The Eighth Day: V. “St. Kitts”

Eighth DayAs a self-proclaimed “poet laureate of the ‘family,'” Thornton Wilder narrates a memorable story about two families – the Ashleys and the Lansings – in a small Midwestern mining town, whose bond of neighborliness is torn asunder when one patriarch (John Ashley) is accused of murdering the other (Breckenridge Lansing). Just as there is a “Prologue” to The Eighth Day, we can regard the final chapter (“Coaltown, Illinois, Christmas”) as an Epilogue, which means the entire novel is structurally and symbolically framed by the two houses of these families, starting with “The Elms” (Chapter 1) and ending with “St. Kitts” (Chapter 5). This design is intentional, mimicking the layout of Coaltown:

The central portion of Coaltown is long and narrow, lying between two steep bluffs. Since its main street runs north to southeast, it receives little direct sunlight. Many of the citizens seldom see a sunrise or more than a fragment of a constellation. At the northern end are the depot, the town hall, the courthouse, the Illinois Tavern, and the Ashley house, built long ago by Airlee MacGregor and called “The Elms”; at the southern end are the Memorial Park with its statue of a Union soldier, the cemetery, and the Breckenridge Lansing house, “St. Kitts” – named after the island in the Caribbean on which Eustacia Lansing was born. These two houses are the only ones in Coaltown possessing sufficient level space about them to be described as having “grounds.” (11)

Once the crime happens, the grounded houses of Coaltown are in danger of becoming groundless without the patriarchs. The reader maintains his interest throughout the epic story to find out whether the Ashleys and Lansings will create an “at-homeness in existence,” which, for all of us, is fragile and freighted (85). While most of the novel focuses on the Ashley family, the fifth chapter is devoted to the Lansing family: the individual lives of Breckenridge and Eustacia, their difficult marriage, and their children, particularly George’s ordeal after the murder of his father. The universal is revealed through the particular. By holding up these two families to “indiscreet observation,” Wilder explores the family at large – with all of its delights, drama, disorder, and dreams.

QUESTION

“Why did Stacey marry Breck.”

Like so many others in Coaltown, Dr. Gillies often asked himself how it was possible that Eustacia Sims so far lost her senses as to marry Breckenridge Lansing. We shall hear later how Dr. Gillies explained it to himself – an explanation based on a far-fetched notion and condensed in a phrase that never failed to exasperate his wife, who said that it was bad grammar:

“We keep saying that we ‘live our lives.’ Shucks! Life lives us.” (309)

* * *

She loved him. Yes, that’s what marriage had brought her to. She loved him as a creature. Like most completely bilingual persons she thought in both languages. About the more superficial machinery of life she thought in English. Her inner life presented itself to her in French. In both languages the word “creature” wears two aspects; in French the two are more drastically contrasted. Her favorite French authors, Pascal and Bossuet, constantly evoked the double sense: a créature is an abject living thing; it is also a living thing – generally a human being – fashioned by God. Her dear uncle in marrying her had predicted that they would become one flesh; he had been right. She loved this créature. She could not imagine him away. Just as she shrank with horror from any desire to have wished her life to have been other. It was these children – and no other imaginable children – that constituted her boundless ineffable thanks to God. That’s what destiny is. Our lives are a seamless robe. All was ordained, as the English language put it. She arrived at a position much like Dr. Gillies’s. We don’t live our lives. God lives us. (366-367)

These two passages mark a sustained dialectic in the novel between the voice of skepticism (Dr. Gillies) and the voice of faith (Eustacia Lansing). This dialectic belongs to the challenges of modernity. In a letter from 1968, one year after the publication of The Eighth Day, Wilder acknowledges that some readers were frustrated because he did not resolve the dialectical tension one way or another: “People are upset by the religious implications, too. (‘Why does Wilder wobble so? Why doesn’t he come out with either a ringing affirmation of Christian faith or with a fine stoic affirmation of agnosticism?’).” Indeed, a lack of resolution may suggest that Wilder wobbled between belief and unbelief. Alternatively, the irresolution in the novel could be designed to provoke reflection about the reader’s own posture.

What do these mottos of skepticism (“Life lives us”) and faith (“God lives us”) mean? Grammar alone cannot answer this question, but it is worth noting that the decisive contrast of each motto resides with the subject (“Life” versus “God”) while the verb (“lives”) and implied prepositional phrase (“in us” or “through us”) are the same. In the context of the above passages, the subject gains some clarification. “Life” names something that is random (the oddity of Stacey’s marriage to Breck), whereas “God” names something that is intentional (the providential arrangement of spouses). Interestingly, neither motto privileges the human being: the word “us” is placed after the verb and at the end, as if we are passive to an external force – whether random or intentional – that moves in and through us. Is there any choice in the matter? Do we choose “Life” or “God” – or do they choose us? Perhaps both. That is the mystery in these mottos.

COMMENTARY

Eustacia was playing a game for high stakes. According to her lights, within such means as were at her disposal (faute de mieux, as she wryly told herself), she was preparing her husband for death. She was trying to assist a soul to birth – to being born into self-knowledge, contrition, and hope. (354)

* * *

Eustacia’s project was not only difficult, but perhaps impossible.

Three in the morning (Tuesday, April 8):

Lansing awoke abruptly from a doze. “Stacey!”

“Yes, dear?”

