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By whose authority? Point of view in the first chapter of Harold Frederic's 'The Damnation of Theron Ware.'

One of the more beguiling aspects of Harold Frederic's The Damnation of Theron Ware is its power to draw readers into participating in its explorations of authority. In Fritz Oehlschlaeger's view, the novel "discredits" all of the available authority figures - characters to whom the book's dubious hero, the Reverend Theron Ware, turns for guidance and approval - while at the same time exposing Theron's lack of personal authority. For Oehlschlaeger The Damnation illuminates the corruption resulting from a culture's lack of clearly defined, valid sources of authority (239). The brilliance of this illumination extends well beyond the characters on the page. As noted by Thomas Becknell, nearly all critics have acknowledged some degree of misreading Theron or of becoming entangled in the contradictions caused by Theron's misperceptions (63-64). We think we know what Theron is like at the beginning, but as we read further we slowly come to realize that he is not the innocent figure we have constructed. Though proof of Theron's selfishness and foolishness is right in front of us, the influence of our assumptions about him - that he is a lamb among wolves, that he is a victim - is such that we misread the evidence.(1) We are implicated in misperception, in unauthoritative readings, and through our errors expose our intimate connection to the Reverend Ware: as Theron is blind to his intellectual arrogance, so are we; as Theron is blind to the corrupt authority of his "superiors," so are we blind to the corrupt authority of the text.

How Frederic achieves this mirroring effect, how he manipulates the text to ensure our participation in a thematic concern, has been little examined. Thus far in critical studies the implication of the reader has been assumed to begin at the earliest in chapter two, during which time the book's narrative focus and major characters are established.(2) Yet surely in so intricately constructed a novel, we have reason to suspect that chapter one is not simply a transparent exordium.(3) Certainly the opening pages are curious structurally. In the Penguin edition, the first chapter in ten brief pages relates a setting (the Methodist Church in Tecumseh) and characters (the shallow parishioners, the generations of clergy) that immediately disappear from the novel. It introduces Theron Ware, but, in contrast to the rest of the book, it gives us no apparent access to his thoughts; too, focusing on Austin Briggs, Jr.'s, phrase, "shifty" (115), the narrative flits from group to group before finally settling on Theron and Alice Ware, shown at chapter's end walking off their disappointment upon hearing of Theron's appointment to impoverished Octavius.

Drawing from recent work in stylistics, I show in this essay that the first chapter both initiates and encapsulates the novel's exploration of authority through a perplexing usage of shifting points of view - a usage not found in the rest of the book, and one that perplexes precisely because we do not interpret it as perplexing. What we see at several crucial junctures in the first chapter are easily distinguished shifts in point of view; what we miss at other junctures are textual ambiguities that prevent a clear identification of the point of view. Through this confluence of clarity and ambiguity, the text not only implicates us in "unauthoritative" readings much earlier than has been assumed, but also in ways significant to our understanding of the book's concern with authority.

Because the term "point of view" is somewhat problematic, having come to refer in narratology to an unwieldy number of typological categorizations, I think it useful first to explain my use of the term before proceeding. My use follows that of the linguist and literary critic Roger Fowler, who distinguishes among three different senses of point of view: spatio-temporal, ideological, and perceptual. By spatio-temporal, he refers to textual features that locate the reader diegetically in time and space (127-30). The ideological and perceptual senses of the term have much overlap. By ideological, Fowler refers to "the set of values, or belief system, communicated by the language of the text" (130). Perceptual point of view "concerns the question of who is presented as the observer of the events of a narrative, whether the author or a participating character; and the various kinds of discourse associated with different relationships between author and character." Perceptual point of view can be either internal (narrated from within a character's consciousness; or narrated by someone who has knowledge of the consciousness of a participating character - the so-called omniscient narrator) or external (narrated from a position outside the consciousnesses of any of the protagonists, with no access to a character's thoughts, and in some cases actually stressing the inaccessibility of the ideologies of the characters [134-35]).(4)

Beginning with chapter two and continuing through the rest of the novel, though with some alternation between the two types of internal narration, which share an implicitly dialogic relation, the perceptual point of view is almost entirely Theron's. Ideologically, moreover, the world view expressed is Theron's. This choice of point of view has two notable consequences. First, by funneling information through Theron's self-serving consciousness and perceptions, Frederic forestalls our growing suspicions that the hero may not be as innocent as we insist upon making him. Second, given Theron's catastrophic later misperceptions, the author posits an implicit epistemological question. If, like Theron, we understand our world only in terms of our frame of reference or personal point of view, then our perceptions are necessarily suspect; that being the case, are we vigilant enough in questioning the authority of our interpretations?

