“Coaltown, Illinois, Christmas” functions as the epilogue to Thornton Wilder’s epic tale of two American families in The Eighth Day (1967), bringing the reader full circle after journeying—backwards and forwards in time—with different members of the households to Chile, Chicago, Hoboken, and St. Kitts. I have observed that The Eighth Day bears some resemblance to The Odyssey. The endings, however, mark divergence in the stories. Where Odysseus achieves his homecoming after the wars and waves nearly killed him, John Ashley never makes it back home; he appears to have drowned at sea. Where the restoration of Ithaca required the king to resume his throne, the reconciliation of the Ashley and Lansing families occurs in the absence of the patriarchs. These estranged families are united through the unexpected marriage of Roger Ashley and Félicité Lansing, which, opposite to the tragedy of Romeo & Juliet, shows how love, rather than death, can “bury their parents’ strife.” A point of convergence between The Eighth Day and The Odyssey lies with the two fatherless sons, Roger and Telemachus, both of whom leave their places of origin as boys and return as men, ready for the responsibilities of adulthood, whether of marriage or rulership. Divine prompting is behind their homeward drive: Telemachus returns home because Athena warns him that his mother is close to giving herself away in marriage to a suitor while Roger returns home on the occasion of Christmas, which observes the birthday of Jesus Christ and the promise of man’s rebirth in Him—a sign that “The Elms” and “St. Kitts” may be reborn. Because The Eighth Day qualifies, in part, as a murder mystery, the reader finally learns that Breckenridge Lansing was murdered by his own son George in an effort to protect his abused mother and endangered friend, John Ashley; he confesses to the crime but flees to Russia.
Unveiling the futures of the wives and their children, our narrator leaves us wondering if—every now and then—there is a “spiritualization” of the human animal. The content of that spiritualization remains ambiguous, although it seems wed to the American Dream, in which each generation, through creative intelligence and hard work, has the opportunity to improve upon the previous one. Not everyone is a winner, of course. Although George Lansing becomes a renowned actor in Russia, he is exiled from his native land and family. Despite Sophia Ashley’s genius to keep “The Elms” alive, her “faculty of hope—like a clock that had outworn its service—had broken down,” eventually leaving her committed to an asylum (405). Just as evolutionary biology works through natural selection, the Deacon of the Covenant Church, who tells Roger about the identity of his father’s rescuers, suggests that spiritualization works through divine selection: some families and nations are singled out for their extraordinary “Messiah-bearing” capacity. If Hell is “the place in which there is no hope or possibility of change,” as the Deacon postulates, then is America Heaven because of its charter with hope?
This is a history.
But there is only one history. It began with the creation of man and will come to an end when the last human consciousness is extinguished. All other beginnings and endings are arbitrary conventions—makeshifts parading as self-sufficient entireties, diffusing petty comfort or petty despair. The cumbrous shears of the historian cut out a few figures and a brief passage of time from that enormous tapestry. Above and below the laceration, to the right and left of it, the severed threads protest against the injustice, against the imposture.
It is only in appearance that time is a river. It is rather a vast landscape and it is the eye of the beholder that moves.
Look about in all directions—rise higher, rise higher!—and see hills beyond hills, plans and rivers.
This history made the pretense of a beginning: “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.” The reader has long been aware of how misleading those words are—regarded as the beginning of anything.
Hills beyond hills: there a mentally unstable family of the Loire; there a massacre in the West Indies; there a religious sect in Kentucky that moves westward. . . .
Do you see a man drowning in a wreck off Costa Rica? A great Russian actor killed in a mêlée, where no one gave much thought to who was slain? A funeral in Washington in 1930, with military bands and statesmen in silk hats; behind the widow and her children you can see two middle-aged women—a great opera singer and a troublemaking social reformer? (But funerals are only in appearance the end of anything.) Two old ladies sitting down to lunch in Los Angeles, enjoying the sixty-five-cent plate at The Copper Kettle (“Have the veal, Beata. You remember you liked it.” “Now don’t flutter at me, Eustacia!”)? The children, the innumerable children…?
History is one tapestry. No eye can venture to compass a hand’s-breadth of it. There were once a million people in Babylon.
Then look again at a miscarriage of justice in an unimportant case in a small Middlewestern town. (395-396)
* * *
There is much talk of a design in the arras. Some are certain they see it. Some see what they have been told to see. Some remember that they saw it once but have lost it. Some are strengthened by seeing a pattern wherein the oppressed and exploited of the earth are gradually emerging from their bondage. Some find strength in the conviction that there is nothing to see. Some (435)
I have quoted the opening section and concluding paragraph of the final chapter in the novel; both focus on perceptions of history. Wilder is at once domestic and cosmic, as he embeds this history of two families from “a small Midwestern town” in the history of humankind. How should we view history? To answer this question, attention should be paid to the metaphor of the “tapestry” or “arras”—and whether there is a perceivable design or not. When Roger visits the Deacon of the Covenant Church, we return to this metaphor:
The Deacon was gazing intently at the home-made rug at his feet and Roger’s eyes followed his. It had been woven long ago, but a complex mazelike design in brown and black could still be distinguished.
