Sympathy for the Villain?

I was thinking about the concept of grace last week when I flashed on a scene from Streetcar Named Desire.  Blanche hears a declaration of sorts from Mitch and, recognizing the man provides a real lifeline to her, responds “Sometimes there’s God so suddenly!”  I smiled at Blanche’s recognition of Grace until I remembered what I think of her.  Friends and neighbors, I hate Blanche duBois and I don’t care who knows it.  That aging, insecure, Southern Belle works my last nerve and I’d rather sympathize with the devil.

 Think about Blanche’s role in the play – She’s the fly in the ointment, the wrench in the machinery and the source of the play’s conflict.   She shows up at her sister Stella’s home uninvited and unannounced to sponge off her for the rest of the play.  Okay, everyone needs help now and then but does Blanche show an atom of gratitude?   No, that narcissist takes up the center of the stage, hogging the bathroom and the liquor, and expects her pregnant sister to wait on her hand and foot.  She never tries to get a job or her own place and when she’s not demanding sympathy or the red-carpet treatment, Blanche runs down her brother-in-law, Stanley because she and Stella had “superior” childhoods. Even if this is true (and one of the things we learn about Blanche is her propensity to lie) Blanche’s upbringing gives her only the veneer of gentility, not the substance.  She’s a dishonest, lazy, manipulator who seeks out grown men for gain and teenaged boys for sex.  She can’t be trusted around innocents of any age and her perpetual role of victim warps the people who would help her along with those who resist her game.  She almost deserves what she gets.

Mind you, I’m not fond of Blanche’s adversary, Stanley, either.  The Id to Blanche’s Ego, Stanley is a creature of drive who goes through life focused only on his own needs.  He expects prepared meals to nourish him, poker with the guys to entertain him and a wife to pleasure him once the poker boys go home.  He doesn’t mind pleasing his wife but he doesn’t mind hitting her either.  Stanley has the emotional development of a toddler but he dominates his world through brute, physical strength.   If someone threatens Stanley’s world, or picks at Stanley too long, he retaliates, dismantling his enemies’ defenses and grinding them under his heel.

So who, between these two, who is Streetcar’s villain?  (The only other alternative is Stella, the sister/wife torn between Blanche and Stanley in the play’s tug-of-war.)  Neither character is malevolent by nature, only incredibly self-centered and driven.  Given her background and lack of resources, Blanche’s only developed survival skill involves manipulating the kindness of strangers.  Likewise, Stanley’s defense mechanism is to smash anything that manipulates or threatens his spot in the world.  So, in some ways, the outcome of the Streetcar is set when Blanche boards the bus for New Orleans, well before the curtain rises.  This is the story of flawed people on a collision course driven by compulsions they can’t sense enough to change.

Maybe that’s why people are still interested in this play, almost seventy years after its first production.  Because of their flaws, Streetcar‘s characters are people, like the ones we see in the mirror.  None of us are Stanley or Stella or Blanche or Mitch but we share some of their weaknesses and strengths.  To one degree or another, we are all inadvertant bystanders, victims, and predators, still searching for a moment of Grace.

The Failure of Good Intentions: A Passage to India

It’s a phrase they teach  that makes no sense on its face.  How can the road to Hell be paved with Good Intentions?  If someone starts a course of action with benevolent goal in mind, the results should be good as well.  Well, history and nature say otherwise.  Sometimes the failure comes from lack of imagination: rabbits were sent to Australia as pets and a possible food source about the same time Kudzu was introduced to the U. S. as an anti-erosion measure.  Both brought the disasters of an invasive species: Australia was forced into biological warfare to keep the rabbit population in check and Kudzu is known as “The Vine that Ate the South.”  Sometimes the well-intentioned element fails because of lesser parts of human nature.  Prohibition was called “The Noble Experiment” with the idea that making booze illegal would make people stop drinking.  Instead, people bought and drank unregulated, untaxed hootch and created a market for organized crime.  Sometimes everyone starts out with the best of intentions and still end up in tragedy. Some people may look to Romeo and Juliet as their choice for this mess but for me, it’s E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

Forster was a student, a writer and something of a civil servant during the time he lived in India.  As an English citizen in a country controlled by Britain, he saw  how fellow Brits behaved o n a very different soil surrounded by people from very different cultures.  As the  private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas, he also got a glimpse of how the British were viewed by the native citizens of India.  Along with the growing issue of British sovereignty,  a monumental clash of language, values and culturescontinually threatened to destabilized Anglo-Indian relations and he put all of that into  A Passage to India.