Clearly Theron is not. Judging from the seeming ease with which Frederic confounds our apprehension of the point of view in chapter one, neither are we. The opening paragraphs are as follows:

[paragraph 1] No such throng had ever before been seen in the building during all its eight years of existence. People were wedged together most uncomfortably upon the seats; they stood packed in the aisles and overflowed the galleries; at the back, in the shadows underneath these galleries, they formed broad, dense masses about the doors, through which it would be hopeless to attempt a passage.

[2] The light, given out from numerous tin-lined circles of flaring gas-jets arranged on the ceiling, fell full upon a thousand uplifted faces - some framed in bonnets or juvenile curls, others bearded or crowned with shining baldness - but all alike under the spell of the dominant emotion which held features in abstracted suspense and focused every eye upon a common objective point.

[3] The excitement of expectancy reigned upon each row of countenances, was visible in every attitude - nay, seemed a part of the close, overheated atmosphere itself.

[4] An observer, looking over these compact lines of faces and noting the uniform concentration of eagerness they exhibited, might have guessed that they were watching for either the jury's verdict in some peculiarly absorbing criminal trial, or the announcement of the lucky numbers in a great lottery. These two expressions seemed to alternate, and even to mingle vaguely, upon the upturned lineaments of the waiting throng - the hope of some unnamed stroke of fortune and the dread of some adverse decree.

[5] But a glance forward at the object of this universal gaze would have sufficed to shatter both hypotheses. Here was neither a court of justice nor a tombola. It was instead the closing session of the annual Nedahma Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Bishop was about to read out the list of ministerial appointments for the coming year. This list was evidently written in a hand strange to him, and the slow, near-sighted old gentleman, having at last sufficiently rubbed the glasses of his spectacles, and then adjusted them over his nose with annoying deliberation, was now silently rehearsing his task to himself - the while the clergymen round about ground their teeth and restlessly shuffled their feet in impatience.

[6] Upon a closer inspection of the assemblage, there were a great many of these clergymen. A dozen or more dignified, and for the most part elderly, brethren sat grouped about the Bishop in the pulpit. . . . (1-2)

The first two paragraphs are traditional omniscient narration, assuredly describing a scene in which the crowd appears united in purpose, staring at the same "common objective point." As Janet McKay notes in her work on narrative and discourse elements found in realist fiction, in the voice of the traditional omniscient narrator are the certainty and distance from the characters that align the reader with the sensibilities of the "implied" author, leading the reader to accept the narrator's views as definitive. Thus the responsibility for interpretation, the authority by which we understand the text, lies more with the narrator than with the reader (189-90).

So familiar are we with the conventions of omniscient narration that the opening paragraphs of The Damnation likely influence our mode of reading not only for the paragraphs in question, but for subsequent ones as well. We begin with a "prejudgment" of trust in the narrative voice, an attitude permeable to revision as we proceed through the text, but one that, nonetheless, forms the basis of our initial interpretations.(5) Influenced by our judgments of the first two paragraphs, we may very well pass over as insignificant the curious clausal amendment in the one-sentence third paragraph. There, the confidence with which the crowd's excitement is reported in the first part of the sentence ("visible in every attitude") is, after the dash, suddenly questioned ("nay"), as if the narrator were himself engaged in internal debate. The resulting qualification ("[the excitement] seemed a part of the atmosphere itself") is minor, to be sure. But in light of future alterations of conventional omniscient narration (which of course we aren't aware of at this point in our reading), this small shift away from totalizing discourse suggests that our trust in the authority of the conventional narrator may be undeserved.

For example, at the beginning of paragraph 6 is an unattributed subject reference for the adverbial clause. Who is doing the "closer inspection of the assemblage"? A plausible grammatical agent is provided only if we examine the spatio-temporal point of view of the first few pages (paragraphs 1 through 12), which are devoted to scanning the various participants from different vantage points, as through a camera lens. Each pass through the room suggests a peripatetic narrative vision describing its subjects in discrete frames - first the clergy, then the various groupings of clergy, then back again to the congregation. The structure of the descriptions points toward corporeal agency, toward a viewing figure present in the church, a man or woman walking, perhaps, down the nave toward the pulpit.

