This Week In My Classes: The Meaning of Life

falcon-vintage-coverIn Pulp Fiction, this is our second and final week on The Maltese Falcon (no, it does not seem like enough time, but we have other work to do too!). Leading up to our discussions of the novel I made a big deal about Raymond Chandler’s claim that the novel “demonstrated that the detective story can be important writing. The Maltese Falcon may or may not be a work of genius,” he says in “The Simple Art of Murder,” “but an art which is capable of it is not ‘by hypothesis’ incapable of anything.”

I’m not sure I admire The Maltese Falcon quite as much as all that, or that I think the detective story hadn’t already shown its literary potential, though much depends on what you rule in or out as an example (if The Moonstone counts, then that’s pretty old news by 1930). But it’s a great starting point for discussion, especially about what we think it takes for writing to be “important.” One suggestion about what distinguishes The Maltese Falcon from the kind of mystery Chandler’s contrasting it with in his essay (basically, the Golden Age detective novel) is its thematic ambition: the crimes its plot is organized around are really just devices for raising questions about what is worth living and dying for–about what, if anything, gives life meaning. Any murder mystery will address motives and consequences at a literal level, but in The Maltese Falcon the black bird takes on symbolic significance in excess of those requirements. I never feel any need to interpret the dagger in Roger Ackroyd’s throat symbolically: it’s enough to know that it came from the table with the glass lid in the drawing room that Dr. Sheppard examines so attentively when he comes to visit Ackroyd the night of the murder. That’s the difference, right there.

falconTwo of the questions I asked my students to think about for class discussion this week were what the falcon ultimately stands for–to individual characters and, perhaps not the same thing, in the book as a whole; and how they viewed Brigid O’Shaughnessy by the end–as a femme fatale or a woman fighting for survival in a man’s world. Today we also considered what it means that the actual statuette the characters have been chasing (and have killed and died for) in the novel turns out to be a fake. It’s one thing to imagine what it might mean to actually get whatever it is that you most want: what if it isn’t worth it after all, or it is but now you don’t know what to do next? But what if you think you’ve got it and it isn’t real? Gutman recovers quickly and proposes they keep looking: after all, the real one is still out there, isn’t it? Isn’t it the quest itself that really matters? Or in chasing their dream are they missing their chance to actually live?

black maskIt seems pretty clear that Sam is missing some kind of chance by following his dream, except that his is a dream of justice for his murdered partner. One of my favorite things about this novel–which in many ways I find deeply unpleasant–is how shadowed Sam’s choices are by their consequences. In the end he chooses justice over love, which is (as Effie comments) the right thing to do; Sam himself gives a long list (literally numbered) of reasons why he should turn Brigid in, against which there is only “the fact that maybe you love me, and maybe I love you.” “It isn’t always easy to know what to do,” he tells Brigid when she first comes to see him pretending to be the innocent and vulnerable “Miss Wonderly.” He may in fact know exactly what to do, but the ending to the novel shows that that, too, isn’t easy: he may live up to his principles, but he also has to live without love, without trust, and probably without happiness. In a different novel, the alternatives might not be so stark, but Sam lives in world where “if they hang you, I’ll always remember you” really does, I think, count as romantic. While Effie may agree with him in principle, though, she also recoils from him, a judgment I share.

9536030_wood_lynne.inddIn Victorian Sensations we finished up East Lynne this week–with some relief, I think, though I was glad to hear some students saying they did enjoy it: curiosity about what would happen next helped them keep going, even though it dragged a bit at times. One of the reasons I think this novel falls short of being “important writing” is its ineptness, artistically speaking: a lot of it seems quite haphazard or just plain incoherent, and our well-trained desire to find patterns and unities was frequently frustrated. That’s not to see it doesn’t contain many interesting elements, but I don’t really think that, through them, Wood is saying something worth really thinking about. She does have plenty to say, but it’s the very heavy-handedness of her overt message that becomes tedious. I said before that the novel reads very clearly like a cautionary tale–but so, of course, is Vanity Fair, which has a similar moral lesson for us: live well so you have no regrets on your deathbed. “Oh, Barbara,” says the tediously honorable Mr. Carlyle after presiding over the pathetic deathbed of his first wife:

never forget–never forget that the only way to ensure peace in the end, is to strive always to be doing right, unselfishly, under God.

Why does that solemn conclusion make me go “yeesh!” while I find Chapter LXI of Vanity Fair both touching and morally compelling? It’s not just that Wood is so prescriptive (and it’s not as if Thackeray isn’t prescriptive). Thackeray has in common with Hammett a rich awareness of social and human complexity, for one thing, and a wry understanding of what drives us: in fact, his indictment of the vanity of human wishes fits nicely with the ultimately futile quest most of Hammett’s characters are on–“everyone is striving for what is not worth the having,” as Lord Steyne remarks, and yet both authors also see that that’s where the drama, the energy, is. Wood’s moral world seems simplistic by comparison. If Hammett makes us wonder about the meaning of it all, Wood seems too quick to tell us, and to reduce it to following the rules. One of the critical articles we read concludes that “it is clear that Mrs. Wood does not possess the insight of a major novelist.” That’s not the kind of conclusion a more recent critical article is likely to hazard (this one is from 1976, a simpler time in literary criticism, for better and for worse)–but I have to agree.

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