Two English women, Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore are in India to see Ronny Heaslop, a British civil servant stationed in India.  Both women are progressive thinkers who are more interested in learning more about the authentic country and people who live there than socializing with the ex-patriot Brits in the colony.  They make the acquaintance of Dr. Aziz, a warmhearted, Muslim physician who wants to develop real friendships with as many British people as possible.  In an effort to be hospitable, Dr. Aziz takes the ladies to see the comples Marabar Caves.  That visit changes all of their lives.

The atmosphere in the cave distresses Mrs. Moore and she leaves quickly.  Miss Quested asks an unintentionally rude question and Dr. Aziz steps away until he can get his temper under control.  When he returns, Miss Quested is gone and the Doctor searches until he sees her with another British woman, far outside the caves.  Miss Quested runs away and a few house later Dr. Aziz is arrested for sexually assaulting her.

Now remember, these three central characters and Dr. Aziz’s British friend, Mr. Fielding are basically, decent people.  The problem is, they don’t understand each other and many people around them are idiots.  Miss Quested’s initial inability to talk her experience in the caves make Ronnie Heaslop and the bigoted Brits assume something “too awful to talk about” happened there and that Dr. Aziz is the person to blame.  Mrs. Moore is sure of Dr. Aziz’s innocence but the spiritual experience she craved overwhelms her and she doesn’t become the champion he needs.  The remaining community divides by  racial lines with the British defending Miss Quested as a victim of Indian lust and Indian groups shouting that Dr. Aziz is the target of British prejudice.  Even after an act of bravery clears the doctor, the racial lines are drawn and Dr. Aziz realizes he and Mr. Fielding won’t ever really be friends until India achieves her independence.  The problem is not differing ideas or values as much as the lack of parity.  Friendship demands an acceptance of each other as equals and as long as Dr. Aziz remains an lesser citizen in his own country, he can’t enjoy the free exchange of equality available between British citizens.

Forster lived to see the India achieve her independence although he never returned to the country.   That’s surprising because it’s clear that Forster sympathized with the Indians who longed for self-government and predicted they would prevail.  I suppose he was far more “at home” in Britain and that is where he stayed, respectful and distant, for the rest of his life.

So, in the end, is it possible for people from different backgrounds to create a lasting friendship?  Perhaps, if it’s based in equality and built with appreciation and respect. If not, it may be better to  respect someone from a distance than to blunder in with a wealth of good intentions.

The Great American Summer Novel

People argue about the Great American Novel.  Some folks say it was Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn since it captures the assets and liabilities in our national character.  Others suggest it is an epic of exploration like Lonesome Dove or (since we are a restless people, obsessed with reinvention) The Great Gatsby.  To me, the question is open because these and others are all brilliant, beloved works but I’m sure about one thing: Gatsby is a Great American Summer Novel.
As a nation, we honor the summer months.  It’s the only season charted by three national holidays: Memorial Day opens the season, July 4th is near its mid-point and Labor Day waves summer good-bye.  Three times in (roughly) 90 days people traditionally take off work, recreate in the great outdoors, and, with luck, remember the sacrifices of others that gave us these freedoms.  Because we started as a rural nation, children missed school during the summer months, when they’re needed the most on farms and that three month break is still a big part of our culture.  To us, summer is a season of work that’s balanced by freedom.   It’s also the season of Gatsby.

