The Eighth Day: Prologue

Eighth DayI am reading Thornton Wilder’s penultimate novel The Eighth Day (1967) with a former student and friend of mine. The American novelist and dramatist told his sister he was writing “a long family saga, an adventure story, ‘as though Little Women were being mulled over by Dostoevsky.'” Here is how novelist and critic John Updike described The Eighth Day: “Untidily, self-delightingly, it brims with wonder and wisdom, and aspires to prophecy. We marvel at a novel of such spiritual ambition and benign flamboyance.”

The title of this book has theological significance. On the eve of the 20th century, Dr. Gillies envisions the future, lying to the folks of Coaltown: “Man is not an end but a beginning. We are at the beginning of the second week. We are children of the eighth day” (16). Both Augustine and Calvin recognized that the eighth day in the Old Testament, which was set aside for the circumcision of Israelite boys (Gen. 17:12) and ceremonial Sabbaths (Lev. 23:36-39; Num. 29:35), foretold the sacrament of baptism and the resurrection of Christ. In his commentary on Genesis 17:12, Calvin writes: “It is probable and consonant with reason, that the number seven designated the course of the present life. Therefore the eighth day might seem to be fixed upon by the Lord, to prefigure the beginning of a new life.”

The nonlinear structure of the novel follows:

  • Prologue
  • I.  “The Elms” 1885-1905
  • II.  Illinois to Chile 1902-1905
  • III.  Chicago 1902-1905
  • IV.  Hoboken, New Jersey 1883
  • V.  “St. Kitts” 1880-1905
  • VI.  Coaltown, Illinois, Christmas 1905

For each of these parts, I will formulate a question and offer commentary on a passage. The “Prologue” begins much like the one in his early novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey by laying out the main facts and themes of the story, which might spoil the plot if Wilder were a lesser writer. But as a greater writer, the “Prologue” gives the reader just enough of the story to propel him forward with keen interest. Consider the first paragraph:

In the early summer of 1902 John Barrington Ashley of Coaltown, a small mining center in southern Illinois, was tried for the murder of Breckenridge Lansing, also of Coaltown. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. Five days later, at one in the morning of Tuesday, July 22, he escaped from his guards on the train that was carrying him to his execution. (3)

The rest of the “Prologue” concerns the crime, trial, and escape. Profiles are given of the two patriarchs and their families. A detailed portrait of Coaltown reveals that “Coaltown was no worse and no better than any other town. Any community is a portion of the vast body of the human race” (17).

QUESTION

It is possible that the verdict might have been less severe if Ashley had behaved differently in court. He showed no signs of fear. He afforded no fascinating spectacle of mounting terror and remorse. He sat through the long trial listening serenely as though he expected the proceedings to satisfy his moderate curiosity as to who killed Breckenridge Lansing. But then, for Coaltown, he was an odd man. He was practically a foreigner — that is, he came from New York State and spoke in the way they speak there. His wife was German and spoke with a slight accent of her own. He seemed to have no ambition. He had worked for almost twenty years in the mines’ office on a very small salary–as small as the second-best-paid clergyman’s in town–in apparent contentment. He was odd through a very lack of striking characteristics. He was neither dark nor light, tall nor short, fat nor thin, bright nor dull. He had an agreeable enough presence, but one that seldom attracted a second glance. A Chicago reporter, at the beginning of the trial, repeatedly alluded to him as “our uninteresting hero.” (He changed his mind later — a man on trial for his life who exhibits no anxiety arouses interest.) Women liked Ashley, because he liked them and because he was an attentive listener; men — except for the foremen in the mine — paid him little attention, though something in his self-effacing silence aroused in them a constant attempt to impress him. (5-6)

Why would the author create an “uninteresting hero”? As soon as I read this passage, I immediately associated the protagonist, John Ashley, with none other than Socrates and Jesus — men who probably did not attract a second glance, men on trial who apparently did not exhibit anxiety. Might they also be regarded by observers as “uninteresting heroes”? The common become uncommon.

