Manfred Weidhorn

Is There an Afterlife—for Imaginary Persons?


          Whether there is an afterlife to which all people will go has been a matter of intense interest throughout the world for most of history. The pagan Greeks certainly had ideas about this matter, and, while the Hebrew Bible is notoriously elusive on it, the New Testament contains more than a few hints. A thousand years of theological speculation about these hints climaxed in the definitive, highly detailed portrayal of the next world in Dante’s Commedia.
          Since then, the nebulousness has returned. While modern culture, especially in post-Christian Europe, is largely secular, approximately 95% of Americans believe in some form of deity, and a goodly proportion of them, even if not accepting the doctrine of an interventionist God and even if hard put to give any details, believe in a posthumous existence.
          If one shifts attention from flesh and blood people to fictional ones, the question of the afterlife takes a different form. Instead of having corporeal existence followed by the conjectural life of the liberated soul, we deal with the well-documented life of a fictional character being succeeded by the reader’s speculation about what the still-living protagonist might go on to do after the book ends or the curtain falls. The reader, having lived for a while more intimately with such a person than with almost any real individual, cannot avoid extrapolation. If one’s life in this world corresponds to a fictional person’s life in a narrative, so does the enigma of one’s life in the afterworld correspond to the guesses of the reader about the fictional character’s post-textual adventures. Richard Ellman aptly speaks of “a desire, vestigial even among modern readers of novels, to detain the characters a little longer in their fictional lives.” That is the “afterlife of imaginary persons.” Would it be pushing things a bit to compare it to the glow in the western sky right after sunset? Such, after all, is the effect on the imagination caused by the end of a compelling epic, novel, or play which deals with only a portion of the main character’s existence. What—to cite one of the most compelling examples—is Nora Helmer’s destiny on the other side of the slammed door?
          Be it noted that limits exist to the reader’s inquiry. Once the tale is finished, the protagonist is, of course, released from the strict control of the author and handed over to the whims of the audience, but the author still exercises a modicum of remote control, as the reader’s imagination must work within the template established by the author: The Underground Man cannot turn into Falstaff or Don Juan.
          We are now on the edge of an interpretative minefield. Critics in the earlier twentieth century ridiculed attempts by Victorians to embroider the characters of Shakespeare by means of extra-textual speculations. Such matters as “the girlhood of Shakespeare’s heroines” or “how many children had Lady Macbeth?” were hissed offstage, as it were, for being unanswerable to begin with, irrelevant even if answerable, and illegitimate even if relevant because not belonging to the material presented by the artist for our scrutiny. If Shakespeare thought it important that Gertrude joined a sorority while at Copenhagen University, he would have said so or hinted at it. A literary persona, arising from and limited to a pile of squiggles on pieces of paper called pages or strutting for two hours on stage by those impersonators called actors, is not to be confused with a living person. Still, even if one is theoretically committed to strict guidelines in the analysis of literary characters, some readers find the all-too-human temptation to speculate hard to resist.
          Presumptuous? Literal-minded? Futile? Well, not exactly. Such readers have the excuse of following in the footsteps of highly impressive trailblazers. For sometimes no less a person than the author himself indulges in these selfsame speculations when, understandably falling in love with his own creation and curious about that fictional afterlife, he writes a sequel. Hence the return of Oedipus, Falstaff, Faust, Don Quixote, Sherlock Holmes, albeit with somewhat altered personality in some cases. (Or the author may speculate about the past of the protagonist, and writers like Rabelais, Shakespeare [in his second tetralogy], and Wagner [in his capacity as a librettist] have gone back in time to write what we now call a prequel.)
          Many works of fiction avoid the entire matter because the protagonists have the good sense to die (or their authors to kill them off), usually just before the work ends. There is a reason for the ubiquity of such deaths: In assaying some narrative statement about the meaning of life, the authors naturally have to touch all bases, including home plate. “Consider no man happy until you have seen the manner of his death.” Hence with Don Quixote or Madame Bovary (as with many smaller fish), there is no such guessing; the arc of their lives having come to a close, the reader’s inquiry turns exclusively to matters of overall meaning in lieu of any speculation about post-textual existence. But with characters who are still alive when the tale ends, a vacuum is created which readers abhor. Questions of meaning become entangled with a secular version of “What would Jesus do [next]?” applied to the protagonist.


