BUILDING AN AMERICAN CITY: THE FICTION OF THORNTON WILDER

MICHAEL JOE VIVION, Marquette University

Abstract

Thornton Wilder's seven novels are characterized by a remarkable singularity of purpose and by an equally remarkable variety of styles. Wilder's purpose in writing his novels was to show how in the face of a seemingly hostile or unfeeling universe man may discover and maintain a spiritual identity. Man makes this discovery by learning to recognize the presence of the City of God as revealed in the City of Man and by attaining that planetary consciousness which is aware of the universal continuity of life. To accomplish his purpose, Wilder turned to the symbolic modes of myth and allegory, creating a fictional world in which the myths informing Western civilization are reshaped into a twentieth century American form. His first novel, The Cabala, is a Bildungsroman in which a young American, the novel's narrator, is exposed to the lives of a group of aristocrats living in Rome. The narrator's narrow Calvinistic vision of the world is modified by the myths of Europe and he returns to America prepared to become a cultural torchbearer and renewer of old treasures. The Bridge of San Luis Rey is a revelation of the mythic, transforming power of love which exists within the imperfect love of the quotidian. Written much like a parable, the novel examines the question of theodicy; although answer is given, one clearly sees that the universal nature of love unites man with the Unknowable. The Woman of Andros is a form of existential historical allegory in which the characters prefigure the redemptive power of Christ as well as the modern crisis of love and faith. The novel is another example of Wilder's belief that the sacred can be revealed in the profane. Heaven's My Destination examines Calvinistic America, the same world that shaped the sensibility of The Cabala's narrator. This picaresque mock epic presents the spiritual journey of an American folk figure, the traveling salesman, as he moves from a stereotyped view of life toward the development of a mythic consciousness. The Ides of March, a pseudo-documentary, presents the existential struggle of Julius Caesar to find meaning beyond the individual. The novel ultimately suggests that meaning can be found when man can see revealed in his acts the mythic continuity of life. The Eighth Day, Wilder's most philosophical novel, has elements both of the detective story and the family saga. The novel traces three generations of the Ashley family as they discover the individual's responsibility to continue, on the eighth day of creation, the sacralization of the profane which was made possible by Christ's Incarnation. Wilder's last noel, Theophilus North, is written in an episodic structure similar to those of The Cabala and Heaven's My Destination. This novel presents a playfully idealized view of the life of a man who has seen the unity of the City of God and the City of Man and who can consequently help others find the sacred revealed in their lives.

Recommended Citation

VIVION, MICHAEL JOE, "BUILDING AN AMERICAN CITY: THE FICTION OF THORNTON WILDER" (1981). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI8203779.
https://epublications.marquette.edu/dissertations/AAI8203779

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