Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Nov. 27
- Community Blog
THE COHERENT PLOT OF GABRIEL CONROY (IV)
Book Fifth occasions the end of the novel. In the original American Publishing Company edition, it is the last “book” of Gabriel Conroy, disproportionately containing 28 chapters. The Standard Library Edition of his collected works rearranged some of these last chapters of Gabriel Conroy into Book Six and Book Seven. This section includes foreshadowing of Gabriel’s planned flight to New York where people of his kind (the newly wealthy) are “supposed” to go. Biographically, this mirrors Harte’s own Eastern displacement from 1871 to 1878. Harte’s similarity with Gabriel is especially interesting because Gabriel is a country bumpkin at heart. He little understands or even appreciates what society would have him, as the possessor of great wealth, conform to. Olly’s growing distance from Gabriel might parallel in real life Harte’s own growing distance from his family. Gabriel’s about-face upon discovering his wife’s deceit also shows that there is a threshold concerning his dignity that he will not sink below, even if it means giving up everything he has. In fact, this threshold preserves his independence and old-fashioned ways, the ways that first gave him satisfaction when smoking in his old cabin. One reason that Gabriel is a true hero is that he relies on himself, despite interpersonal illusions and the various designs upon his fortune (save for Grace, who symbolizes his connection to beauty). Beauty, as a moral form, a Platonic god, forms the network that compromises the essential heroic nature of his being. Gabriel is an angel compared to Mrs. Conroy. On the other hand, Mrs. Conroy’s previous suitors and the changing space (cultural and physical) of Conroy’s Hill and One Horse Gulch (renamed “Silveropolis”) further reinforce the transitional nature of Harte’s own career, and the historical trajectory of California. In an episode with many characters, Peter Dumphy, Arthur Poinsett, Mr. Pilcher, Mr. Dyce, Miss Rosey Ringround, and others at the beach, Harte parallels perhaps his own experiences on the aristocratic beaches of Newport, Rhode Island. Symbolically, at the end of the chapter, an earthquake unearths the inner life of Peter Dumphy, a villain, capitalist, and symbol of the new California (Anglo idealism/ utopianism) who ate a shoe, buffalo hide, and human who-knows-what. Arthur Poinsett, on the other hand, by virtue of his legal interests in the Mission of San Antonio and the trial of Gabriel Conroy, represents the old California (an archaic territory of Spain). The Harte’s narrator describes the party’s dinner as “…fat but flavorless. The fruits were characteristic… the strawberries were overgrown and yet immature… an ironical honoring by Nature of Mr. Dumphy’s lavish drafts” (Gabriel 269-70). Peter Dumphy himself is not impervious to scam. Regarding Mr. Dumphy’s apparent mastery of commerce, it is only fitting that Harte should introduce Dumphy’s weakness as the inability to clearly understand relationships that are not primarily defined by money. This occurs most strikingly regarding the domain of romance. Despite Mr. Dumphy’s intransigent belief in his superiority, Poinsett understands that Miss Ringwood is only “coquetting” Mr. Dumphy “for the laudable purpose of making the more ambitious of her sex miserable” because she does not, in fact, desire him; Poinsett obviously feels superior to Dumphy, who confides inebriated affections “… until struggling between disgust, amusement and self-deprecation Arthur absolutely tore himself away from the great financier and his degrading confidences” (279-80). In a way, Harte’s characters are all too realistic because they are given to their impulses. Victor Ramirez seeks social justice in his vengeful desire to humiliate Mrs. Conroy and in a vague way show her he, too, can be crafty. Perhaps Ramirez’s vengeance might correct a historic wrong committed. The representation of Ah Fe, the more honorable double of Ah Sin from “The Plain Language of Truthful James” shows the humor of dialect that Harte’s narrator uses to describe Mrs. Conroy’s Chinese servant’s speech: “He nodded his head intelligently, said ‘me shabbe you—muchee quick,’… The noise of struggling in the underbrush on Conroy’s hill, and a cry for help only extracted from Ah Fe the response, ‘You muchee go-to-hellee—no foolee mee!’” (305-6). Ah Fe, a virtuous Chinese immigrant, is implicitly compared to Ah Sin, the deceiving Chinese immigrant of Harte’s famous poem. The name “Fe” refers to the Spanish word “fe,” meaning “faith” (Pharies 135). On the other hand, “Sin” obviously implies the English word “sin,” meaning something that is unclean or evil. In Book Six (according to the Standard Library Edition), set in 1885, Gabriel avers from the truth by telling a lie, to tell (about legality here) why he would commit justifiable homicide. Gabriel falsely confesses to killing Victor Ramirez. The reason that he did lie, the astonished Jack Hamlin tersely inquires about in a cave while slowly dying of a fatal gunshot wound, “‘…you didn’t kill Ramirez?... And you reckoned your wife did?... And you took the thing on yourself?... You did!... You DID!’” (Harte, Gabriel 375-6). Aside from Poinsett, who is distant, the virtue, or moral excellence of Gabriel, the conscientious outsider, is revealed concerning his motivations to lie about murdering Ramirez. When explaining why to Jack Hamlin, the ideological outsider, one familiar with patterns of human beliefs and motivations, an inner aspect is revealed about Gabriel’s strength, temperance, and fortitude matching the narrator’s comparisons of Gabriel to Hercules, Hector, Samson, and Nimrod. Jack Hamlin’s virtues, on the other hand, are based on wit, dexterity, and flexibility. In terms alluding to other heroes of classical antiquity, Jack Hamlin is like Odysseus or Jason, a traveling, roving adventurer and genius gambler. The implications of Hamlin’s love interests, too, is heroically charming, though problematic from an objective point of view regarding Sophie who is obviously quite young, an adolescent school girl with romantic affections (340).