I want to talk about Dr. Jordan's apple.
In Chapter 5 of Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, the imprisoned murderess Grace Marks receives a visitor. It is Simon Jordan, a young psychologist--keep in mind that this is 1859--bearing a gift: an apple. Grace has consumed nothing but bread and water for several days now:
I am so thirsty the apple looks to me like a big round drop of water, cool and red. I could drink it down in one gulp. I hesitate; but then I think, There's nothing bad in an apple, and so I take it. [...] I lift it up and smell it. It has such an odour of outdoors on it I want to cry.
Aren't you going to eat it, he says.
No, not yet, I say.
Why not, he says.
[...] The truth is I don't want him watching me while I eat. I don't want him to see my hunger. If you have a need and they find it out, they will use it against you.
Now there's a lot going on in this chapter, and there's a lot going on with this apple. Much could be said of both. But I want to say just one thing. Dr. Jordan wants Grace to talk to him, to become his patient, the subject of his research. Grace distrusts him. She's been down this road before, and she resists his suggestion.
Will they take me back to the Asylum?I say. Or will they put me in solitary confinement, with nothing to eat but bread?
He says, I give you my word that as long as you continue to talk with me, and do not lose control of yourself and become violent, you shall remain as you were. I have the Governor's promise.
I look at him. I look away. I look at him again. I hold the apple in my two hands. He waits.
And then, in the very last line, this happens:
Finally I lift the apple up and press it to my forehead.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you write a gesture. Wouldn't it have been easy enough to have Grace bite the apple, thereby signaling her acceptance of Jordan's terms? And isn't this, the raising of the apple to her forehead, so much better? Less expected, more ambiguous, more emotionally resonant. Better.
These are the moments that make good fiction.
Sunday, April 23, 2017
Recently I gave a craft talk on setting at the Jefferson Parish Public Library. I pulled Sargasso down from the shelf because I thought I'd find some good use of setting in there. And I was right:
Our garden was large and beautiful as that garden in the Bible—the tree of life grew there. But it had gone wild. The paths were overgrown and a smell of dead flowers mixed with the fresh living smell. Underneath the tree ferns, tall as forest tree ferns, the light was green. Orchids flourished out of reach or for some reason not to be touched. One was snaky looking, another like an octopus with long thin brown tentacles bare of leaves hanging from a twisted root. Twice a year the octopus orchid flowered—then not an inch of tentacle showed. It was a bell-shaped mass of white, mauve, deep purples, wonderful to see. The scent was very sweet and very strong. I never went near it.
For the uninitiated, Sargasso is Jean Rhys' retelling of Jane Eyre from the perspective of Antoinette-cum-Bertha, the madwoman in the attic. It's a slim little volume, scarcely 100 pages, but in that limited space Rhys manages to change and challenge our reading of Bronte's classic forever.
Like Jane Eyre, Sargasso begins with its heroine's lonely childhood:
I took another road, past the old sugar works and the water wheel that had not turned for years. I went to parts of Coulibri that I had not seen, where there was no road, no path, no track. And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think "It's better than people." Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin--once I saw a snake. All better than people.
Better. Better, better than people.
Wow! Doesn't that break your heart? Doesn't that pack a wallop?
The latter part of the book chronicles Antoinette's reluctant, dead-on-arrival marriage to an unnamed husband, i.e., Edward Rochester. Rochester enters this loveless marriage because, as a second son, he has no other way of acquiring money, but English primogeniture is only one of many forces that combine to doom them both. There's also the English legal system that deprives Antoinette of her property, the social isolation of European Creoles in Dominica, racial/gender/geographic stereotypes, and the plain old malice of petty, embittered people. A study in cruelty and misunderstanding, told in simple but powerful prose, Sargasso not only invites questions about colonization and gender politics; it also expands our understanding of and feelings for a character that Bronte (and don't get me wrong, I love her) threw under the bus.
When people say that literature helps create empathy, they're talking about books like Wide Sargasso Sea. Oh, my gosh, y'all. Just read it.