          Two titanic characters who entice us out of the confines of the literary work are the heroes of the Homeric epics. Neither one dies during the tale, although a brief prolepsis indicates the manner of each’s death in the future. What is left unsaid is what happens to the hero between his triumph at the end of the work and his subsequent death.
          In the climax of the Iliad, Achilles, with divine prompting, has an access of compassion as he returns the corpse of Hector to Priam. The generous act is partly selfish—when Priam wept over dead Hector, Achilles wept over his own father’s isolation—and partly altruistic: The Greek warrior for the first time sees that all human beings, Trojan no less than Greek, suffer and die and that this tragic fate binds people more than the cause of war separates them. For a truculent man like Achilles to have such insight is neither predictable nor commonplace. Most of his ilk (the “jocks”) seem incapable of moral growth. That he is different—whether more sensitive, charismatic, divinely favored—is intimated at the very beginning of the tale when, frustrated and outraged by the actions of his nominal political superior, Agamemnon, he is tempted to resort to the warrior’s answer to all problems—force. But he does not; Athena, appropriately the goddess of wisdom, appears and instructs him to use word rather than sword to fight Agamemnon. His obeying her rather than giving in to his easy vindictiveness suggests that something about him—be it only his genes—makes him rise over the warrior norm and foreshadows his having the grace to return the corpse.
          So then—to turn to the leading question of this inquiry—what will happen on the day after the ending of the truce which he generously grants Priam for the funerary rites for Hector and which will take place after the ending of the epic? Sentimentalists would like to believe that Achilles is a changed, better man; he has found a wellspring of empathy, a humane dimension, within himself. Realists will respond that he will resume smashing Trojan skulls as if nothing has happened. Then what was the meaning of the return of Hector’s corpse and indeed of the entire work? It is indeed difficult to believe that one of the greatest scenes in literature has no immediate practical consequences and exhibits no moral, psychological, or spiritual growth.
          To surmise that the scene signals an essential change in Achilles’s demeanor is to ignore human nature. Long before behavior is modified, attitude must change, and one incident does not immediately change attitude. That instance of Achillean generosity is rather a portrayal of that rare moment when a human being, notably a richly endowed, successful, and egotistic one, realizes that he is after all not alone. It is a celebration of whatever fellow feeling makes possible civilization, sympathy, the golden rule. Such moments of insight are rare and brief. That they have minimal or gradual impact is tragic; but that they occur at all is what gives the human species whatever dignity and beauty it has. The human capacity to sometimes rise above our normal selfish and tribal commitments is a miracle which the climax of the Iliad celebrates, even though the afterlife of Achilles will show no visible change. (His actual afterlife in the next world as recounted in the Odyssey does not concern us here.)
          The other Homeric protagonist, Odysseus, is a more complex character and accordingly raises more questions than did Achilles. The Odyssey ends as the hero, acting jointly with father and son in an early depiction of family values, comes to terms with the aroused relatives of the slain suitors. The story thus leaves him, as is the norm in comedy, in a condition of prosperity; presumably, after so many voyages, he lived happily at home ever after with wife and son. But not so fast! Both within the work and without it are to be found sketches of Odysseus’s subsequent life. Homer’s contribution is to have Tiresias in Hades tell the hero that after going inland and sacrificing cattle to the gods, he will return and eventually undergo a peaceful death, in old age and surrounded by kin. This glimpse of the end of Odysseus’s life gives little indication of what happens to him between his return home at the end of the work and his subsequent death
          Odysseus is such a fascinating character that Homer’s not killing him off leaves a lacuna which many writers (most voluminously, Nikos Kazantzakis) have rushed in to fill. The two brief non-Homeric continuations that are most famous are by Dante and Tennyson and involve a crucial reinterpretation. Dante turns the Homeric Odysseus (renamed Ulysses), whose main priority was to return home and who incidentally and unavoidably underwent many adventures, into an Odysseus whose main priority was travel, experience, and knowledge for their own sake and whose return home was merely one more trip, and a trip of minimal significance. We now find out something that Homer never told us—that the hero, not at all social minded and home loving, instead grew bored with the reunion with his wife, son, home, and people, and continued rather his travels: Not love for family “vincer poter dentro da me l’ardore/ ch’ i’ ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto,/ e degli vizii umani e del valore [could conquer within me the passion I had to gain experience of the world and of the vices and the worth of men]” (Inf. XXVI: 97-99). His drowning in a storm is a fate far different from Homer’s tableau of a peaceful death surrounded by family. Being in W. B. Stanford’s words, “centrifugal” rather than “centripetal” (180), this Odysseus is instead like a modern workaholic who is day and night at the office or on the road so that—whether or not he knows it—he does not have to put up with domestic life and with permanent intimacy with another person.