“Mr. Ashely, kindly lift the rug and turn it over.”
Roger did so. No figure could be traced on the reverse. It presented a mass of knots and of frayed and dangling threads. With a gesture of the hand the Deacon directed Roger to replace it.
“You are a newspaperman in Chicago. Your sister is a singer there. Your mother conducts a boarding house in Coaltown. Your father is in some distant country. Those are the threads and knots of human life. You cannot see the design.” (428-429)
The Deacon provides two historical illustrations of this metaphor: the House of Jesse in the Bible eventually birthed Jesus Christ and his own house previously birthed Abraham Lincoln. Neither house could have imagined there was a design on the other side because, lacking retrospective insight, they were entangled in the “knots of human life.” With the unfolding of history, each house delivered a “Messiah,” one of Jews and the other of Americans. The Deacon’s view of history affirms a divine pattern even if that pattern is invisible to the eye or faint. Here, I am reminded of that famous Kierkegaardian maxim, “Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.” In his diary, the Danish philosopher further reflected: “Life in time is never properly intelligible, for the very reason that at no point can I find complete repose in which to take up the position—backwards.”
Wilder makes this much clear: “History is one tapestry” rather than many tapestries. How any of us view that tapestry is up for grabs. He delineates various perceptions about history. In the last sentence, he trails off at the beginning with the word “Some.” This indeterminacy forces the reader to think about how he perceives the tapestry, whether patterned or unpatterned. If the eye can behold a pattern, who or what enables that vision?
Of the Maestro’s six children, all except his favorite daughter, Bice, were clamorous, demanding, and self-assertive. She assisted her mother in running the house; she served as her father’s secretary; she asked nothing for herself. She was tireless, watchful, shielding. Family life among the Italians—as among the Irish, though with less virulence—is punctuated by grand liberating quarrels, blood-warming rhetorical baths, complete with denunciations, slamming of doors, and last words fortissimo. These, in turn, are followed by reconciliations of an operatic beauty—tears, embraces, kneeling on the floor, protestations of penitence, humility, and undying love. These storms were greatly enjoyed by all except Bice, who, on each occasion, believed that they were real. She suffered. She alone in the family was pale and subject to migraine. During the summer of 1905 she was no longer able to conceal from her parents that she was coughing blood. Her father took her to a sanatorium in Minnesota. His character changed.
One evening after dinner [the Maestro] sat alone with Roger in his studio surrounded by those works of art (that is: of power diminished to beauty) that could afford him no comfort, and said:
“Mr. Frazier, family life is like that of nations: each member battles for his measure of air and light, of nourishment and territory, and particularly for that measure of admiration and attention which is called ‘glory.’ It is like a forest; each tree must fight for its sunlight; under the ground the roots engage in a death struggle for moisture. We are told that some even exude an acidity that is noxious to all except themselves. Mr. Frazier, in every lively healthy family there is one who must pay.”
Sophia outlived them all. When, down the years, Roger and his sisters called on her she did not recognize them. Lily would sing her favorite songs to her softly. “I had a sister who sang that song.” She was under the impression that she was in Goshen. When Roger called on her she explained that many people regarded Goshen with fear and even shame, but that he could see for himself that it was delightful in every way—there were trees and lawns and birds and squirrels. She receives these visitors with grave courtesy, but at the end of half an hour she informed them that she was busy, her patients required her attention. She pointed to a dozen dolls, all bedridden but convalescent. Her attendants told them that she dressed each morning with great care in expectation of her father’s visit and each night she exacted a promise that she be awakened early the next morning for a certain reason. There was one visitor from whom she fled and who was not encouraged to return. Sophia detested the odor of lavender. (407)
If The Eighth Day concerns one thing—and no great novel is ever about just one thing—then, surely, it concerns the family. Maestro Lauri, Lily’s singing teacher in Chicago, compares family life to nations that battle for glory and trees that fight for sunlight in a forest. What do these similes reveal about the family? Both vividly depict the agonistic character of family life, which the Maestro (who may or may not be the voice of the author) claims is the mark of “every healthy family.” The Greek word agon means “contest.” It would seem that the familial contest has casualties because “there is one who must pay.” Bice pays with a chronic illness and Sophia with a mental illness. Is the contest worth such a payment? And what is the purpose of this contest? Individual success over and against the collective? The Maestro’s view of family life reminds me of Lord, Alfred Tennyson’s description of “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” His Darwinian similes are a far cry from the the principle of mutual edification in the Book of Proverbs, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (27:17). While there is a certain kind of violence to this imagery from blacksmithing, the pounding of metal against metal is not for the purpose of the strongest cutting down the weakest but for the optimal performance of all.
- Bensonian: The Eighth Day: Prologue
- Bensonian: The Eighth Day: I. “The Elms” 1885-1905
- Bensonian: The Eighth Day: II. Illinois to Chile 1902-1905
- Bensonian: The Eighth Day: III. Chicago 1902-1905
- Bensonian: The Eighth Day: IV. Hoboken 1883
- Bensonian: The Eighth Day: V. “St. Kitts” 1880-1905