That human figure finds representation in the unnamed "observer," first introduced at the beginning of paragraph 4. First enjoined by the narrator to "glance forward" (paragraph 5), the observer then walks down the nave for "a closer inspection of the assemblage." In other words, the logical grammatical agent of the adverbial clause in paragraph 6 is the observer. In Fowler's formulation, the perceptual point of view in paragraphs 1-3 is clearly internal, emanating not from a participating character but from a source that has knowledge of the consciousness of participating characters, i.e., an omniscient narrator. In paragraphs 4-6, however, the agent of the internal narration is no longer the omniscient narrator, but the unnamed observer.

If through such narrative legerdemain Frederic introduces us to the assemblage, then he problematizes the "sincerity" noted by both Briggs and Oehlschlaeger in the contrast of the older clergy with the younger clergy. "There is nothing but admiration," says Oehlschlaeger, "in his [Frederic's] description of the simple Gospel religion of those 'venerable Fathers in Israel,' the first generation of Methodists present at the conference which opens the book" (253). Indeed, the contrast between the Fathers and their successors seems, as Briggs says, "straightforward" (114):

[10] . . . The impress of zeal and moral worth seemed to diminish by regular gradations as one passed to younger faces, and among the very beginners, who had been ordained only within the past day or two, this decline was peculiarly marked. It was almost a relief to note the relative smallness of their number, so plainly was it to be seen that they were not the men their forbears had been. (3)

What we know of Frederic the debunker, the steely-eyed social critic, suggests that the ideological point of view is his and is therefore "sincere." But at the beginning of the following paragraph (number 11) we read, "And if those aged, worn-out preachers facing the pulpit [i.e., the venerable Fathers] had gazed instead backward over the congregation it may be that here too their old eyes would have detected a difference--what at least they would have deemed a decline [italics mine]" (3). The italicized words are revealing. "Here too" (not, significantly, simply "here") indicates two things: first, the Fathers may have detected yet another difference if only they had also looked at the congregation; second, and, more important, the Fathers have already detected a difference elsewhere.

That antecedent, the Fathers' already realized detection, is found at the end of the preceding paragraph (number 9): "It was almost a relief to note the relative smallness of their number, so plainly was it to be seen that they were not the men their forebears had been" (3). Grammatically, the agent of the "seeing" - unattributed in paragraph 10 - has to be the Fathers, implicated in agency by the cataphoric reference "here too" in the very next sentence. Too, the judgment rendered by the Fathers' "detection" is entirely in keeping with their view of themselves. Thus, the grammar of paragraphs 10 and 11 suggests that both the perceptual and ideological point of view is the Fathers'. If that is so, however, then the "sincerity" of these paragraphs is not at all certain. Ideologically, they are sincere only if we assume the judgments rendered are the implied author's, reported through the agency of an omniscient narrator. If they are not - if, in other words, the ideology can be attributed to the Fathers - then the text is ideologically "sincere" only in the sense that the Fathers, not Frederic, are sincere in their reportage.

Yet the text also points away from this alternate reading. There is no surface device in paragraph 10, no pronoun shift, no change in tone, to indicate that the agent of seeing or speaking has changed. It is only after we read about the detection of a "decline," only after we have assigned an agent to the action, that we come upon the words "here too," buried in the middle of the following sentence, that problematize our assumption about the point of view. This problematization reverberates backwards through the text, interrogating our assumptions not only of paragraph 10, but also of all the preceding paragraphs that have focused on the assembled clergy. Nowhere in the preceding paragraphs are there surface devices to suggest when, or if, either the omniscient narrator or unnamed observer has relinquished the perceptual point of view to the Fathers. That being the case, at which point is the text "sincere," and at which is it not? It is impossible to say. All we can say with certainty is that the text's sincerity, and its opposite, is relative to the point of view in which the discourse occurs.

In the paragraphs immediately following (i.e., numbers 12-15), the point of view clearly shifts; for brevity's sake, I present only the introductory phrases of paragraphs 14 and 15:

[12] But nothing was further from the minds of the members of the First M.E. Church of Tecumseh than the suggestion that they were not an improvement on those who had gone before them. They were undoubtedly the smartest and most important congregation within the limits of the Nedahma Conference, and this new church edifice of theirs represented alike a scale of outlay and a standard of progressive taste in devotional architecture unique in the Methodism of that whole section of the State. They had a right to be proud of themselves, too.