          Tennyson makes this Dantesque—Romantic, Faustian, Byronic—version more explicit: “I cannot rest from travel; I will drink/ Life to the lees…/How dull it is to pause, to make an end.” The hero gladly leaves kingship to his son Telemachus, who is better at ruling than is the old warrior. His own goal is “To sail beyond the sunset…until I die” (167).
          So at the hands of these two artists who come long after Homer, Odysseus, unlike the static Achilles, is given an afterlife in which his personality is radically altered into that of either a Renaissance explorer or a Romantic seeker of experience.


          If Homer dodges the question of what happens to Odysseus after his return to home and if Dante and Tennyson take advantage of the lacuna to put their own stamp on the story, two dissimilar works, by Dante and by Proust, leave us with no mystery at all as to what happens after the conclusion of the narrative. Dante is sent on a guided tour of the real afterlife, not the figurative one we are tracing here. He achieves the ultimate fulfilling experience and the goal of all Christian endeavors, the beatific vision of God. Whether he wakes up in bed from a visionary dream about supernatural matters or returns from an actual trip through the higher realms, the outcome is the same. He will sit down at his desk, pick up his writing implement, and compose the opening words of the book which traces the adventure he has just concluded, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita….” Did he not do so, after all, we would never know anything about his very private experience! The pilgrim’s afterlife consists, then, of being thus caught up in a perpetual cycle, as the book is circular. Its effect is like that achieved by readings of the Bible during the course of the liturgical year or, even more so, by study groups of Orthodox Jews who, on completing, in a matter of years, the study of every word of the vast Babylonian Talmud, celebrate by beginning all over again.
          That the circle is a medieval symbol of perfection is not relevant to a similar situation involving Proust. Instead of following the rigorously intellectual pattern of the three realms in the eternal world, Proust (or Marcel) in his vast novel moves in an irregular manner through this temporal world and in a matter of years, not days. His milieux, the aristocracy and the upper middle class of French society, from a distance might sometimes seem to the narrator to be heaven (as when catching a glimpse of the Duchess of Guermantes) but up close can seem more like, if not quite hell, certainly purgatory. Unlike Dante, Proust has no goal or mission, until in the closing volume after such a long journey, he grows pregnant with the need to make something of his rich experiences in an otherwise wasted life. At long last, a few epiphanies bring him to the vocation which, despite some telltale flashes, had been mainly dormant in him. Leaving behind a life of pleasure and socializing in order to embark on a new task, he is confident that if he were but granted time, he would succeed in setting it all down.
          Dante had been urged by various souls in the next world to tell mortals what he saw and what may be in store for them, but Proust does not have a similar God-given and Beatrice-driven assignment. In fact, he at one point at a social gathering mocks a writer who pompously described himself as “observing.” But whatever the differences, when the novel ends, Proust also will sit down at his desk and begin to tell his tale, “Longtemps, je me suis couche de bonne heure,” and so repeat the circle. If Dante’s midlife crisis brings about a shifting of focus from this world to the next, with the consequent urge to write an Augustine-like confession, Proust’s similar crisis brings about a change from living in high society to writing about it and about finding his vocation in a decidedly non-Augustinian fashion. In either case, the ending leads back to the beginning.
