Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Death of a Principled Man

Faithful Are the Wounds: A NovelFaithful Are the Wounds: 
A Novel 
by May Sarton

"Such a kind man, she thought, holding his handkerchief crumpled up in her hand.  I tried to tell him the truth -- what is the truth?  The plane gave a big jolt and landed.  She knew well that she had not told it, that Edward was more than anything she had said, more disturbing, more . . .  Who was he murdering when he threw himself under the train?  But the kind man had not asked her that and, if he had, she could not have answered.  She could only have said, "I did no know my brother very well."" (p 24)

Faithful are the Wounds is an academic novel, that is it has an academic setting (Harvard University) and many of the characters are academics. It is, however, much more than that for it focuses on the impact of death on personal relationships and presents the difficulties of maintaining one's political and ethical principles.

The novel deals with an intellectual abstraction- the forfeit of liberal courage and conviction- in civilized terms and through the medium of the suicide of Edward Cavan, a Harvard Professor and a militant idealist. Edward is an intense man in his views and preoccupations. He leads an intensely lonely and remote life, following a pattern set in a childhood of rejection.

One of the best aspects of the novel for this reader was the way that Edward's character was presented through the vignettes of the impressions he made on the people around him. In a very realistic way these vignettes are not about incidents where Edward's thoughts and actions are necessarily understood, but they gradually provide a picture of the man about whom we learn in the prologue on page three that Edward Cavan "threw himself under an elevated train".

The narrative that follows presents Edward as seen through the eyes of a few of his friends and relatives just before and after his death: his friend, Damon, who had retracted on the principle at the foundation of civil liberties in the fear of the Communist label, which was in a sense to Edward a personal betrayal; his sister Isabel, who had never understood his alienation from her- and their family; a student, a great scholar, and an old friend- the daughter of a former Harvard dean. But his influence lives on in action as well as memory as a few years later, when academic as well as civil freedom is threatened by a Committee hearing- Damon stands up and defends the concept for which Edward had died.... This is a thoughtful rather than forceful perspective of individuals and issues.

The overall effect is to present a man who was respected and loved in spite of his remoteness. It goes beyond that to demonstrate the impact one man can have on the lives of those around him when they are faced with the presence of his death and consider what that presence means to them.

May Sarton was a writer of poetry, novels and memoirs including her Journal of a Solitude. She was born on May 3, 1912, in Wondelgem, Belgium, and grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her first volume of poetry, Encounters in April, was published in 1937 and her first novel, The Single Hound, in 1938.  She would go on to publish nineteen novels in addition to many volumes of poetry.  An accomplished memoirist, Sarton boldly came out as a lesbian in her 1965 book Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. Her later memoir, Journal of a Solitude, was an account of her experiences as a female artist. Sarton died in York, Maine, on July 16, 1995.

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Brian Joseph said...

I had never heard of May Sarton but this sounds very good.

The themes that you describe are things that interest me. The characters also sound like they are well crafted. This combination often makes for a compelling novel.

James said...


While I was familiar with Sarton's poetry I was unaware of her novels until a member of our Thursday night book group chose this for us to read.
Like most poets who also write novels her style is quite felicitous.