[13] A comprehensive and satisfied perception of these advances was uppermost in the minds of this local audience, as they waited for the Bishop to begin his reading. They had entertained this Bishop and his Presiding Elders, and the rank and file of common preachers, in a style which could not have been remotely approached by any other congregation in the Conference. Where else, one would like to know, could the Bishop have been domiciled in a Methodist house where he might have a sitting-room all to himself, with his bedroom leading out of it? Every clergyman present had been provided for in a private residence - even down to the Licensed Exhorters, who were not really ministers at all when you came to think of it, and who might well thank their stars that the Conference had assembled among such openhanded people. . . .

[14] But a more important issue hung now imminent. . .

[15] All were agreed - at least among those who paid pew-rents - upon a great importance . . . (3-5)

The ideological and perceptual point of view in these paragraphs is clear. It alternates between internal positions from within the consciousness of certain characters and from the consciousness of someone (an omniscient narrator) who has knowledge of the characters' feelings. Our assumptions about the parishioners, our prejudgments, are likely negative. The parishioners are smug and self-aggrandizing; they are shallow and grasping. That we have no difficulty in assigning agency to either the ideological or perceptual point of view in these paragraphs is itself significant. First, as will become evident, our interpretations of Theron and Alice Ware much later in the chapter are influenced by the attitudes toward the congregation we form now, attitudes formed partly through our certainty that the congregation holds disagreeable opinions. Second, the clarity "teaches" us how to read the text. That lesson: the point of view is clear; focus on other features. Thus we may very well overlook the complexity of the point of view in the following paragraphs:

[16] The unusually large local attendance upon the sessions of the Conference had given some of the more guileless of visiting brethren a high notion of Tecumseh's piety; and perhaps even the most sophisticated stranger never quite realized how strictly it was to be explained by the anxiety to pick out a suitable champion for the fierce Presbyterian competition. Big gatherings assembled evening after evening to hear the sermons of those selected to preach, and the church had been almost impossibly crowded at each of the three Sunday services. Opinions had naturally differed a good deal during the earlier stage of this scrutiny, but after last night's sermon there could be but one feeling. The man for Tecumseh was the Reverend Theron Ware.

[17] The choice was an admirable one, from points of view much more exalted than those of the local congregation.

[18] You could see Mr. Ware sitting there at the end of the row inside the altar rail - the tall, slender young man with the broad white brow, thoughtful eyes, and features moulded into that regularity of Strength which used to characterize the American Senatorial type in those far-away days of clean-shaven faces and moderate incomes before the War. The bright-faced, comely, and vivacious young woman in the second pew was his wife - and Tecumseh noted with approbation that she knew how to dress. There were really no two better or worthier people in the building than this young couple, who sat waiting along with the rest to hear their fate. But unhappily they had come to know of the effort being made to bring them to Tecumseh, and their simple pride in the triumph of the husband's fine sermon had become swallowed up in a terribly anxious conflict of hope and fear. Neither of them could maintain a satisfactory show of composure as the decisive moment approached. The vision of translation from poverty and obscurity to such a splendid post as this - truly it was too dazzling for tranquil nerves. (5-6)

In paragraph 16, the perceptual point of view is mixed, involving some alternation between the parishioners and an external, limited-omniscient narrator. As Fowler notes, the presence of a participating narrator may be underscored by foregrounded modality, or the grammar of explicit comment (131). In this paragraph, the modal adverb "perhaps," indicating a perceptual position outside the consciousness of the parishioners, appears just after the semicolon in the first sentence. One effect of this perceptual commingling is to enable Frederic to unobtrusively commingle ideological points of view. When we read that "after last night's sermon there could be but one feeling. The man for Tecumseh was the Reverend Theron Ware," we know that the congregation holds these sentiments. But when we read of the reasons behind the large numbers assembled in the church - "the anxiety to pick out a suitable champion in the fierce Presbyterian competition" - we understand the impious language to reflect a different ideology, most likely the implied author's.

More important, the introduction of a commingled point of view complicates identification of the points of view used in paragraphs 17 and 18. Alerted to the reappearance of the implied author's voice, we most likely read into these paragraphs his ironically inclined ideology, assigning perceptual agency to the conventional organ of the implied author, a traditional omniscient narrator. But the grammar of the text is still unresolved. Specifically, to whom do the "exalted points of view" refer in paragraph 17? The question seems well worth asking: in a narrative given over to shifting points of view, should we not assume that the phrase "points of view," underscored rhetorically by its appearance in a one-sentence paragraph, is intended to give us pause? Yet such is the influence of our previous reading, the way in which our focus has been conditioned by the text, that we may ignore what in isolation seems a well-considered question.