“What’s that you’re doing?”

“I’m praying for you, Breck.”

Silence.

“What are you praying for – that I get better?”

“Yes. And there’s a phrase in your Bible that I like: I’m praying that you’d be ‘made whole.'”

Silence.

“I bet you think I’m going to die.”

“You know very well I know nothing about such things. But, Breck, I think that you’re really sick. I think you should go somewhere where you’d be better taken care of.”

“I won’t go, Stacey. I won’t. There aren’t any nurses better than you are. I’d go crazy in any other place.”

“But I’d be there, too.”

“They’d have some old hen in grey-and-white stripes. They wouldn’t let you sit by me like this.”

“I wish I were an old hen in grey-and-white stripes. I have this fear all the time that I don’t know enough.”

“Stacey, I love you. Can’t you get that into your thick head: that I love you? I don’t want to be off in some damned hospital where you’d only be allowed in for half an hour a day. Stacey, will you listen – just once – to what I say? I’d rather die with you near me than live forever and ever without you.”

Eustacia ground her fingernails into the arms of her chair. We came into the world to learn. (355-356)

* * *

“You asked me if I’m happy sometimes. Oh, I’m happy often, because I have a husband and these three children. And I want you to be happy in the same way.”

Lansing looked about him bewilderedly. He lowered his face and toward his raised knees. “Oh, Stacey, I WANT TO GET WELL! I WANT TO GET WELL!”

She rose and kissed his forehead. “You are better. Now let me move the lamp over to the sideboard. One sign that you’re really getting better will be that you can sleep at night. See if you can catch an hour or two of sleep now. I’ll be right here.” (375)

I have selected the above passages for commentary because the reader beholds a touching picture of how the marriage vow undergoes testing. As a Catholic, Eustacia likely vowed on her wedding day, “I, Eustacia Sims, take you, Breckenridge Lansing, for my lawful husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part.” When Lansing is bedridden due to illness, Eustacia confronts the gritty side of her vocation, which was once very idealistic before she met her husband and sunk into the everydayness of marriage:

She knew her vocation. She knew why she had been born into the world. It was to love; to be a wife and mother. She had seen no examples of the kind of marriage to which she aspired. She invented marriage. She raised an edifice. A bird hatched from an egg in a dark room can build a nest without having seen one. She assembled fragments from the admonitions of priests at weddings, from passages in the few romans roses that circulated on the island, from the very marriages she saw about her – tired, spiritless, insulted, at best resigned – from altar paintings. It is given to some to “idealize” continuously and strongly, as a Bombyx mori secretes silk. Eustacia Sims intended to give and receive all the plenitude of the earth by love; to grow seven feet tall by love; to have ten children – Chevalier Bayards, Joséphines – by love; to merit her beauty by love; to live to a hundred, bowed down beneath the crowns of love. (314-315)

Because “no man is sick” in “the world inhabited by the Lansings of Iowa and Coaltown,” Lansing rejects the medical care he needs (351). Despite her husband’s stupidity and stubbornness, Eustacia suffers quietly besides him as he burdens her with the exhausting role of a round-the-clock nurse. His fits of rage, born of a refusal to fully acknowledge his sickness, are endured patiently, sometimes exasperatedly, by his wife. What elicits my admiration is how Eustacia develops a spiritual vision about her husband’s condition. Recognizing that “this sickness is not unto death” (John 11:4), as Jesus assured the worried sisters of Lazarus, Eustacia enlarges her vocation from a wife to midwife, who will try “to assist a soul to birth – to being born into self-knowledge, contrition, and hope.” With rebirth, she knows, there must also be a kind of dying. For a man who bans the word “pain” from being uttered in his household, this dying would be especially frightening. That is why he needs a (mid)wife, who will help him see that before one is “made whole,” brokenness must be confessed, as Breckenridge cries at last in capital letters, “I WANT TO GET WELL!” Eustacia lives up to the Greek origin of her name, which means “fruitful” or “productive.” Her marriage to Lansing bears fruit for a purpose higher than personal happiness; it is for wholeness, not just her husband’s but also her own. To endure the unavoidable birth pains that accompany spiritual growth, all of us need a companion who will nurse us to wholeness with the simple and unconditional assurance, “I’ll be right here.”

Cross Reference

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One thought on “The Eighth Day: V. “St. Kitts”

  1. There are two things that stand out to me in this post.
    First, the “God lives us.” As someone, who in the last year chose the Reformed Tradition (PCA specifically), this stands out as being rather intriguing. Many respond to the TULIP points of Calvinism (which is only an insanely small slice of Calvin’s doctrines) with responses such as, ‘Do we even have free will?’ or ‘How can I choose anything with Providence choosing everything for me?’ The response I have to this isn’t some lofty response from knowledge. I am ignorant of these things. Not only am I just now being introduced to Reformed Doctrine, but even if I was an expert in these things, I would never know how God’s Providence and man’s free will work together. That is not for me to know. But we cannot deny that either of those things exist (because they are in Scripture), even if we don’t know how they work together.
    Second, I have to admit that I felt disenchanted by Eustacia’s marriage to Breck. It wasn’t because she did anything wrong, I just wondered why she married him in the first place since she didn’t love him the way wives usually love. But you have put her love in perspective for me. It is a devoted and sacrificial love for her husband and his salvation.

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