Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Winter's Tale - The End of the Novel

What's the opposite of a surprise ending? Calling the ending of Winter's Tale 'predictable' would not do it justice, but after a couple of hundred pages of foreshadowing and manuevering all of the characters into place, the ending seemed . . . inevitable.

A couple of people reading along with the novel have fallen a week or two behind, so I don't want to include too many spoilers in this week's post. Instead, I'll take the "scattered thoughts" approach. Even so, you should be warned that spoilers follow.
-Jackson Mead's bridge, which finally appears on December 31, 1999, is a made of pure light. Perhaps I missed the point, but until fairly recently I assumed that the "bridge of pure light" was a metaphor. I didn't expect him to actually build a bridge of pure light, beginning at the Battery and stretching into heaven. What does it symbolize, and what are we to make of the fact that it falls apart?

-The burning of New York was an exciting chapter, and was particularly bracing, coming as it did after so many chapters of lighthearted whimsy. Other than Printing House square and City Hall, which portions of the city survived, and what conclusions are we to draw from seeing what burned, and what was saved?

-The final encounter with Pearly Soames unfolded differently than I expected it to; we saw Althansor lose his power at the end of the novel, but Peter Lake had become so powerful and magical, and Soames so much of a laughingstock, that their fight in the church came as a shock. Thoughts?

-One of the most interesting topics in the book was its use of metaphors that turn out to be far more literal than expected. Sometimes, this relates to the geography of Helprin's New York, for instance the Isle of the Dead, the Bridge of Pure Light, and even the village in upstate New York so remote that nobody can find it unless they've been there already as someone's guest. What do you make of Helprin's blurring of the line between reality and fantasy?

2 comments:

Night Writer said...

Talk about your deus ex machina, eh?

Some random answers to your random questions (additional spoiler alerts):

Let me preface by saying that I see this book as ultimately being a Christian religious allegory, kind of a "Pilgrim's Progress" for our age. I didn't get that the first time I read the book in the 80s, but I've gained more perspective and insight over the years in my personal life and as I've read the book (or sections of the book) repeatedly. Also, I cannot say that my interpretation aligns with Helprin's personal vision or intent with the story; these are merely the way I arrange the pieces he laid out (perhaps similar to how Hardesty's father would respond when his children asked what time it was). As far as I know, Helprin has not publicly explained the book. As in his last line of the story, we have to decide for ourselves.

I will also say "Christian" in general terms since each denomination would likely find elements of the story and of faith with which they'd disagree. From that perspective, then:

Allegory means that the characters in the story stand in for "real" characters or concepts. Jackson Mead, for me, represents Satan in a Miltonesque, "Paradise Lost" way: once cast from Heaven and eternally searching for a way to return. He has built bridges of tangible, eartlhy materials, each one more elegant and grandiose than the last, to no avail. Now he has harnessed light. If you go back through the book and note the way Helprin beautifully uses descriptions of light and/or color I think you will see he infuses it with a sense of the Divine. With the Battery Bridge, Mead comes the closest to capturing its power and closest to success, though even he knows before the switch is first thrown that it will fail and is almost content with the challenge itself.

Satan (or even more allegorically, "Man") cannot be represented by just one character, however. (There is also another two-character corollary that I'll get to in a moment). Mead represents one half of the eternally dissatisfied Enemy; Pearly Soames, of course, represents the evil half. More humorously, you can see a similar construct in the character Peter Cook plays in the 1960s version of "Bedazzled". The book suggests that even in a new, golden era, Mead/Soames must still exist - either for contrast or as an essential element in the recipe for ultimate justice.

So what's on the other side of the equation? Why, what the Bible describes as "The Son of Man": Christ, who by Christian tradition is both fully man and fully God. This combination is represented by Spirit/Athansor and Man/Peter Lake. (The departure from Christian doctrine here is that Christ knew completely Who He Was and Why he was there, while this ultimate knowledge is withheld from Athansor/Lake in the story. Individually, each is able to do remarkable things, but joined together they become truly miraculous and they are the only ones who ultimately return to Heaven. Their "sacrifice" in the final chapter mirrors Christ's atoning blood that tore the curtain separating man from God (in both cases, making a mockery of "Pearly's" attempts to derail the ultimate plan), ushering in a new era. I don't want to trifle with anyone's eschatology, but Helprin's ending to me suggests that while it may be a new age, it is not the final one.

Night Writer said...

(Continuing)

A couple of weeks ago I suggested that Hardesty's quest to find a cure for his daughter's illness mirrored Mead's quest to breach the Empyrean. Here's how I see it: Hardesty represents the desire of man to create the terms (or the doctrine) that brings favor. His effort takes him the very extremes of human capability emotionally, physically and mentally. Even as his successes push the edges of these limits, however, he, like Mead, is turned away at the very gate (his bloody climb on the rope in the gymnasium). Because his motives are pure, however, he is gently set down and healed, and then is given the opportunity to accompany Peter Lake for a time and glimpse true power.

The burning of the city suggests to me a Calvinistic predestination model of salvation. The short scene of the old couple in the ruined store in the City of the Poor, however - with it's final description of molten light - suggests that even those that are "lost" or suffering to our understanding, are also translated into a new form of life.

I also have thoughts about some of the other characters and about notable places such as the Coheeries, but I won't go into those here as this comment is approaching Helprin-length.

I do urge other readers, though, to feel free to challenge my interpretation and offer their own. Given the number of times I’ve read the book, I'm also happy to attempt to field any questions anyone has about it. I've been dying to see what other people got out of the story. There are so few people I know that have read the book that I seldom get the chance to pick anyone else's brain about this marvelous story.