The text leads us both forward and backward to find referents. Going forward, the "you" beginning paragraph 18 seems a logical referent. The referents of the pronoun may be either textually diegetic, indeterminate narratees existing within the narration (similar to "one" or "people"), or extradiegetic, narratees existing outside the narration, as would be the case with an implied reader or readers - those, for example, who entertain idealistic notions of the true American. However, paragraph 17 makes clear that the "exalted points of view" are attributed to referents having previous knowledge of the candidate; the referents of these views understand their choice to be "admirable." The narrator, in other words, is simply reporting the referents' already formulated conclusion. But extradiegetic narratees, i.e., implied readers, are not yet at this juncture aware of Theron's reported qualities; we readers are first introduced to Theron the candidate only later in the paragraph. As a result, what we know at this point is substantially less than what the referents know, making the grammatical equivalence between reader and referent problematic.

Combing back through the text, we come upon possible diegetic referents. Again, the grammaticality of the candidates is suspect. As anaphoric referents, the clergy appear many positions back, in paragraphs well beyond what would grammatically qualify as clearly positioned. In paragraph 16 are several possible referents, but all are, at best, only ambiguously suited to the role. Immediately following mention of the "visiting brethren" and "the most sophisticated stranger" are references to "big gatherings" assembling evening after evening in the church, gatherings peopled largely by the "local congregation." From what we know of the local congregation, it is doubtful whether they would so modestly conclude that anyone's point of view is more "exalted" than their own; nothing in what we have read previously, or will read later in the chapter, suggests that congregation is anything but arrogantly self-satisfied. And what of the "visiting brethren" and "the most sophisticated stranger"? As possible referents, both are accompanied by numerous grammatical and definitional difficulties. After first identifying them explicitly as separate from the "local congregation" (and from each other?), we would have to infer that their identities are then melded implicitly with those of the "big gatherings." Then, in paragraph 17, we would have to cull these visiting brethren and sophisticated strangers by implication not from their logical referent, the "big gatherings," but again from the local congregation, from whom they have already been distinguished. Surely such contortions point toward ambiguity.

There is one remaining possibility, one that, though incongruous to the narrative architecture established elsewhere in the chapter, is accompanied by fewer grammatical difficulties than the previous candidates. As we learn later, Theron holds self-referentially "exalted" opinions. As we also learn later, Theron's subjectivity, his agency, is grounded in his sense of how others view him - appearance, for him, is equivalent to substance. A man of little talent, he professes talent that he be thought talented; a man of lust and deceit, he professes goodness that he be thought good. "What is most remarkable about him [Theron]," says Fritz Oehlschlaeger, "is his almost complete lack of a center. . . . Thus despite the novel's consistent criticism of authority, Frederic shows in Theron that the self which lacks anything to shape or confirm it is very likely to become a void" (239).

Of course, at this point in the text, we don't know this yet. But of course we are also under no obligation to assign the perceptual and ideological points of view to the implied author/omniscient narrator. If, rather, the perceptual and ideological points of view are Theron's, then the logic and grammar of paragraphs 17 and 18 become clear. In paragraph 17, the plural "points" would refer to Theron's assumptions about Alice's agreement; the exaltedness of the point of view may be his, but in the expansiveness of his imaginings, there are two figures, his and Alice's, wedded in ideology as well as body. I will return to Alice's depiction momentarily; for now, suffice it to say that later in the first chapter Frederic shows Alice to be easily as haughty, as "exalted," as her husband.

In paragraph 18, the views expressed are consistent with those Theron would have were he musing about the impression he and Alice were making in the minds of the assemblage. His eyes are "thoughtful"; his features are molded into a "regularity of strength"; his wife is vivacious and knows "how to dress." For such a man, there would be "no two better or worthier people in the building than this young couple" in the minds of others. Such musings would likely be referentially dissonant. If Theron cannot achieve self-realization, then linguistic dissociations relating to subject/object distinctions - for example, use of third person rather than first, such as found in most of paragraph 18 - would be consistent with his psychology. In this reading, the "you" beginning the paragraph would point not extradiegetically out of the text toward the implied reader, or even diegetically into surface referents in the text, but rather into Theron's mind, from his point of view, toward an audience existing only in his imagination. Rather than reading irony into the paragraphs, as would be likely if the point of view were the implied author/omniscient narrator's, we would read sincerity, but sincerity only as that term has currency from Theron's point of view.