          One work which belongs here despite a difference in scope and despite ending with matters apparently unresolved is Joyce’s Ulysses. Leopold Bloom, trapped in a marriage grown cold, is going through a typical workday. It is filled with distractions, among the more prominent of which are sexual fantasies, no doubt inflamed by his alienation from his wife, as well as anxieties about his wife’s infidelity. Concurrently, young Stephen Dedalus is going through his own typical day, with mind on intellectual matters; his departure from his teaching job climaxes his cutting ties with bourgeois society, as represented by parents as well as employer. He carouses with his friends, becoming involved in an unseemly fracas in a brothel, from which he is rescued by Bloom, who takes him home for a cup of cocoa and stimulating conversation. The two newly met men complement each other. Bloom is a father lamenting the early death of his only son; Stephen misses a sympathetic father figure in his life. However briefly, Bloom finds a young man who is admirably all that he had could have wanted his own Rudy to be, and Stephen concurrently finds a fatherly person who is decent and intellectually curious, even if not an intellectual.
          What then happens on the day after the novel ends? The surmises by two formidable mid-twentieth century gurus of criticism are antithetical. Edmund Wilson believed that Bloom and Molly will now reconcile, while William Empson confidently asserted that Bloom, eager to have another son, will preside over a tryst involving Molly and Stephen (Ellmann 165).The most plausible suggestion, however, is that, as in the case of Achilles, nothing changes.
          The scene which Joyce presents parallels the climax of the Iliad, when Priam and Achilles meet: the unexpected coming together and the brief spiritual intimacy of two unlike human beings (albeit two strangers rather than two enemies). Each Irishman is taken out of his isolation in a magical moment of communion, like that involving Priam and Achilles. But, pace Wilson and Empson, on the next day, each will resume his journey and his solitude, just as Achilles will resume his vocation of shedding blood. They may never see each other again, or even think about each other. The impact of their brief coming together will nevertheless somehow have been absorbed, rather as the details of the books one reads are soon forgotten but change the reader in imperceptible ways.
          The men represent, moreover, the two sides of human nature, especially of that concentrated form of human nature known as the artist. Stephen is the man of intellect, detached, reflective, seeing life through the spectacles of books. Bloom is the salt of the earth, a man with compassion; he is a close observer of this fleshly, mundane world. Both men are, in Richard Ellmann’s words, “thoughtful, detached,” but where “Bloom sees all round, Stephen looks deep in” (167). The coming together of these two temperaments creates humanity at its best. It is symbolized by the otherwise bizarre brief appearance of Shakespeare: “Stephen and Bloom gaze in the mirror. The face of William Shakespeare appears there.” (Joyce 567) The archetypal artist, in other words, is a product of the necessary fusion of these two temperaments.
          In that interpretation, the book is an allegorical autobiography—the portrait of the artist in the process of maturation. The artist—James Joyce—could not have become creative until his Stephen-like cerebration was complemented by the decency of Bloom. The humanity of Bloom could not have been envisioned and portrayed by an artist who did not contain such humanity within his own psyche. The incident symbolizes the softening of Stephen even as Achilles’s returning the corpse signals the humanity of Achilles.
          Ulysses is thus a symbolic presentation of the process by which Joyce, or any great artist, found himself and his talent, rather as the Iliad is a celebration of the process by which mankind arose from the caves into the meaningful interaction we call “civilization” That means, of course, that the Ulysses is in one way very much like Dante’s Commedia and Proust’s novel, though so much unlike them in every other way. It means that on the next day—or a year or a decade later—Joyce (who is not Stephen but Stephen+Bloom), having achieved the spiritual harmony necessary for creativity, will sit down at his desk and begin writing. For Proust, the defining moment is one man’s finding his artistic vocation; for Joyce it is rather the allegorical dramatization of the chemical synthesis that makes artistic endeavors possible. Both books, telling how the authors came to be what they are, end with the beginning. When a writer is the protagonist and his becoming a writer is the subject, the autobiographical dimension, the confessional mode, and the circular structure are unavoidable.


