Thursday, March 05, 2015

A Severed Wasp: further reflections on the moral vision embedded in this novel

I've been thinking more on Madeleine L' Engle's 
A Severed Wasp.
Now, if you want to read the book without knowing
most of the story line and twists in plot,
read no further; if you don't mind, keep reading.
Even Mr. Husband, who heard about it all as I was re-reading this book
exclaimed about 'what if I want to read the book'?!'
So don't say you've not been warned.
I want to reflect on the moral vision of the book
and on some of the difficult sections,
where it's much harder to fully understand where 
morality stops and immorality begins.
If it helps you decide to read further, this is not the easiest
reading in some ways but much easier than much of what is written 
and is in utter disregard of morality.
In this book, a sequel to the Small Rain
that she writes decades after and in which she deals 
with a reality that happened to many men caught in the
Nazi concentration camps:
her husband, Justin, who she had just married the week before they
were captured in Paris, 
is tortured and made a Eunuch. 
From what I understand of history, this actually did occur 
to many men during WWII.
Justin is released and Katherine and he resume their marriage,
and in time Justin wants his wife to bear him children but
of course because of his condition, it is impossible;
it is written that because of gossip and Justin's pride,
he tells her to get pregnant by someone else and the child
will be seen as Justin's and he will love this child like his own
and the will have a family.
Katherine is understandably horrified by the idea
but does comply - and they have two children.
And Justin really does love them as if he is the biological father.
L' Engle has written here of a real moral dilemma as it were;
a husband who wants to prove to the world that he can have a child
and that all is right between he and his wife,
demands illicitness of his wife to do so.
She complies; is is clear that she never repeats the affair 
with the two men who give Justin and her a son and then 
a daughter.  And she never tells anyone, not even Justin,
who the biological fathers of their children are.
It does make me wonder if other woman were ever stuck
with such a problem and the burden that woman can have.
How difficult a woman's life can be!
I still cannot accept that this was right; 
it bothered me the first time I read it and now the second;
yet I can see and do acknowledge that 
L' Engle does not just breeze through this as if there are 
no moral or emotional ramifications to it;
L' Engle's adult books never shy from emotional intensity.
L' Engle does not dwell on it,
but does in passing point to the cause for this in Justin, as I
mentioned above:
he was worried what others were thinking and saying (gossip) and
his own pride ~ perhaps a pride that is more seen in males.
Perhaps a lack of contentment in what they had
and an acceptance of what they were given - a life without children...
I don't write that (accept life without children) lightly,
but that there really is sin, there really is
illicit behaviour, and peace is found in obeying God,
in rejoicing in what one is given regardless of circumstances.
Yet L' Engle shows how complicated our time is now or was;
I'd say it's even worse now
but even then,  a husband demanding the wife to 
give him a child...the wife obeys; the husband had been forcibly
made unable to bear children; where is the fault?; where is the line
that we can say clearly and point: here, here is the fault?
Like much of Modern Fiction, the fault is not so easy to define;
it seems to be to show that 'right and wrong' and a 
full adherence to a moral vision is either impossible or 
at least not so easy to find blame or say,
this, this alone was the fault, this was the sin.
One of the challenges I see in the novel is that there is nothing given
outside of the story itself, as in other options or
ideas are just not in the story; as if the story in ways refuses to
find fault or give room for it; yet how difficult, how very difficult.
Given that the husband did have this pride and was
demanding the impossible of the wife, and the wife thinks she has no choice;
well, perhaps that's the worst really.
L' Engle does not make it easier for the reader by the fact 
that the first time Katherine has a brief affair to bear a child
she becomes deeply infatuated by the person and goes into a 
depression for sometime afterwards, achieving her goal
and returning to her life with Justin.
The second time there is no depression but it is clear that 
she enjoyed the time she had, two weeks in her life of many decades,
with her daughter's biological father; 
yet Katherine's deep discretion was never broken;
Justin never knew who she went to and she was never
unfaithful save the two times Justin, her husband, tells her directly
to do so.... some would say this is a deep family secret,
but the way the book is written, it seems that the character of
Katherine is more about discretion, discreetness and dignity
than merely hiding a shameful secret....
So while the means by which she obeys her husband were immoral, 
the reader is left with a sense of silence at Katherine's dilemma
and her utter dignity by her silence and discretion.
There is also some discussion of another character's failure in terms
of sodomy and WWII dealt with well in terms of 
the of emotional, moral and spiritual barrenness
that came from this war.
Yet, L' Engle, unlike many of today society, maintains through the book
a moral vision that faithfulness in marriage is actually the ideal,
that sodomy is not right, that good and evil are actually defined entities.
In light of so much of what is going on today I would have to say
that A Severed Wasp is on many levels 
on solid moral ground in terms of the vision it shows.
Yet in other ways, the quotation by Orwell, well,
this needs to be another blog post for another time.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions in terms of what
the book has and does not have...
Like life and human beings, this novel has a great deal of
complexity and deals with situations that are at best
incredibly difficult; and L' Engle shows characters seeking to love,
to create beauty and maintain fidelity...


Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

It sounds a remarkable book, but quite harrowing in some respects.
For me personally, fidelity in a marriage is paramount and I could not imagine having to act otherwise.....

elizabeth said...

Elizabeth ~ I agree, marriage and fidelity are paramount!!

It is a remarkable book, esp. in all it covers; it leaves a lot unanswered and a lot to think about...

with the way our society is going towards an utter lack of morality and standards as such, this book is quite important as it deals with a lot but I would say still defines right/wrong though with some complexing nuances.