There are, as mentioned, obvious difficulties associated with this reading. The point I am making is not that we ought to interpret these paragraphs in a certain way, but that our reading of their point of view is significant to our interpretations. Equally significant is that, ultimately, their point of view is indeterminate. But this indeterminacy need not suggest, in deconstructionist fashion, the text unraveling, unwittingly exposing the rhetoric underlying its claims. The sheer number of possible referents invites us to examine the text; indeterminacy is in fact foregrounded. At issue, then, is not the unraveling of the text, but rather the authority of the interpretation. If we are, as Becknell says, in a quest for authoritative reading, then the way in which we respond to indeterminacy says much about our capacities as readers. Faced with ambiguity in the discourse, do we or do we not ask from whose point of view the discourse occurs?

The question is a complicated one, especially since no sooner are we alerted to possible ambiguities in point of view than we are quickly reassured of its certainty. Immediately following the confusion of paragraphs 16-18, the perceptual and ideological point of view is clearly shown to be that of the parishioners:

[19] The tedious Bishop had at last begun to call his roll of names, and the good people of Tecumseh mentally ticked them off, one by one as the list expanded. They felt that it was like this Bishop - an unimportant and commonplace figure with Simpson and Janes and Kingsley - that he should begin with the backwoods counties, and thrust all of these remote and pitifully rustic stations ahead of their own metropolitan charge. . . . (6)

The tone of the parishioners is impatient and mocking; for several paragraphs, they are relentless in their disparagement of the "tedious Bishop," then outraged that after their good works they should be assigned spindly old Brother Tisdale:

[22] There was no doubt about it! These were actually the words that had been uttered. After all this outlay, all this lavish hospitality, all this sacrifice of time and patience in sitting through those sermons, to draw from the grab-bag nothing better than - a Tisdale! (7)

As previously suggested, we do not share the parishioners' sense of outrage in part because of our pre-existing attitudes toward them, formulated back in paragraphs 12-15, where they showed themselves to be materialistic and petty. When they storm out in self-righteous outrage (paragraph 26), we are glad to see them go. The effect of their unmistakable point of view on our reading is immediate: contemptuous of the parishioners, we are inclined to be sympathetic to those they dismiss - in this case, the loser of the "Presbyterian competition," the Reverend Ware.

Beginning with paragraph 27 and continuing to the end of the chapter, the point of view is clearly given over to the Wares (for brevity's sake, I give only the opening phrases of some of the paragraphs):

[26] So it happened that when, a little later on, the appointment of Theron Ware to Octavius was read out, none of the people of Tecumseh either noted or cared. They had been deeply interested in him so long as it seemed likely that he was likely to come to them. . . .

[27] After the Doxology had been sung and the Conference formally declared ended, the Wares would fain have escaped from the flood of handshakings and boisterous farewells which spread over the front part of the church. . . .

[28] "Brother Ware - we have never been interduced [sic] - ". . .

[29] He was a portly man, who held his head back . . .

[30] "I said to 'em," he went on with loud pretence of heartiness. . . .

[31] Brother Ware smiled faintly in decorous response [to the jovial comments of Octavius's current pastor], and bowed in silence, but his wife resented the unctuous beaming of content on the other's wide countenance, and could not restrain her tongue.

[32] "You seem to bear up tolerably well under this heavy cross, as you call it," she said sharply.

[33] "The will o' the Lord, Sister Ware . . . "

[34] By a mutual impulse the young couple, when they had at last gained the cool open air, crossed the street to the side where over-hanging trees shaded the infrequent lamps, and they might be comparatively alone. The wife had taken her husband's arm, and pressed closely upon it as they walked. For a time no word passed, but finally he said, in a grave voice -

[35] "It is hard upon you, poor girl."

[36] Then she stopped short, buried her face against his shoulder, and fell to sobbing.

[37] He strove with gentle, whispered remonstrance to win her from this mood, and after a few moments she lifted her head and they resumed their walk, she wiping her eyes as they went.

[38-45]. . . . (8-10)

In place of the vitriolic tone of the parishioner-controlled narrative is a largely "objective" tone of a limited-omniscient narrator, one who relates the events and describes the characters from a position outside the consciousness of any of the protagonists. Through this narrator, we are introduced to Theron as a character. The timing of this introduction is not coincidental. Inclined toward charity at this point, we sympathize with the young outcast. The Theron we meet here seems conventionally sympathetic. Alice fumes resentfully at Octavius's current pastor, then at the people of Tecumseh, then at their fate; Theron simply offers soothing words and religious homilies.