          Curiosity also attaches itself to the fate of less important characters in less ambitious works. It is quite a leap to go from these long and highly influential narrative works to a pair of short seventeenth-century English seduction lyrics—Donne’s “The Flea” and Marvell’s “To his Coy Mistress.” But the two poems raise the same tantalizing question of what happens next. In either case, the poet makes a compelling case for the lady’s liberating herself from what later writers will call the “mind forged manacles” or “ropes of sand” which prevent her from enjoying premarital—or, at any rate, illicit—sex. But, asks the reader’s prurient imagination, does possession follow persuasion?
          The reader knows little of the lady’s reaction in Marvell’s poem, other than the supposition that just prior to it, when confronted by one of the many men eager for sex, she must have taken the classic position of most women in such circumstances by saying something to the effect that they should first get know each other better. Hence, on cue, comes the poet’s response, beginning with “Had we but world enough and time” and following with a tirade on transience which ends with both a rhetorical triumph and with nebulousness as to the resulting action, if any.
          The outlook for the man is even dimmer in Donne’s poem. The reader learns from the would-be seducer’s words in the second stanza that his far-fetched reference to the flea annoys the lady enough to make her reach out to crush the insect. He tells her not to do so, but, as we learn from the third stanza, she ignores him and kills the flea. Her independence of mind, her resisting his rhetoric and sophistry, do not augur well for what might happen after the poet delivers at the end of the poem his most crushing sophistical argument. Or are we to understand that that intellectual climax did indeed turn things around?
          The situation is complicated by consideration of the relationship between the man and the woman. Two possibilities present themselves. In one hypothetical case, they are already attracted to each other, but principle intervenes. In that case, the poet’s task is simply to demolish the principle and then presumably reap the physical benefits. But in an alternative scenario, the man and the woman are in the seventeenth-century equivalent of a singles bar. They have just met, and personal attraction is not yet in play. That means that demolishing the principle is only half the challenge.
          Seduction poetry, especially in an age of overt religious standards, is notoriously sophistic because of the barriers to overcome. But for the poet to prove, at least to his own satisfaction, that Honor is a figment of the mind and that Time waits for no one may not be enough. In dwelling on the philosophical principle, the poet—perhaps unwittingly, perhaps not—ignores the personal. Yes, the woman may have been persuaded by his masterful rhetoric that unsanctified sex is prudent, but the poet has not proved himself to be the one to sexually satisfy the lady.
          In the second, or “singles bar,” scenario, he has made a case for women to surrender to men, not for this woman to surrender to him. What charms does he himself have to offer? He does not say. Brilliant he may be, but perhaps he is also nerdy, ungainly, charmless. Perhaps he has merely softened her up intellectually for the next man to come along, who, being all the things the poet is not, will both give her and derive from her the blessings that follow the poet’s overthrow of the inhibiting principles. The poet will unwittingly have worked hard on behalf of someone else. So here is the biggest piece of sophistry which sidelines the many smaller ones: Marvell’s persona pretends that disposing of the philosophical principle is all that is necessary and that no personal dimension is involved; he pretends that he is as acceptable a sex object as is any other man. With this sophistry he may be fooling himself rather than her.
          Critics, especially of the now antique New Critical school, will of course say that that is irrelevant: The poem is about the manipulation of words, logic, and sentiments; it delineates the mentality of a seducer the way Hamlet delineates the psychology of conscientiousness and/or delay or Othello the psychology of credulity and haste. The agility of the man’s rhetoric is the focus, not the woman’s reaction. If either poet cared about the latter, he could well have dealt with the matter, but obviously chose not to, and that choice should guide the reader’s response. But that argument overlooks human curiosity, which leaps over the limits created both by the ending of the poem and by the strictures of literary theory. The same prying which fastens on literary giants like Odysseus also fastens on the woman in question; the same prying that drives the supermarket newspapers, with their fixation on the sex lives of celebrities, also lurks in the thought processes of poetry readers.


