Thursday, October 28, 2010

Imagery of Fish in Dreiser and McCarthy

I just finished reading Theodore Dreiser's The Financier for a class on Realism and Naturalism and am surprised at how entirely swept up and moved by the novel I have been in a way I can't quite put my finger on. This was my first experience with Dreiser and I am now very curious to go back to his more influential novels: American Tragedy and Sister Carrie. The two closing sections of The Financier in particular solidified my appreciation of the novel and seemed to justify my response. Dreiser knew he had tapped into the heart of something big and those last two sections are a kind of dark revelry in his achievement. The sections called to mind the opening and closing images of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Dreiser opens with a scene from the childhood of his protagonist Frank Cowperwood during the boy's regular trips to a local aquarium. Frank was particularly fascinated with one particular tank. Everyday he would observe a lobster's slow and patient hunting of a squid. He takes the lobster as an example of a savage will that he feels is the necessary stance for anyone who wants to succeed in life. The novel ends with two even more interesting sections, one describing the black grouper's survival methods as being a key to life and morality or amorality and then a coda that peers into the future. Contrary to the blurb on the back of my cover of the book I don't think that Dreiser is making a judgement on Frank. Dreiser conveys Frank directly and with much energy and we can't help but be drawn into his drama. Dreiser is obviously in awe of his character and in many respects shared some qualities with him, particularly his sexual drive and taste in passionate and independent women. If there is to be a judgement on Frank it must come solely from the reader.

It seems curious to me that Dreiser's novel also occupies the same period as McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Blood Meridian and The Road are ultimately much bleaker and much less sparing of sympathy than The Financier, as harsh as that book is. Blood Meridian ends with a Prometheus like figure attempting to draw fire from the earth. In The Road the continuing theme that holds the father and son together is that they must carry the fire. The fire I think is a saving idealism, a belief in the imagination perhaps, which has been so drained that in this novel it means little more than not eating people. The message of survival in The Financier is ultimately antithetical to The Road's idealism.

All of the figures of the novel seem to have glaucoma and so occupy, it would seem, the same cosmos as that of the late Jose Saramago's Blindness (which I haven't read yet.) I've read The Road once and a half now. After finishing the film I started rereading it but since I am still in school I forced myself to put it down. I'm convinced the book is an allegory but I will need to read the book again to put together all the pieces. Outside the elements I've already discussed another allegorical element is the theme of cellars. There are three "cellar" scenes in the novel--the first is full of humans, the second was presumably an abandoned fallout shelter stockpiled with foodstuffs and enough to live on for some time, the third is a ship abandoned in the ocean. In the first scene the father ignores all the signs of danger outside the house that the son notices and so leads his son into viewing the horrors inside. In the second scene the father forces the son to take the risk again but also forces the son to abandon the shelter to continue on down south. The final scene I may need to reread. It is set in the ocean and we are given the scene, I believe just before this, where the father and son wonder if there may not be another father and son on the other side staring back at them. A very haunting and powerful thought. The father than ventures out into the ocean to mine the ship. When he returns his goods have been pillaged but his son thankfully has been left alive. The perpetrator is caught and left naked and alone despite the son's protestations.

The novel opens with the sentence, "When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him." One thinks first of Dante finding himself midway through his life's journey in a dark wood. And then also of Wordsworth who needed, at times, to reach out and touch a tree in order to remind himself of the reality of the outside world. Here, at the novels opening, we don't know who the child is. But it is suggestive of not reality but hope, for a lost past or for a possible future. In the dream the father casts the language suggest that he is casting off light in the cave. The creature, when I first read the novel, I took to be some sort of sea creature, a leviathan. But on rereading it seems as though it must be some semblance of what humanity has become. The last paragraph of the book is very odd. It seems to be a return to the real world. And it is this paragraph that seems in tone so similar to the closing of Dreiser's book. It describes the sensation of holding a trout in one's hand feeling the contortions of life pressing against one. Oddly enough, Philip Roth's The Human Stain also ends with a meditation on how fish gain their strength through a certain circulation of waters.

These seem little more than coincidences. I turned to McCarthy in an attempt to better understand my fascination with Dreiser's novel. Both Dreiser and McCarthy present a similar version of reality except in Dreiser we feel compelled to submit to it while in McCarthy we hope in desperation to find some means of resisting it.

1 comment:

muzzy said...

Those are some fascinating convergences you've found. I loved the American Tragedy in high school, now you've made me want to read the Financier.