What is significant here is not what Theron does and says, but the effect these actions and statements have when reported from the perceptual and ideological point of view of a limited-omniscient narrator. Judging from what Frederic later shows us about Theron - his deceitfulness, his arrogance, his inability to think rationally - we can well imagine that he is easily as upset as Alice. Yet, because we do not enter Theron's consciousness here, we are inclined to interpret his response as, seemingly, stoic and pious, interpretations that linger well into the book. In contrast, the perceptual point of view of Alice's outburst in paragraphs 31 and 32 is reported in traditional omniscient narration, which assigns to her certain attitudes and emotions. Through use of this point of view, Frederic holds her up to us as a woman more volatile than her husband. She is clearly resentful, perhaps haughty and superior, perhaps possessing an exaggerated sense of entitlement. Consequently, we are predisposed to assume her later on as potentially self-serving - the sort of character who, despite the meager "evidence" deduced by Theron later in the book, may indeed be guilty of having an affair with the wealthy Gorringe.

It is the influence of these kinds of prejudgments that makes the opening pages of The Damnation so important to our reading of the subsequent chapters. We begin, in Becknell's phrase, "with absolutes, with assumptions about authority" (70); only later in the novel do we grow suspicious of Theron and consequently revise our prejudgments. That we resist revision of our assumptions for so long is a testament to the brilliance of Frederic's stylistic manipulations. "When you get to the end," said William Dean Howells, upon the novel's publication, "you fully realize, for the first time, that the author has never for a moment represented him [Theron] anywhere to you as a good or honest man, or as anything but a very selfish man" (qtd. in Cady 278).

More than anything else, the first chapter illuminates the extent to which both text and reader are rendered "unauthoritative" through the agency of point of view. As McKay notes, "we must be able to sort out linguistic responsibility in the text if we are to understand the realists' attempts to foreground the perspectives of the characters" (199-200). In the first chapter, we are only partially successful. The point of view is clear only when it is manipulative, guiding us into later misperceptions; when it is not clear, the text strenuously insists upon its own clarity, guiding us away from interrogating the authority of its claims.

The genius of the first chapter lies in the spectral quality of its points of view: manipulations and ambiguities are unmistakable, yet they pass unnoticed before our gaze. If in these opening pages we do not ask by whose authority we have accepted "the truth," then we have mirrored in our reading the arrogance and naivete of the Reverend Ware. The text itself implicates us, and in so doing reveals the opening chapter to be a synecdoche for the novel's critique of authority. Secure in his assumption of gaining the coveted Tecumseh posting, Theron receives in the opening chapter his first opportunity to awake to the fact that what is true in the world may very well differ from what he thinks should be true. But he does not awaken. Even when bypassed for the Tecumseh posting, he does not question the authority of his initial assumptions. He does not wonder whether, to others, perhaps his sermon was merely mediocre; whether, to others, there really are "better" and "worthier" people in the building; whether, to others, there are valid concerns about his fitness or competence as a minister underlying his appointment to Octavius. Indeed, there are. As we learn later, not the least is that he got himself into financial difficulties at his previous post.

But for Theron there are no competing truths, no alternate explanations. Indeed, the psychological drama of the first chapter is essentially the one explored by the rest of the book. Theton sees a chance to better himself (his hoped-for appointment to Tecumseh); he makes arrogant assumptions, foolishly assigning himself qualities he does not possess and projecting views onto others (his certain belief that everyone knows him to be the best candidate); he experiences a collision between his assumptions and projections with the truth (his rejection from the coveted appointment); and, finally, he refuses to question the authority of his interpretations, even when they derive from only one frame of reference (his seemingly pious, and incurious, acceptance of his rejection).

He refuses, in other words, to acknowledge the need to consider multiple frames of reference, multiple points of view, in establishing a truly authoritative reading of himself and of the world. By novel's end, ready to set out for Seattle, Theron imagines a great crowd "admiringly bent upon a common object of excited interest" (344). That object is he himself. In imagining the crowd's adulation, Theron demonstrates the same personal weaknesses that have already brought him to the brink of disaster. Self-absorbed, uninclined to entertain notions that he is presuming rather too much, he is every bit the same Theron presented in the first chapter - the sort of man who might very well project his views and wishes onto others. As readers, we too expose in the first chapter our capacity for perpetual self-deception. When confronted with the corrupt authority of the point of view, we do not recognize the corruption. Theron-like, we project our own assumptions onto the text, accepting without question the authority of our interpretations. "The truth remains always the truth," Father Forbes reminds Theron at the onset, and the truth is that we finish the opening pages in damning blindness and proceed to repeat our initial error, chapter after chapter.


