Friday, January 31, 2014

Book Review: The Eighth Day

The Eighth Day: A Novel by Thornton Wilder

I've never read anything by Thornton Wilder other than Our Town, which is a little surprising given how much I love certain lines in that play. In this far-reaching book, Wilder follows the fates of two families in Coaltown when the father of one of them is incorrectly convicted of murdering the father of the other. Everyone is surprised when he is rescued from the train on his way to his execution.

When reading a book like this one which includes a lot of "philosophizing," I always feel like the author is trying to make a big statement about the meaning of life that I don't quite understand. In the end, though, I love reading books like this because they focus my own thoughts on the meaning of life. It matters less to me that I understand what Wilder is saying is true than that I spend time working through my own thoughts on the matter.

On people of faith, Wilder says:
There is no creation without faith and hope.
There is no faith and hope that does not express itself in creation. These men and women work. The spectacle that most discourages them is not error or ignorance or cruelty, but sloth. This work that they do may often seem to be all but imperceptible. That is characteristic of activity that never for a moment envisages an audience.
Later, I read about some of the creations by those people of faith:
For Ashley, the function of a room was to be serviceable; it had never occurred to him that it could be beautiful. He who lacked so many qualities--humor, ambition, vanity, reflection--had never distinguished a category of the beautiful. Some pictures on grocers' calendars has pleased him. At school he had been praised for the "beauty" of his mechanical drawings. We remember how on his flight through Illinois he had been overwhelmed by the beauty of dawn, and later of Chimborazo, and of his Chilean peaks. He sat down in a high-backed chair and looked about him. He became aware of an odd sensation in his throat; he sobbed. His eyes rested on the exhausted and submissive head on the wall before him. The world was a place of cruelty, suffering, and confusion, but men and women could surmount despair by making beautiful things, emulating the beauty of the first creation.
I found lots of bits and pieces that called to mind other books I've read recently like Boys Adrift.
A man can produce fortitude from his own vitals, but the true food of valor is example.
Speaking of boys, Wilder apparently knows them well. As I read this paragraph, I was a little saddened that so many boys today are spending time with electronics rather than other boys in the freedom of unchaperoned time out-of-doors.
Even in the best of homes, at the best of times, a boy is always in the wrong. Boys are filled with exhausting energies; they enjoy noise; they are (or where would we be?) adventurous and inquiring. They creep out onto ledges and fall into caves and two hundred men spend nights searching for them. They must hurl objects. They particularly cherish small animals and must have them near. A respect for cleanliness is as slowly and painfully acquired as mastery of the violin. They are perpetually famished and can barely be taught to eat decorously (the fork was late appearing in society). They are unable to sit still for more than ten minutes unless they are being told a story about mayhem and sudden death (or where would we be?). They receive several hundred rebukes a day. They rage at the humiliation of being male and not men. They strain to hasten the calendar. they must smoke and swear. Dark warnings are thrown out to them about "impurity" and "filthiness"--interesting occupations which seem to be reserved to adults. They peer into mirrors for the first promise of a beard. No wonder they are happy only among their coevals; they return from their unending games (that resemble warfare) puffed up, it may be, with triumph--late, dirty, or bloody.
I loved this speech to one of the young men in the novel. He was headstrong and often misguided. Instead of chastising him, she treated him with understanding and respect. Her words give him hope and purpose (though still often misguided).
You are young. You are not happy now because you have not yet discovered the work to which you will give your life. Somewhere in the world there is a work for you to do, to which you will bring courage and honor and loyalty. For every man there is one great task that God has given him to do. I think that yours will demand a brave heart and some suffering; but you will triumph.
I think what I liked best in the book is Wilder's language. Like in Our Town, he presents the world and our human experience as bigger than anything we can comprehend. Sometimes I feel that way myself, as if my heart would burst with all the emotion and hope and beauty and fear and despair in creation. These are not feelings to be understood, but shared. When I first read Our Town as a young girl, I realized for the first time I was not alone in feeling that way.
A feeling of something portentous and strange in human experience had been gathering within him. He felt as though he had walked all his life in ignorance of abysses and wonders, of ambushes, of eyes watching him, of writing on clouds. It came to him that surely life is vaster, deeper, and more perilous than we think it is. He dropped the envelope and bent over to pick it up. He was suddenly filled with fear that he would go through life ignorant--stump ignorant--of the powers of light and the powers of darkness that were engaged in some mighty conflict behind the screen of appearances--fear, fear that he would live like a slave, or like a four-footed thing with lowered head.

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