Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Nov. 27
- Community Blog
THE COHERENT PLOT OF GABRIEL CONROY (II)
Here in Harte’s prologue, relating to the rest of the novel, nature provides not only a rescue but a doom of gusty winds to scatter the records of one’s existence (footprints in snow and the secret location a silver mine). The traces of footsteps, if followed, provide aid like the stone that Poinsett and Grace Conroy accidently descend from, which precariously leads to their rescue. The last segments of this first book introduce instances of Arthur Poinsett and Peter Dumphy lying to the rescue party about what truly happened. The reader may also feel suspense, wondering who Gabriel Conroy is because he is not a principle actor in the first fifty pages of the novel. In Book Second, set five years later in 1853, Gabriel, the protagonist, is introduced. This difference of years renders the outrageous circumstances of Gabriel Conroy possible. The sentimentality of Harte’s narrator is intentional, some critics say “sloppy,” but necessary to drive the plot forward and explain the passage of five years. The sentimentality of Harte is used to create familial attachments. Familial fortune is unique between Gabriel Conroy and his little sister, “Olly” (short for “Olympia”). Her name alludes to the Greek Family of gods, the Olympians, not unwittingly. The first names of the Conroys also resemble a family of gods: Gabriel, God’s angel or messenger; Grace, the Christian notion of that word or the three Graces of classical mythology (beauty, grace, and artistic inspiration); and Olympia, also reminiscent of Olympus, the mountaintop dwelling of the Greek gods on Earth. Thus, Harte sets a divine stage for an epic Californian narrative. Later in Gabriel Conroy, a courtroom reacts incredulously when Gabriel, usually truthful, lies under oath that “my genooine name is Johnny Dumbledee” (433). Familial fortune is entwined with Gabriel, a soft-hearted giant, honorable, noble, and dim-witted. Gabriel’s character attributes are important because he is the claimant, the heir, of California’s silver. Gabriel, in Book Second, also rescues from a flash flood his future wife, Madame Devarges (104). In Book Third, set in 1854, the novel plateaus into a long middle section, then climaxing with the trial of Gabriel Conroy for murder. Noting the fog and misty rain causing the previous book’s mudslide, California’s weather is aggrandized (egregiously) by Peter Dumphy, the scoundrel who stole Dr. Devarges’ secrets. In doing so, the narrator describes contemporary notions of Californian identity. Peter Dumphy, a villain personifying the evils of greed and vanity (though not quite an impostor), misleads others into his views of California. Aptly, Harte describes him in business terms, a measure: “Perhaps no one was better calculated or more accustomed to impress a stranger” (Gabriel 119). In regard to contemporary Californian identity, Mr. Dumphy, an evil-doer, prophesies some of the most common and long-standing claims of Californian identity. The narrator informs the reader that Peter Dumphy, despite his status as an evil-doer, is an honored, prominent citizen of San Francisco: “His outspoken faith in the present and future of California was unbounded… Unconsciously people at last got to echoing Mr. Dumphy’s views as their own” (119-20). Mr. Dumphy publicizes himself and his operations selectively, catering to the public as an apostolic commercialist. The narrator knows him as a liar and a cheat. The narrator uses Peter Dumphy to symbolize dishonest propagators of public opinion regarding Californian identity in the 1850s. The persistence of Mr. Dumphy’s claims are so strong that even if the weather was uncomfortable, “the average Californian was more than ever inclined to aggressively impress the stranger with the fact that fogs were healthy, and that it was the ‘finest climate on the earth’” (119). The misty rain Harte contrasts next by a ubiquitous cloud of smoke in the Spanish Quarter of San Francisco. The Spanish Quarter has a “thoroughfare” of three different grades, and the narrator describes the exterior versus interior qualities of homes in an effort to portray the concealed nature of expropriated Spanish nobility. As the narrator describes: It was dirty, it was muddy, it was ill-lighted… The grade had been changed two or three times, and each time apparently for the worse, but always with a noble disregard for the dwellings… The near result of this large intent was to isolate some houses completely, to render others utterly inaccessible except by scaling ladders, and to produce the general impression that they were begun at the top and built down. (129) This description, to advance the plot, sets the stage for a socio-historical backdrop of the first days of the Gold Rush. The narrator’s cunning description expands into other areas of regional background. As Harte’s narrator further explains of an informal social ban against californios, the effect of this segregation was to “…work a kind of outlawry among the inhabitants… through that social law which draws the members of an inferior and politically degraded race into gregarious solitude and isolation… in houses utterly inconsistent with their habits and tastes” (129). Harte’s description represents social disorder, decadence without hope for a future. It represents a concern for human life. The cultural difference of old and new Californians is therefore made apparent by the narrator. In terms of utilizing the testimony of “witnesses,” the creation of false testimony for money later in the Spanish Quarter applies also to Mary McAleer Balkun’s ideas regarding counterfeit identity in American Counterfeit. The phony Spanish land grant Victor Ramirez asks to be made out for Gabriel Conroy’s silver mine answer Balkun’s question, “What happens when the self is treated as a thing to be ‘produced,’ as an object for consumption?” (6). The self, the “witness,” is used to solicit payment, to cheat the cheaters, the Anglo-American stealers of land and Californian identity. Ramirez’s bowie knife, purchased to avenge the “deep” passions of his race, applies to this.