Happiness Is Relinquished Because of Duty THE CAUSE of the failure of the modern serious novel to please a wide, general audience lies, perhaps, in the moral "relativity" of the age. Blame it on our heritage of eighteenth-century rationalism or on the ambiguity with which Freud and his disciples have demeaned human sentiments, but the fact is that any wholly stirring kind of human nobility is almost impossible to create on an intelligent and literate level today.
James Jones ' novel From Here to Eternity was received by the critics as a "work of genius" and as a "major contribution to American letters." It outsold every novel of 1951 with the exception of the smooth and innocuous The Caine Mutiny. And Jones' book achieved these popular and critical successes despite its confused, undisciplined writing, despite a bevy of cardboard characterizations, and despite some of the most unlikely dialogue since the death of Queen Victoria.
The unparalleled success of the book could be due to the fact that the author was the literary equivalent of a primitive in painting. He wrote with complete conviction about a hero who could give up his life for an ideal Army. In the sense that the hero of the novel, Private Prewitt, was unwilling to compromise with reality or accept the Army s it actually was, he attained the stature of a true tragic hero. A more sophisticated writer than Jones, a writer more in touch with current literary trends, could have created a character who acted like Private Prewitt, but he would have condescended to him. More highly sophisticated writers are committed to showing both sides of the medal. They cannot free themselves from lessening the worthiness of whatever idea, ideal, or principle they would ask their heroes to die for. And consequently, successful modern tragic art is a rare accomplishment.
This curse of sophistication is the same sudden awareness in Adam and Eve that they were naked. Once achieved, the knowledge can never be removed. This loss of innocence has made it almost impossible for the serious writer to tell a story that is nobly rather than merely pathetically tragic. Slick writers, though, because they are not committed to using what they have learned from psychoanalysis, because they are not dedicated to communicating life as they see it, are free to deal with themes such as human sacrifice without turning the medal over to show the selfish inspiration, the unconscious, ulterior motive. An example: The father of two children is a Naval Reserve officer who is about to be called back into active service. His wife finds it impossible to accept the deprivation and loneliness this separation will cause her and her children. She importunes him to do what he can to stay out. But the husband sees it as his duty to get back into his uniform. He vainly tries to impress this same sense of duty on his wife. He explains the need the country has at the present time for a strong defense organization, but the wife cannot overcome a conviction that it is unfair for one man, her husband in particular, to be called up to the colors again after having served through World War II.
For a final vacation together, the couple park their children with in-laws and go off to a small cabin they own in the lovely hill country nearby. Just as they are about to leave for home, a forest fire breaks out. The wife, who cannot see having the end of their vacation interrupted too, pleads with her husband to come back with her to the city and leave the fire for the permanent residents to battle. But there is an obvious need for the help of every able-bodied male in this emergency, and the husband decides he must go off with the other men. The direction of the wind changes, putting the couple's cabin in danger. Then, suddenly, just as the fire seems to be reaching impossible proportions, it begins to rain. The cabin and all the fire fighters are saved. The wife has personally experienced the danger and the struggle of the men against the danger. When she is at last reunited with her husband, she has learned the necessity of men banding together to protect their homes, and their way of life. She accepts her husband's return to the Navy.
Certainly such a story doesn't reach anything like tragic significance, but it deals with a sentiment which in another context, with other treatment, might qualify. Today's serious writers could never deal with such material in this manner. The hardship and anguish could be delineated, but the noble choice, the voluntary aspect of the wife's acceptance, would probably be qualified away. In passing, it might be interesting to call attention to the little piece of dishonesty perpetrated in this story. In order that the reader should identify properly with the wife, the wife was made to seem essentially a good, average person. If she had objected to the separation from her husband merely because it would have caused her discomfort, she would have seemed to the reader condemnably out of sympathy with the national good. Therefore, it was necessary to build up for her a true hardship case. She would be left alone with two children; she was worried about being able to make ends meet on his Navy salary, etc. But, it was also necessary not to make her situation so difficult that the reader would be unable to go along with her acceptance of the separation at the story ' s close. Officers are outnumbered by enlisted men ten to one in the Navy. Suppose the husband had been returning to the service as a common seaman; and suppose, instead of two, he had four or five children to support on a smaller Navy allowance, as is too often the case in real life. Would any spiritual adjustment on the part of the wife have struck the reader as satisfactory? A very strong case could have been built up for the wife ' s original defection. But what could be said after that? Just as with identity stories, assignment stories, or really any of the rest, the writer must take care to strike the happy mean between posing a problem which will be interesting but insoluble and a problem which will be only too soluble, but not very interesting. Although this is repetition, the basic approach to life in the slick magazine is a hedonistic one. Sacrifice stories represent exceptions to this approach. The reason for the sacrifice, therefore, must be given special attention. Not just anything will do. As susceptible as the slick audience is to didacticism, readers would hardly go along on a piece dealing with, say, a hero who was willing to accept hardship for his wife and children in order to protect the sanctity of the U.S. mails.
As we've seen, the unity of the family is a sacred cause, worthy of the greatest personal deprivation. The good of country rates, too. But not much else. Most of the hundreds of things for which men and women in real life give up personal happiness are useless. The support and care of one's aging parent as an impediment to marriage, although it is a common sacrifice in real life, would constitute a legitimate problem in the slicks, but a problem to be overcome. No amount of ingenuity on the writer's part will convince a slick reader that it is proper for a hero to give up happiness for the wrong ideal. On the other hand, quite often no amount of platitudinous hokum will sully the proper ideal or principle. For example:
A middle-aged mother who, while icing a cake for her son's seventeenth birthday, receives a call from the boy's girl friend asking where he is. Immediately the mother begins to fear that her son may have gone to enlist in the armed forces. The fear is an especially keen one, since she lost her other son in World War II. Her husband then calls to ask if the boy is home and when he finds he is not, tells that a neighbor called to say that the boy had been seen near a Marine recruiting station. The husband assures her, though, that everything will be all right, since the boy cannot complete enlistment at his age without their permission.
The mother's fears are redoubled. She recalls with pain all the lovable, familiar habits of her elder, dead son; remembers her terrible anguish at hearing the news of his death. She recalls that for months afterward she had read books and magazines and newspapers night and day in the hope that someone would be able to explain to her why the war was being fought, somehow convince her that her son had not died in vain.
Then her son comes home, and tells her that he has enlisted. She asks him questions, one after the other, in the hope that he will be able to explain war to her. And he does. He comes out with the most extraordinary succession of trite platitudes I have ever seen in the slicks. Plenty of boys go away to war at seventeen and a few of them even for the reasons expressed by this monstrous adolescent but not one of them ever was so indecently articulate about it. The mother's reaction to the situation is no less a violation of probability, but fortunately the writer has had her think her laudable sentiments rather than talk them.
At any rate, family and country are the two institutions good for $1000 via nobility, nowadays.