In the fifth chapter of Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day, we experience the biggest shift in the narrative so far. We have moved location, from Coaltown to Chile to Chicago, but we have always been surrounding the Ashley family. Now Wilder explores the Lansing family, whose patriarch was murdered at the beginning of the novel.
This chapter explores love, like the rest of the novel, but it seems that this chapter seeks to find the nature of love more deeply. We see different aspects of love in several characters in this chapter. What is the nature of love in the Lansing family?
Scripture defines love as follows:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13)
She knew her vocation. She knew why she had been born into the world. It was to love; to be a wife and mother… Eustacia Sims intended to give and receivve all the plenitude of the earth by love; to grow seven feet tall by love; to have ten children–Chevalier Bayards, Joséphines–by love; to merit her beauty by love; to live to a hundred, bowed down beneath the crowns of love. (pp. 214-315)
Eustacia Lansing fell consumedly in love with John Ashley. (p. 325)
It seems that Eustacia’s life is “injected by love,” but we are forced to question it by her divided love between her husband and family and John Ashley. How could a woman so filled with love and so devoted to her family be in love with another man?
She was moving towards abstraction. She loved her mother. She loved her brother passionately. But these loves were already imbued with the love of the creature which was enjoined upon her. Through these same disciplines she had found her way to a love for her father and younger sister. (p. 330)
“You know what the deep wish of my life is. I cannot ask to take my vows until my dear brother is–as the Bible says–‘made whole.’ Come to Coaltown.” (p. 391)
In Félicité, we see what might seem as a pure love, but is so abstracted from its objects that it almost doesn’t seem real.
“Stacey, I love you. Can’t you get that into your thick head: that I love you? I don’t want to be off in some damned hospital where you’d only be allowed in for half an hour a day. Stacey, will you listen–just once–to what I say? I’d rather die with you near me than live forever and ever without you.” (p. 356)
For all the Ivan Ilyich type behavior in Breckenridge’s illness, all of his outbursts and infidelities, all of his harsh treatments of George, he does truly love Eustacia from the bottom of his heart.
Eustacia and Breckenridge:
Maudlin: He loved her. Did she love him? Really love him? When had she loved him least? When had she loved him most? When he met that little girl on the island of St. Kitts he’d foreseen that she’d be the best little wife in the world. Oh, yes, he had. He was no fool.
Aggressive: Had she loved any other man since she left the islands? He didn’t mean misbehaved–merely loved? Answer honestly. Would she swear to it? She didn’t sound as though she meant it. He bet there was somebody. She was hiding something from him. That fellow in Pittsburg–what was his name? Leonard something. He’d thought she was pretty neat and cute. The fellow with the big weeping-willow mustache. Was it him?
Sly (soothing digressions from which he could suddenly stage a surprise attack): The way she ran the store in Basseterre! It beat the dutch! Smartest little head in the Caribbean. Regular little Shylock! All the officers from those foreign ships. Girls go crazy for a uniform…He wouldn’t be surprised…Lot of little back rooms…He’d been blind as a bat. He bet that she’d lied to him all his life. She’d gone to Fort Barry to church. Who’d she seen there? (pp. 363-364)
The most painful aspect of this phase was the absence of any faint intimation from the realm of the spirit (p. 365)
She loved him. Yes, that’s what marriage had brought her to. She loved him as a creature. Like most completely bilingual persons she thought in both languages. About the more superficial machinery in life she thought in English. Her inner life presented itself to her in French. In both languages the word “creature” wears two aspects; in French the two are more drastically contrasted. Her favorite French authors, Pascal and Bossuet, constantly evoked the double sense: a créature is an abject living thing; it is also a living thing–generally a human being–fashioned by God. Her dear uncle in marrying her had predicted that they would become one flesh; he had been right. She loved this créature. She could not imagine him away. Just as she shrank with horror from any desire to have wished her life to have been other. It was these children–and no other imaginable children–that constituted her boundless ineffable thanks to God. That’s what destiny is. Our lives are a seamless robe. All was ordained, as the English language put it. She arrived at a position much like Dr. Gillies’s. We don’t live our lives. God lives us. (pp. 366-367)
While Breckenridge’s love for Eustacia is relatively simple, Eustacia’s love for him is more complex. She loves him as creature, certainly not as an equal partner in God. She could not imagine herself with anybody else, but that doesn’t tell us that she loves Breckenridge as a husband on equal footing with her and others that she loves. Her love for Breckenridge almost seems a condescension. Breckenridge and Eustacia’s spirits lack the intimate relationship of what marriages need. Their spirits are distant from one another.
Maybe I’ll get a letter from you tomorrow. Maybe I’ll never be happy one day in my life, but I don’t care. Other people will be happy. (p. 382)
I guess there’s no hope for me. I’ll have to get used to it. As long as other people are happy…I know that I was born to be a very happy person, but then things happened. Sometimes, I’m so happy I could crush the whole universe in my arms for love. Doesn’t last. You and Maman and Anne–be happy for me, Oneself doesn’t count. (p. 383)
Lew died. I held his hand. Everything I do falls to pieces for me, but I don’t care. I don’t live. I don’t really live. I never will. I don’t care as long as other people live. Lew told me I gave him three happy months. I heard that in India those street cleaners have to wear badges. I’m proud of mine. Don’t you worry about me. (p. 390).
In the rebellious character of George, we surprisingly see the most pure form of other-centeredness in the novel. He doesn’t care for his own happiness, but for others’ happiness.
How do these examples of love compare to 1 Corinthians 13?
Eustacia quotes Shakespeare in a letter to George:
“Forgive, George. Forgive and understand.”
“You will soon be playing Shylock. Think of your father when you hear Portia saying to you:
‘We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.'” (p. 388)
We all want others to give us mercy, but are we willing to bestow that gift of mercy to others? I know personally that this task is very difficult. I am quick to judge, but it is He who is Judge. Why don’t I love? Why don’t I bestow mercy? I don’t know what lies in my neighbors heart. I don’t have the ability to judge, so why do I try?