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Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day / Theophilus…
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Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day / Theophilus North / Autobiographical…

by Thornton Wilder

Other authors: J. D. McClatchy (Editor)

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(This review is just of the novel The Eighth Day)
I don't often respond emotionally to fiction, but it's been a long time since I've read a novel that was simultaneously so wrenching and so pleasurable.

Thorton Wilder's last novel, the Eighth Day (1967), reflects many of the same themes as his much earlier (1927) Bridge of San Luis Rey: the unpredictability of human fate; the desperate instinct many of us feel to find providences in our lives and losses; the gap between the way others see us and our actual thoughts and emotional commitments. From the novel's first paragraph, Wilder launches - and then slowly, slowly deconstructs - the mystery of how a tragic murder came to pass. Yet, Wilder's real interest is less the mystery itself than the way the tragedy shapes members of both families. The deep beauty of the story rests in the way Wilder lets the tragedy be fully tragic - it is beyond justification, it can't be offset by later events or the passage of time. This is not nihilism. It's a world with suffering, nobility, and love; but even when people do terrible things to one another, Wilder undermines the idea of assigning moral blame. Here, the question 'why?' has an efficient but not a metaphysical answer.

Wilder seems to feel compassion for his characters, but the plot is starkly unsentimental, killing off a major character in a single, unexpected line - I kept hoping for the next hundred pages that I had somehow misunderstood. The tone of the writing is cool and ironic, even as protagonists are described approvingly as having 'no sense of humor', and sardonic comments are placed in the mouths of flawed characters. The title of the book - the eighth day as a symbol of a new age of greater human achievement -- is introduced by a character who, we are told, doesn't believe a word he is saying.

A key theme, made explicit late in the novel, is the artificiality of narrative. Wilder says, "There is only one history. It began with the creation of man and will end when the last human consciousness is extinguished. All other beginnings and endings are arbitrary conventions - makeshifts parading as self-sufficient entities, diffusing petty comfort or petty despair." [339] He rams the point home structurally: narratives end midstream. The loose ends reinforce Wilder's moral message: there is no arc of justice, no denouement that redeems what has gone before; there are only the choices and experiences each person makes as they happen. For me, this recalls the teachings of the Stoics: don't fear death; don't fear anything but failing to make the choices that are within your power to make well; cast aside negative emotions as much as possible, and live with a sense of wonder and goodwill, first towards your family, and more generally towards the world.

Finally, while this is an old man's last book, its main characters are almost all young (even the middle-aged characters are described as maturing slowly). Wilder is interested in the process of their maturation, not where they end up. ( )
  bezoar44 | Jul 11, 2013 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Thornton Wilderprimary authorall editionscalculated
McClatchy, J. D.Editorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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The Eighth Day (1967), an enthralling novel in which Wilder revisits the small-town America of Our Town to stage a philosophical who-dunit; a wrongful conviction for murder and a daring rescue frame a meditation on the mysteriousness of justice, fate, and "the impassioned will," for which "nothing is impossible." Wilder's final novel, the semi-autobiographical Theophilus North (1973), is an affectionate portrait of Newport, Rhode Island, in the 1920s and a playful, valedictory glance at Wilder's young manhood. As a special feature, this third and final volume of The Library of America edition of Wilder's collected works includes three never-before-published chapters from Wilder's unfinished autobiography in which he engagingly recalls his boarding school experience in China, his college days at Yale, and an uneasy visit to Salzburg just before the Nazi Anschluss.… (more)

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