Take a look at your old copy of the novel.  (Everyone has a copy stashed somewhere, left over from a high school or college course.)  The story really kicks off when a stranger asks Nick Carraway for directions to West Egg Village.  Nick advises him and then walks on, pleased to be recognized as a resident.  How could this take place in winter?  People don’t stop on a walk to exchange pleasantries with a stranger or meander when there’s snow and ice all around.  The weather prohibits it.  No, this is a time of warm weather and Gatsby’s fabulous weekend parties are the proof.  These are  held outdoors where girls shimmer in dresses and dance themselves out onto wooden platforms at night once they’ve swallowed the prerequisite cocktails.  It has to be a warm, summer night where the air is soft and the grass as green as the light on Daisy Buchanen’s dock.
Daisy is, of course, a summer girl given to wearing white and watching for the longest day every year.  She floats in and out of scenes, charting her future with a pretty face and a voice full of possibilities, but odd or intuitive enough to weep over an abundance of beautiful, hand-stitched, silk shirts.  Does she weep for the beauty of the clothes or what that abundance means to the man who wears them, once a boy whose only asset was his love for her?
Gatsby’s life is itself a metaphor for the summer season.  Good-looking and resourceful, he makes financial hay while the sun shines and has already harvested enough of it to fund a season of parties at the ultimate summer accessory: a mansion on the beach.  More than anything, success has taught Gatsby to believe in the art of the possible.  A decade of hard work and questionable deals have turned the poverty-stricken, mid-western boy, Jimmy Gatz, into Jay Gatsby, a veritable sultan of the East Coast. If he can create this kind of life for himself, what keeps him from adding Daisy Fay to it, the girl he always loved?
The thing is, the sun that ripens a crop also creates a murderous heat.  On the hottest day of the year, Gatsby’s dreams come to a crisis and he learns how quickly a summer girl can leave.  He can love her, want her, woo her, but he can’t keep her, not for long.  The girl he loved years ago has changed into a woman; one who knows where she’s headed in life, and that place is not with him.  The rest of Gatsby’s story slips by with the shortening days and leaves of autumn float beside him when his first/last swim has ended, during the first day of fall.
Yes, the story of Gatsby is a great novel and it does have valid things to say about the American character.  Like Fitzgerald’s hero, we’re a nation that believes in self-determination, about creating our own future.  We’re resourceful, we have energy and for a long time, we’ve shared both the confidence and insecurity of youth but mainly, we aspire.   Like Jay Gatsby, American is a nation that dreams of big accomplishments and then sets out to attain them.  The cost or probability of failure doesn’t deter us.  Every morning brings a new day and a new chance to see over the next horizon.  In our hearts we’re still kids on the first day of summer, the swimming pool is open and the traffic light ahead just turned green.  The race is on.

Evidence of Miracles: Their Eyes Were Watching God

It’s hard to write well about miracles.  They blindside you and because they’re so unexpected, it’s hard to frame lead ins for them.  With other stories, the author can add foreshadowing and clues to point the reader in a general direction but miracles come without warning.  Sometimes the miracle is such a surprise, that people refuse to believe it occurred.  I have my share of skepticism but I do believe in miracles and I love when they happen.  That’s probably why I love the book  Their Eyes Were Watching God.  As far as I’m concerned, the story in the book, the story of the book and the story of the woman who wrote it are all walking proofs of providence.

Let me start out with the writer, Zora Neale Hurston.  She was one of eight children born to an African-American minister and his wife who lived in Alabama.  She was born with talent, strong will and a brain but luck rarely favored children in poor, black families in the 1890’s.  It did when her father moved his family to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first incorporated, all-black, towns in America.  Zora’s self-confidence grew in a society where a resident’s destiny wasn’t limited by their skin tone.  More good luck put her in the path of some gifted teachers.  With this background, Zora used her  own combination of hard work and resourcefulness to go to college and she studied anthropology at Howard University, Barnard College and Columbia University.  Her studies made Zora realize that the Florida home she had known contained a rich, heretofore unstudied culture and she spent a large part of her life documenting this world before it disappeared.  When she wasn’t writing writing books of folklore or studying other cultures, she created essays, plays, short stories and novels.  Her second novel was Their Eyes Were Watching God.

TEWWG is, more than anything, the story of Janie, a middle-aged woman who learns to trust her own instincts after surviving three husbands, and the extremes of life.  To hear Janie tell it, she has been “a delegate to the Big Association of Life” and her membership dues were paid through hard experience, often with the wrong man.  Janie’s grandmother selected Logan Killicks to be Janie’s first husband, hoping he would give his young wife security.  Instead, Janie found the emptiness of a loveless marriage.  Jody Starks promised Janie  excitement and change from the Killicks farm but Janie finds she is little more than a trophy to the ambitious Starks, who believes a wife is something to be exhibited, bullied and bossed.  Only with Tea Cake, the traveling laborer who captures her heart, does Janie find the relationship of mutual affection and respect she craves. Both Teacake and Janie make mistakes but with this loving, imperfect man Janie is content to face demanding work, a murderous hurricane and even death itself because she has the right companion.  Zora used her knowledge of Florida and the people she knew there to create a story built around a simple, profound idea: more than money or work or the approval of others, it takes Love to fill up a life.

