the other variations tried with desperate sentimentality not to
imply: That many lives, judged by the standards of the people
who live them, are simply not worth living.
--KURT VONNEGUT, JR.
NYT Book Review, Oct. 6,1974
Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade is, without a doubt, one of the most dour and depressing books yet written. The fact that it is beautifully written, by a true wordsmith of common speech and, perhaps, a literary genius, cannot change this. It is essentially a story of the dismal lives of two sisters, Sarah and Emily (the younger of the two, and the primary focus of the book), who grow up in various temporary homes under the delinquent care of their alcoholic mother, Esther Grimes (“ . . .who encouraged both girls to call her ‘Pookie.’”) in the New York City area, circa 1940’s -1950’s. We are warned in the opening paragraph:
“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back
it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents divorce.”
Alas! However it began, the misery never ended for either of them.
In the course of the relatively short novel (229 pages), we learn of Emily’s awkward physical development and Sarah’s early romance and marriage. We learn of their father’s distant, tepid and feckless affection. The difference his death makes in the life of the girls is negligible. We witness their mother’s boozy excess, and her frivolous parade through adulthood toward the asylum. We learn that neither will be lucky in love or in life, though they will intermittently abide – to no effect - their own mutually helpless sibling relationship. I.e. Even as sisters, they are unable to offer one another any solace in the unhappinesses they are barely able to name, let alone avoid or overcome. When the novel ends, we cannot but be relieved, and saddened.
As we watch the downward spiral of hopes – at close range regarding Emily - toward the inevitable and eventual bitterness - even unto despair (madness?) - we can only watch and bear witness to a human waste of life, as the author obviously does. There are no ultimate or necessary causes or mitigating or aggravating circumstances to lay hold of. No other consolation is offered or assumed. Henry David Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”(Walden, 1854) This is certainly true in the case of the Grimes sisters. Yates will offer nothing more. His is a vision both pitiless and resolute. We are left, then, with a conundrum: What are we to make of Yates and his bleak vision as expressed in The Easter Parade? That is the challenge.
Here is the crux: Yates has told a pathetic tale of unmitigated and unredeemable misery, and he has done it without so much as shedding a tear or apparently asking or expecting us to. (Indeed, in the case of “Pookie” he seems actually to take some pleasure in her dissolution!) It is, apparently, Life as he sees it: many days one after the other, the next promising to be at least as bad as the one that came before --and the trajectory trends ever lower. It is not the specific type of misery that is important here: their lives are the stuff of millions of lives, in America at that time and at all times, and probably – other differences aside - everywhere else around the world as well. What makes the misery so onerous is that it is unredeemable. It reminds me of a poem I once knew by heart, by Kenneth Johnson which I can here only paraphrase:
Despair is not the sharp prick of pain felt when the needle is pushed
through and under the skin, but is the recurrent ache of the lonely
heart, when it realizes, with conviction, that it will always be this way.
In the empty, hopeless existence that is their life, there is no transcendence. There is no hope --and there isn’t even a real explanation. Why, then, should we even bother to go along beyond that opening line? And why did Yates, himself, feel it necessary to go beyond it; to, as John Self puts it in his earliest review of this book, “pore over their unhappiness in forensic detail.” (His blog here, though not the source of this quote)
One might argue, as I do, that the whole story and its meaning – i.e. the reason to go on with it - is summed up in the opening sentence, quoted above. It is the first clause of that quote which sums up the novel’s plot; (“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life . . .”), but it is the second, I think, which implies the ‘moral’ of the story: viz. “ . . . and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents divorce.” This second clause cannot possibly stand as an adequate explanation for the truth of the first. To begin with, it is doubly qualified; firstly, in its retrospective distance (“looking back”—who is looking back? Who is making this judgment?) and secondly, it declares that it always (only) “seemed” that the trouble, etc. And what about the divorce? Could it have been otherwise? If there are other possible explanations to be had, none is proffered here. So, what does this clause actually do?
What is Yates trying to suggest? And, whatever that might be, why suggest it in such a non-committal way? It is clear to me that this is a crucial matter to our understanding of what Yates is about in The Easter Parade.