COMMENTARY

Nothing is more interesting than the inquiry as to how creativity operates in anyone, in everyone: mind, propelled by passion, imposing itself, building and unbuilding; mind — the latest appearing manifestation of life — expressing itself in statesman and criminal, in poet and banker, in street cleaner and housewife, in father and mother — establishing order or spreading havoc; mind — condensing its energy in groups and nations, rising to an incandescence and then ebbing away exhausted; mind — enslaving and massacring or diffusing justice and beauty:

Pallas Athene’s Athens, like a lighthouse on a hill, sending forth beams that still illuminate men in council;

Palestine, for a thousand years, like a geyser in the sand, producing genius after genius, and soon there will be no one on earth who has not been affected by them.

Is there more and more of it, or less and less?

Is the brain neutral between destruction and beneficence?

Is it possible that there will someday be a “spiritualization” of the human animal?

It is absurd to compare our children of the Kangaheela Valley to the august examples of good and evil action I have referred to above (already in the middle of this century they are largely forgotten), but:

They are near,

They are accessible to our indiscreet observation. (10-11)

As a humanities student, I welcome this kind of digression in The Eighth Day because it deepens the story and provokes thought. Wilder is disciplined with his digressions, never losing continuity with the narrative and its themes. While he explores “how creativity operates” in a variety of characters, the focus rests with John Ashley, who quietly solves problems as a mining engineer.

The narrator’s commentary in this passage addresses the mind’s capacity for good and evil: “building and unbuilding,” “establishing order or spreading havoc,” “enslaving and massacring or diffusing justice and beauty.” To the question “Is the brain neutral between destruction and beneficence,” the answer of history is an emphatic “No!” because, despite some advances in civilization, the mind bends toward destruction, owing to the noetic effects of sin. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul reminds us that sin is an epistemological category: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (1:18).

The narrator locates the zenith of the human mind back with the Hellenes (“Pallas Athene’s Athenes”) and Hebrews (“Palestine”), which coincides with Matthew Arnold’s observation that our “best light” may reside in the forces of Hellenism and Hebraism. I delight in the imagery associated with each of these forces. Hellenism is “a lighthouse on a hill, sending forth beams that still illuminate men in council,” which presumably refers to Greek statesmen who gave us deliberative democracy. Hebraism is “a geyser in the sand, producing genius after genius, and soon there will be no one on earth who has been affected by them,” which presumably refers to the Jewish lawgivers and prophets who gave the West its legal-ethical framework. I also wonder if the narrator has Jesus Christ in mind, who, more than anyone else, has “spiritualized” the human animal as God incarnate. When the narrator asks  “Is there more and more of [genius], or less and less?” — the implicit answer seems to be “less and less” because “the august examples of good” action are in the distant past rather the near past or present.

A central question of the novel  “Is it possible that there will someday be a ‘spiritualization’ of the human animal?” remains mysterious to me. Does such a question emerge in the wake of Darwin? If there is a biological evolution of humanity, should we ponder whether there is also a spiritual evolution? What does Wilder mean by “spiritualization”? If man is not yet spiritual, does this imply that he is merely a beast? Who or what would contribute to spiritualization? According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, the human animal was spiritualized from the beginning: “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7). I infer that “breath of life” means not only biological operation but also spiritual animation. Some clarity on this question may be gained by remembering the title of the novel. If the eighth day signifies “the beginning of a new life,” then perhaps “spiritualization” is not a phenomenon that we can reasonably expect in the human species but in particular individuals who, by providential design, start to “walk in newness of life,” as St. Paul puts it (Rom. 6:4). The narrator understands that his abstract question can only be answered in the concrete  the rarefied must be reified. “Our children of the Kangaheela Valley” are the laboratory for philosophical and religious speculation, for they alone are “near” and “accessible to our indiscreet observation.” As Harold Augenbraum, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, said of The Eighth Day: “You have to hand it to a writer willing to attack the big questions head on, and to embed those questions in the story of small-town America, and then surround it all in the grandeur of the grandeur of America, and then abase some of its citizens for venality while others rise to existential heights.”

Cross Reference

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2 thoughts on “The Eighth Day: Prologue

  1. Pingback: The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder: Prologue | lankford press

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