Unfortunately, Their Eyes Were Watching God, didn’t get the recognition or praise it deserved when it was first published.  It got mixed reviews from critics and few sales. All too soon, the novel was out of print and forgotten and it’s author seemed doomed to suffer the same fate.  After a life of travel, love and accomplishment, Zora Neale Hurston died, penniless and alone in 1960 and was laid in an unmarked grave.

But remember, I promised you a miracle. The novelist Alice Walker discovered Their Eyes Were Watching God while she was still a student and she began to research Hurston’s life.  A decade after Zora’s death, Walker placed a stone on the unmarked grave and published the article, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”.  The article focused a light on this nearly vanished author and her novel and people started hunting for old copies of the book.  Three years later, the book was put back into print and now it is a part of college courses everywhere, recognized and taught not just as a great African-American tale or a great woman’s story but a great novel.  That’s a bona-fide, sure-enough miracle.

Like I said, it’s not easy to describe a miracle but sometimes we recognize them when they happen. Miracles, like grace, are the good we don’t always deserve and certainly never expect.  Yet, these surprise blessings give us hope for the future. They restore our faith in ourselves and the world and our belief in a  benevolent providence. Like Their Eyes Were Watching God, miracles are gifts of love, the love that fulfills our lives.

The Wright Stuff

There they are, pictured in American History books, looking like would-be models for a Grant Wood painting: Orville and Wilbur Wright, two men idolized for their achievement in flight but unknown and unknowable beyond that remarkable fact.  These tall, thin men appear in the history of mankind, one of them skimming over a sand dune in a contraption of wood struts and fabric while the other stands alongside.  Then they disappear again.  Most people can’t tell you which brother is in the flying machine. Until recently, we’ve seen them as aviation’s first pair of ciphers.
By contrast, David McCullough has devoted his life to creating a greater understanding of American individuals and events that shaped this country’s history and his new book, The Wright Brothers goes a long way toward demystifying and humanizing this legendary pair.   In many ways, it takes someone like McCullough to point out the history of these remarkable brothers is a quintessential American tale. 
Born in the mid-west as the grandchildren of immigrants, Orville and Wilbur had the singular good fortune of having enlightened, loving parents.  Their father was a traveling minister who loved learning almost as much as he loved God.  Bishop Wright encouraged his children to read widely and develop their own opinions about life.  The boys were younger siblings in a brood of children and a bit shy but they probably would have developed unremarkably except two set-backs refocused their lives.  First, Wilbur was hit in the mouth with a baseball bat and lost most of his front teeth.  Instead of going to college, he spent the next three years in the house recovering, (cosmetic dentistry was in its infancy) caring for his terminally ill mother, and reading every book he could get his hands on.  The isolation made a shy man shyer but it also ignited his brain.  Then Orville developed an illness that kept him in bed for months and, to pass the time, Wilbur read aloud to him from books on science and nature.  By the time they recovered, the brothers were devoted to engineering and science.
McCullough tells their story in plain, good-humored prose that is easy on the eye and ear.  Reading The Wright Brothers is almost like listening to the narration of a Ken Burns film.  It’s friendly and open, as if the speaker knows he has an intelligent audience with an interest in his reasonable story.  Dramatic language doesn’t need to be manufactured to keep the reader turning pages; the events described are enough.
Another gift of McCullough’s research is that he creates the context that make the accomplishments of the Wright brothers understandable.  Any story about the Wright Brothers mentions that the brothers originally made their living repairing, building and selling bicycles, a concern that seems fairly distant from controlled flight.  McCullough puts this in perspective by pointing out the safety bicycle sold by the Wrights (one with two wheels of similar size an chain drive) was a new phenomena that made self-propelled transport viable.  In other words, the Wrights were entrepreneurs interested in cutting-edge technology.   By repairing and then creating lightweight, dependable, and fast bicycles, Wilbur and Orville taught themselves elements of mechanical engineering that helped them develop the flight control system they later put into their planes.
Like Edison the Wright brothers were inventors, undismayed by failure, and as unskilled as businessmen as they were gifted in engineering but history is full of people whose focus allowed them to achieve in one area but hindered them in another.  If their work is substantial and documented, usually their achievements are remembered and cherished.   Thankfully, writers like David McCullough make sure the achievers are remembered as well.