Saturday, August 31, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 130: Edith Wharton, The Eyes (#109)

Edith Wharton, "The Eyes" (1910) from Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1891–1910:

You know how some ghost stories seem to have some psycho-sexual subtext. "Was it really a ghost," we ask, "or some passion that the protagonist could not admit to himself?" (See, for example, some readings of Hamlet: is Hamlet haunted by his dad's ghost or does he just want to claim his mother, Oedipus-style?) Today's story, "The Eyes," doesn't really call for that sort of analysis, since it's pretty obvious: Culwin is a confirmed bachelor who can't bring himself to marry but enjoys surrounding himself with young, handsome men. Which raises its own kind of question: Culwin isn't really all that repressed, so what is he haunted by?

The answer seems to be that he is haunted by himself and his future/history of doing harm without meaning to. When he notices the haunting eyes at night, they seem to "belong to a man who had done a lot of harm in his life, but had always kept just inside the danger lines." And the final view of Culwin's eyes matches up with those harm-filled eyes, a direct contrast with Culwin's earlier self-presentation:
I had been merely a harmless young man, who had followed his bent and declined all collaboration with Providence.
So, yeah, there's a way to read this that says, "avoiding Providence (i.e., being a little queer) has led this man into harm, even though he thought he was being harmless." And yet, when do the eyes appear to him? They appear when he contemplates lying to people (and himself) to make his life easier and better: when he considers marrying his cousin--which would no doubt be a terrible marriage--or when he lies to a handsome young man with no literary talent. And yet, in the one case, he resists temptation and in the other, he gives in. So why do the eyes appear in both cases to be the same? How has he really done bad "gradually"?

For all that, the story has a very traditional club/gathering story frame, but with the frame brilliantly connected to the story: Culwin explains his hideous connection with young men to a group including his current young man.

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