1 Drawing from the work of the response critic Wolfgang Iser, Becknell argues convincingly that we have "generic expectations" about Theron. Says Becknell,

If we want to see The Damnation as a drama of lost faith, it is because we see Theron as a "Young Goodman Ware." If we want to see Theron as Celia's victim, it's partly because the romantic paradigm of the temptress is equally familiar; if we want to see him as better than he is, it's partly because we are used to partisanship with the "hero."

So influential are our assumptions, says Becknell, that we "jump to conclusions of romance when we should be watching the signals of realism" (70).

2 Oehlschlaeger's earliest reference to the text is to chapter two, which, in part, traces Theron's past relationship to his wife Alice (239-40). Becknell's earliest reference to the text is also to chapter two, which, in part, introduces the "narrowness and bigotry" of the Methodist trustees (65).

3 The first chapter has been treated in some studies as if it were merely dialogic, alternating between statements identified as sincere and those identified as ironic (see in particular Michelson 58-59; Briggs, Jr. 114-16; and LeClair 96-97). Conventionally, at least from a modern perspective, The Damnation has been viewed as a distant relation of The Scarlet Letter (see, for example, Briggs, Jr. 130-35; Coale; and Zlotnick). The opening chapters of Hawthorne's masterpiece are commonly read as the establishment of conflicting value-systems and temperaments that remain in static or slowly evolving conflict throughout the rest of the novel. In the tableau presented early on - Hester, alone, clasping her baby against her bosom; the fierce puritan populace of Boston heaping scorn upon her - the reader can see the general shape of the ideological and emotional conflicts to come. The effect is one of reassurance: though the scene has shifted two hundred years back in time, readers can reasonably assume that the upcoming text will fulfill their initial expectations. As argued in this essay, the complex and subversive replay of the scene in the opening chapter of The Damnation has the opposite function. We reasonably assume that these pages establish the text's social and moral conflicts - decent Theton Ware struggling against a narrow, smug populace - but Frederic uses these assumptions to set into motion the various deceptions of the text. In effect, the more we read Letter into the first chapter, the more we misread The Damnation's later chapters.

4 Fowler divides internal and external perceptual points of view into four subsets, types A-D. For the limited purposes of this essay, I do not refer to the subsets by types, though I do retain their distinctions.

5 James S. Hans observes that textual interpretation begins "with certain prejudgments about what the whole is . .. and allows the sense of the whole to be continuously altered through an interaction with the parts" (5-6).

Works Cited

Becknell, Thomas. "Implication Through Reading: The Damnation of Theron Ware." American Literary Realism (Fall 1991): 63-71.

Briggs, Austin, Jr. "The Damnation of Theron Ware." The Novels of Harold Frederic. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1969.97-139.

Cady, Edwin H., ed. W. D. Howells as Critic. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Carter, Everett. Howells and The Age of Realism. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1966.

Coale, Samuel. "Frederic and Hawthorne: The Romantic Roots of Naturalism." American Literature 48 (1976): 29-45.

Fowler, Roger. Linguistic Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Frederic, Harold. The Damnation of Theron Ware. Ed. Stanton Garner. 1st ed. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Hans, James S. The Play of the World. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1981.

LeClair, Thomas. "The Ascendant Eye: A Reading of The Damnation of Theron Ware." Studies in American Fiction 3 (Spring 1975): 95-102.

McKay, Janet. Narration and Discourse in American Realistic Fiction. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1982.

Michelson, Bruce. "Theron Ware in the Wilderness of Ideas." American Literary Realism 25 (Fall 1992): 54-73.

Oehlschlaeger, Fritz. "Passion, Authority, and Faith in The Damnation of Theron Ware." American Literature 58 (May 1986): 238-55.

Zlotnick, Joan. "The Damnation of Theron Ware, with a Backward Glance at Hawthorne." Markham Review 2 (1971): 90-92.

Paul Eggers is associate professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His short fiction has appeared in Granta, The Quarterly, and other literary journals, and his novel Saviors will be published by Harcourt Brace in fall 1998.
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