It’s a bad thing to force God on a man who doesn’t want one. It’s worse to stand in the way of a man who wants one badly” (p. 171)–[This is my favorite quote of the chapter]

Similarly, Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians:

For who knows a person’s thoughts except the sprit of that person, which is in him? (1 Corinthians 2:11)

I cannot know the thoughts of John Ashley. Even if I could, I could still not manage to narrow him down to goodness or badness. I have resolved not to limit Wilder’s character because I am unable to, and because Wilder doesn’t want us to limit John. He isn’t wholly good, nor wholly bad–just like all of us are. I have my share of sins, but I wouldn’t say I am wholly bad. It’s hard to look at someone and see them for who they are and not limit them. Rather than deciding what exactly John is, I am going to let him exist on the page.

Cross Reference

Bensonian on Illinois to Chile

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