          Given the brevity of the literary work and the paucity of details about the personae, the afterlife of the characters in these short lyrics is not as intriguing as in the case of a play and a novel of the modern realist school, especially when the endings are deliberately ambiguous. In D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Paul Morel grows up with emotional umbilical cord connected to his mother. Her love for him is so asphyxiating that he has difficulty with women. He can relate to one, Clara, physically, and he can relate to another, Miriam, intellectually. But a combination of the two, as well as a desire for a permanent relationship, eludes him. He even says, rather insensitively, to his mother, “I shall never meet the right woman while you live” (351). Yet when the mother dies, he becomes distraught, even suicidal. His mother’s strong cramping of his feeling for other women, as is dramatized in a final meeting with Miriam, seems to survive even her death.
          The novel ends as he stands at a distance from the bustling city and feels the conflicted pull both of the grave and of life. “But no, he would not give in. Turning sharply, he walked towards the city’s gold phosphorescence. His fists were shut, his mouth set fast. He would not take that direction, to the darkness, to follow her [his mother]. He walked towards the faintly humming, glowing town, quickly.” (420) The narrator offers a hesitant vote of confidence but nothing substantive to back that up. Lawrence could have ended on a clearly positive note the way Dickens, in response to a friend’s urging, turned the original gloomy conclusion of Great Expectations into something very different: “I saw no shadow of another parting from her.” Or, more to the point, the way Balzac ended a work which must have influenced Lawrence, Pere Goriot: “Eugene looks at Paris from the high point of the cemetery and focuses on the region of that high society in which he had sought to make his way. Upon this humming hive he cast a look which seemed already to suck the honey from it, and he gave utterance to these portentous words: ‘Between us the battle is joined henceforward.’ And as a first act in challenge of society, Eugene went to dine with the Baroness de Nucingen.” (289) There being no ambiguity in the Balzac passage, the novel ends on a distinctly optimistic note. No such energy exists in the Lawrence passage, and only a little evidence that life will triumph over death.
          The ambiguity of conclusion is definitive in Ibsen’s A Doll House. When Nora Helmer decides that she must leave home to find her destiny, her husband Torvald cannot bring himself to accept such a sharp break. Surely she will come back; her response is that it would take the “greatest miracle” to turn theirs into a true marriage. She exits slamming shut the door, and the play is over.
          Will she return? Ibsen gives absolutely no indication as to what will ensue. It was a radical step in those days to walk out on husband and children, and in the case of children it remains an unmotherly, unfeminine act to many today, even though it is no longer unheard of. (Indeed, that was what Frieda did to her family on behalf of Lawrence.) One can understand therefore the producers and the audiences who wanted Ibsen to provide a happy ending.
          If in Lawrence’s novel, there are two possibilities—disaster or recovery—in the Ibsen play there are three plausible outcomes. Would Nora find the experiment disastrous, she ending up ostracized, homeless, perhaps even—though hard to visualize—having to sell her body in order to survive in a grimly patriarchal society? Or will she return, conceding nothing in matters of principle but admitting that she had gone too far in her reaction, and, accepting Torvald’s pleas for a second chance to prove his reformed ways, try to work things out? Or, in a third possibility, will she succeed as an independent person, a feminist, a public intellectual, a stalwart on the radical lecture circuit? The first outcome is pessimistic, the other two are optimistic, depending on whether one privileges family values or feminism.
          The answer may actually be “none of the above,” and for the sake of verisimilitude, it must be so. The solution to this riddle requires a detour into a dash of elementary psychology. Contrary to the expectations of untutored or moralizing people, literature is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It is furthermore about individuals, not groups, and individuals are extremely diverse. Yet the reader’s impulse is to generalize on the basis of individual character. That is because outside the realm of literature—so-called real life—just to get through the typical day with any productivity, one needs to generalize or else be constantly reinventing the wheel. Unfortunately, reality throws up many obstacles to our reaching a generalization. That seems not to deter people: Once is an anecdote, twice is a pattern, and for far too many people, even once is a pattern.
