Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A Modern Mephistopheles, by Louisa May Alcott


Struggling poet/author Felix Canaris is willing to do just about anything to make a name for himself. Also, he's flat broke. So when the wealthy and intimidating Jasper Helwyze comes knocking with a tantalizing offer, Felix doesn't even think twice before trading away his freedom for the fame and comfort he's always wanted. Felix soon chafes under Jasper's dominion, and when the old man's machinations lead him to order Felix to woo and marry the naive and innocent young Gladys, Felix balks. But Felix is reluctant to give up the acclaim and prosperity resulting from Jasper's patronage, and it's not long before Jasper gets his way. Jasper then amuses himself by sending his former lover Olivia to distract the vain and handsome Felix while Jasper occupies himself with the intellectual seduction of the virtuous Gladys. Felix has to decide just how much fame means to him, and exactly how much he's willing to give up to get it. Shenanigans ensue.

Like A Long Fatal Love Chase, this is another of Louisa May Alcott's dark and lurid romances. While the story is not nearly as outlandish as A Long Fatal Love Chase (nary a convent nor an asylum to be found, let alone a secret duke or a besotted priest), it is decidedly more psychologically (and spiritually) complex. (Both books are good, but my love for ridiculous, over-the-top adventure led me to give A Long Fatal Love Chase an additional star. That book is bonkers.)

Wealthy invalid Jasper Helwyze is the villain of the piece.  Repeated references to Faust and The Scarlet Letter let us know that we're dealing with some sort of Mephistopheles/Chillingworth mashup. And he lives up to his roles, and his ridiculous name, working tirelessly to utterly dominate those around him for no reason other than his own sadism. His physical weakness seems to make him all the more eager to exercise psychological control over others, destroying and corrupting wherever he can, simply because he can.

With his ex-lover Olivia, who left him when he was injured and now longs for his forgiveness and love, this destructive (and vindictive) control manifests itself in making her his accomplice, forcing her to flirt with Felix so that Jasper can have unfettered access to Gladys. Though Olivia has no taste for the task, she is eager to atone for her past wrongs against Jasper and is willing to do anything that could earn her even the slightest sign of approbation from the man she loves.

With Felix, Jasper initially controls only his comings and goings and his work. But by forcing Felix to pursue Gladys (and even manipulating him into it by plying the boy's vanity and competitive nature), he can forever torture Felix with the knowledge of his compromise--that he wooed a girl who worshiped him out of misbegotten pride and in order to secure his own financial and literary well-being. The full extent of Jasper's hold on Felix is not revealed until the final chapters, and it becomes clear that Jasper's goal was nothing less than the complete corruption of the foolish young poet.

But it is in dealing with Gladys that Jasper finally meets his match. Gladys, who loves her husband unreservedly, despite suspecting that his love for her is no match for her own. Gladys, who happily serves Jasper and keeps him company out of a strong desire to repay him for his generosity to her and a determination not to be indebted to anyone, even as Jasper uses these acts of service as opportunities to sabotage her marriage. Gladys, who steadfastly clings to her faith despite all Jasper's clever attempts to muddle her mind with philosophy and world religions.  In the face of all his wiles, she sweetly pleads on behalf of her faith:
Can you say of your faith that it sustained you in sorrow, made you happy in loneliness, saved you from temptation, taught, guided, blessed you day by day with unfailing patience, wisdom, and love? I think you cannot; then why try to take mine away till you can give me a better?
Not too shabby for a naive child. Of course, in her innocence, she can never fully comprehend the extent of his nefarious plans. Indeed, she seems to remain ignorant of his greatest transgression against her--an unusual evening marked by an impromptu amateur theatrical performance and a hefty dose of hashish, of all things.  
Her simple naivete is not sustainable, however; some growth is needed is she is ever to be a fully realized woman. To his surprise, Jasper's hashish adventure ends up being the catalyst for Gladys's transformation from innocent child into virtuous woman--a change that renders her irresistible to her husband and his patron.  From this moment on, she is much less naive but no less virtuous. Armed only with woman's intuition, love for her husband (now reciprocated), faith, a practical mind, and hope for the future, our plucky heroine takes  Jasper head on. Her feminine strength bolsters Felix's own flagging morality, coaxes Olivia out of her slavish obedience. The power-hungry Jasper finds himself ultimately powerless in the face of her simple goodness. There is no swashbuckling showdown--this is a psychological story with a fitting (if less dramatic) climax.

Make no mistake--this is a dark book.  But Alcott seems to have very clear ideas about who ultimately wins when good and evil face off. As in A Long Fatal Love Chase, we see that a virtuous woman, though physically defeated by circumstance and evil men, remains uncowed and, in some sense, emerges victorious--a theme that crops up even in Alcott's more lighthearted works (see, e.g., An Old Fashioned Girl, which is, in my opinion, vastly superior to Little Women, mainly because there is no Amy).

Definitely worth a read.

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