Monday, December 27, 2010

Jungles and Cities: Peril and Possibility

There are obvious and subtle invocations of biblical themes in the stories of Guy de Maupassant and Horacio Quiroga.  Quiroga’s “Juan Darien” blurs the boundaries between the human and the animal in a garden story about a tiger cub who becomes the adopted child of a mother who has recently lost her child to smallpox.  A wise serpent is the only character in the story who retains a vision of harmony between man and nature as it presumably once was in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:2-3:24).  Edenic blessing and curse move along with the mythological jungle story, and a deeper divide between humans and nature results because of the behavior of the humans.  With a less direct theological motif, Guy de Maupassant’s “The Adopted Son” conflates the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-14) with a modern story of human potential, and a strange blessing is accrued to a family who was willing to sacrifice a male child for his and their betterment.  The two short story writers invoke biblical subjects and themes to their own ends, and the potential and peril of both nature and culture are examined in terms of the human condition. 
            The biblical and modern resonance of these two stories is struck, and sustained, on the subject of parenthood.  In “Juan Darien,” the adoption of the tiger from the wild is a potential threat to human society.  Yet human beings are much more treacherous than the animals in this story.  The mother who takes a tiger to her breast is commended by the wise serpent who counsels and guides her: “Your mother’s heart led you to save a life from the Universe where all lives have the same value.”(p.88)  The serpent does not say how valuable a life is, but only that all living creatures are of the same value.  There is no reason to disbelieve the serpent, and the woman follows his every word.  In both “Juan Darien” and the Garden of Eden story, the serpent is guilty of no deceit, though Quiroga is much more explicit on this point than scripture: “And the woman believed the serpent, because in all man’s religions the serpent knows the mysteries of the lives of those who people the world.”(p. 89)  The serpent saves the tiger cub yet correctly predicts his demise as a human boy.  Rather than being called “subtle” or “crafty,” this phallic prophet is simply, and directly, called “wise.”  The wisdom of the inspector is much less impressive than that of the serpent: “The inspector knew that there are stranger things in the world than any man can invent…”(p.90)  Both nature and culture can be brutal, but here Quiroga presents human nature and culture as being more destructive than the natural world.  It may also be assumed that the smallpox which killed the children came from new settlers, which is the tragic genesis of the story.  Because of the belief that nature must be dominated—and that the lives of humans have a different value than the lives of all living things, the tiger must be outed from his human shape.  The boy must be sacrificed for the good of society, and the wisdom of the serpent is lost.  Any enduring hope in the story is in the yearning motherhood that is strong enough to make a beast a beloved child, and the memory of their love is written in blood by the tiger on his human grave. 
In “The Adopted Son,” the reader travels far from the mythological jungles of “Juan Darien.”  Yet in the binarian opposites of city and country, a whisper of the garden of creation still hangs in the air as a young, wealthy family from the city seeks to create their family nucleus on a journey to the countryside.  The city is clearly the place to be in de Maupassant’s story, but reproduction, for unexplained reasons, has been difficult for the d’Hubieres.  Despite their hardscrabble existence, the Valins and Tuvaches reproduce with such ease they get their children mixed up with each other.  Both families are approached with a barbaric request from the civilized Mr. and Mrs. D’Hubieres: “My wife has not made her meaning clear.  We wish to adopt him, but he will come back and see you.”(p.2)  The Tuvaches reject the devil’s bargain and hold tightly to their Charlot, but the Vallins release young Jean into the care of the wealthy urban dwellers.  The expectant hope of the reader that the Tuvaches will be rewarded for their steadfast love is spurned at the story’s end.  The parents of Jean Vallins not only get their son back, he returns as both a gentleman and a dutiful son.  Their sacrificial love, along with the pecuniary instincts of Mrs. Vallins, is rewarded bountifully at the end of the story.  An angry Charlot Tuvache now wants a piece of the action in the city.  Much like the Abraham story, none of the rewarded characters behaves well, yet everything ends well for the couple willing to sacrifice their child.  God demanded child murder, and Abraham, an ostensible exemplar of the faith, is likewise rewarded for being willing to follow God’s obscene request.  Human society, under the secular guidance of reason, seems to be the loving parent: one who can restore and improve the lives of anyone, even the humble offspring of peasants.  Or rather, an enlightened society is possibly the only God we need in de Maupassant’s urban order.  Like the rise of Napoleon himself, Jean Vallins has been made into a new man.  Anything is possible.  The potential of transformation, the democratic ideal of French liberalism, surely resides in Paris, not in the country.  The deft ending of “The Adopted Son” civilizes human nature sufficiently that the story makes it way out of the dangers of Genesis to the New Testament’s Prodigal Son story (Luke 15:11-32).  The son who was lost has surely been found, and the son who was withheld is now lost for the city:  “A sound of voices came in at the door.  The Vallins were celebrating the return of their child.”(p.5)
Quiroga and de Maupassant are not explicitly theological in their stories, but they are skillfully playing the major and minor chords of biblical themes with differing messages.  Though Quiroga is instinctively tuned to the power of nature in his stories, even when it is most brutal, “Juan Darien” searches for a lost blessing from the animal world.  Society will become the real monster if the lessons of the natural world are irretrievably lost, and the wise serpent is permanently silenced.  In “The Adopted Son,”de Maupassant’s monster seems to be ignorance solely.  His is an inexorable gospel of progress—with some inevitable barbaric bumps along the way.  The potential of human betterment is in the hands of humans alone, and the city is the place for humans to rise above our former station among the animals. 

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