          These brief deliberations on the human condition shed light on the ending of books. We turn to them in part to obtain some generalization which will shed light on human affairs and which—even in violation of the descriptive nature of literature—we somehow hope to apply for the betterment of our lives. We do so with the faith that generalization is at all possible. Such a pragmatism is not necessarily fruitful, for from Hamlet we learn not to dawdle and from Othello, by contrast, we learn not to act too fast. Life is so varied, facts are infinite, things are changing all the time that, as Montaigne said, “I may contradict myself but the truth I do not contradict.” The vision of Ibsen, according to Shaw, “is that there is no golden rule”; the quintessence of Ibsenism is “that there is no formula.”
          The absence of reliable generalizations, then, clarifies the end of both Ibsen play and Lawrence novel. Imagine that Lawrence had revealed that Paul overcomes his internalization of his mother’s love and that he goes on to have a successful career abetted in good part by the presence of a loving and loved wife. We would come away from the novel with the sense that, yes, excessive mother love can be crippling, but only as long as the mother lives; anyone with will power can pull up his socks, wash behind his ears, and, coming into maturity, start anew. Indeed such success would define “maturity.” That reading would make Sons and Lovers an optimistic novel. Suppose, on the other hand, that Paul cannot salvage himself and that he becomes one of those human wrecks who gather in Harry Hope’s saloon filled with the pipe-dream devotees in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. Then we would say that excessive mother love is a soul killer, and its victims unable to escape their fate. Sons and Lovers would then be pessimistic.
          What Lawrence (and, even more, Ibsen before him) has done is to avoid reaching either simplistic conclusion by leaving the work open ended. This is not the way most of literature used to be written—Pride and Prejudice is optimistic, Gulliver’s Travels is pessimistic. Lawrence and Ibsen avoid both the optimistic and the pessimistic conclusions because neither inference is necessarily true to life and because the two writers are (at least in these two works) agnostic about human destiny. The truth eludes clarification. To wit, some victims of excessive mother love will be crushed by it, others will overcome it; some rebellious wives will crash, others will be transformed. Which person will fall into which category is unknowable. What Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern derisively, “You would pluck out the heart of my mystery….You cannot play upon me” (III.ii.360), applies to every individual. Life being too complex, generalizations about it are simplistic, misleading, selective, unreliable. (Like “buy low, sell high!”) That fact prompted Nietzsche’s dictum that “convictions are prisons.” Every situation is unique. History may repeat itself but never in the same way.
          That, then, is the profundity of the conclusions by Lawrence and Ibsen, conclusions which make post-textual speculation impossible or at least unverifiable. Paul may or may not succeed; Nora may or may not return. On one level Paul and Nora stand for a class of people—men victimized unintentionally by their mothers, women victimized by their husbands and by their patriarchal society—who choose rebellion. But on another level Paul and Nora are individuals—that mysterious entity, each carrying its own genes and mystery--who will not march in lockstep with the rest of the people in their category. Some will survive and some will not, and who will do which is unknowable. The ambiguous ending is therefore inevitable because verisimilar rather than sentimental. No other ending would have done justice to the complexity of life. Above all, do we know absolutely nothing about the future; as the virtually omniscient Sherlock Holmes put it, in words that apply to all conjectures about the afterlife of imaginary persons: “The past and present are within the field of my inquiry, but what a man may do in the future is a hard question to answer.” (Doyle II 145)


Balzac, Honore de. Pere Goriot and Eugenie Grandet. Tr. E. K. Brown. New York: Modern Library,
Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories. 2 vols. New York:
          Bantam, 1986
Ellmann, Richard. Ulysses on the Liffey. New York: Oxford UP, 1978.
Joyce, James. Ulysses. New York: Modern Library, 1934, 1961.
Lawrence, D. H. Sons and Lovers. New York: Modern Library, 1962.
Stanford, W. B. The Ulysses Theme. Oxford: Blackwell, 1954.
Tennyson, Alfred Lord. The Poems and Plays. New York: Modern Library, 1938.

Manfred Weidhorn is a professor of English at Yeshiva University who has published a large number of books and essays.
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