I ask myself the question: ‘What is he trying to do?’ And the answer I get back -from reflection on the story told, from the tone used by the author, the plot, the choice of ending (the denouement), and, of course, the choice of subject – is, that he is trying to present not just a vision of, but also a vehicle of sensitivity to, what life is actually like, in meaning and form and prospect for these girls, who, by no fault of their own were delivered, and pushed out, into a world where dreams are all and only pipe-dreams, and, to bowdlerize a quip from Sinatra, feeling woozy with drink is the best feeling one can hope to experience on any given day. (It will be instructive, if not important, to note that Yates was, himself, an unredeemable alcoholic – as was his mother, who appears like an insipid imago in most of his stories.)
He presents us with a vision of, and an opportunity to see and feel, Emily’s despair, and, perhaps merely by association , to presume as much about her punch-drunk sister – since he mentions them together and, throughout, the results are basically similar, differing only by degree.
Is this a protest? Can we say that the novel is an existential crie de cour? or an implicit indictment of middle class American culture at mid-century, or an protest against the legalization of divorce? This tack would give us, at least, some respite from the despair! There would be a reason, or an explanation at least, for all the sorrow. I imagine a case – or various cases - could be made; but I think they would be flimsy at best. After all, even the author didn’t waste much, if any, time making such a case. If we assume any of these options as analysis I think we must say: Yates didn’t do a very good job of it.
For, there are no overt or implicit comparisons within the text to happy marriages – or even lives! - or to any other marriages outside of the Grimes family; or to other children of happy marriages or to other children of divorce for that matter. Therefore, we have no basis on which to assume that he meant them to be seen as either exceptions to a rule, or examples of a flawed system.
Nor are there any indications that the sad results of showing up in this world might have been mitigated by better institutions or customs in the society of birth—which, it seems, simply happens to be America, around 1940. We never learn why the girls’ parents divorced, for instance, or if it was the best choice at the time. No criticism or even description of the society, as such, is ever offered. Hence, no reason to think he had it in for American society or culture, per se.
Even the crie de cour suggestion is a suspicious gambit, since there is still that implicit – though rather tepid – suggestion, in that opening line, that (perhaps, maybe, or with different circumstances) this misery doesn’t have to be. But this argument hangs on a very rusty nail; viz. “it always seemed that their trouble began. . .” etc. And, strictly speaking, the divorce is only mentioned as the temporal starting point or occasion – not the cause – of their unhappy lives. Still, even the mere suggestion of a possible explanation militates against this view. True Existential angst, after all, admits of no excuses!
Though this certainly is not an exhaustive list of possible analyses, it is, I think, ambitious enough to suggest we need an alternative; namely, that Yates’s vision cannot be so easily, i.e. categorically, classified. And it shouldn’t be! It doesn’t belong to any specific or pre-selected genre. It is a novel of character and circumstance, surely --at the same time and in equal measure, not more of one than the other, and it is, broadly speaking, a life-study in entropy and dissolution as well. But these are not explanatory categories, or genres; they are descriptive properties characteristic of novels in general. This particular novel offers itself only as the story of the life-history of Sarah and Emily Grimes, without ever trying or intending to establish that history as an example or token of any other or greater scheme. Yates has told what he takes to be the truth about these women and their lives without any more comment than the one quoted at the start: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life . . .” Period.
It is we, the readers, who want to fit it into some explanatory category. Mainly, I believe, because the bleak truth that he tells is just too grim to be comfortably confronted and resolved for our tastes. In classical terms, there is all too much of pity and fear in this experience, and none at all of catharsis for our liking. The chief element of fear in this case is that there is no possible resolution of the pathos, and therefore no catharsis! We are offered no assurance that this terror is not ours as well, or that, if it be so, it can be confronted and overcome. Instead we are left to witness a horror of sorts, a waste of lives, without recourse to a comfortable resolution, or any reassuring sense of justice or necessity. This crisis of non-resolution is what makes The Easter Parade such a very challenging reading experience.
Some critics, moved chiefly by the felt need for some version of ‘a happy ending’, will argue that the “truth” or the ‘moral of the story’ – and a satisfactory resolution of the crisis - is still available if we look to other Yates novels and garner a sense of his over-arching purpose or concerns, and then apply it to this novel, thus ‘explaining’ the part by reference to the whole. Once again, I reject the option, since it assumes, first, that the novel is, in itself, somehow incomplete as a meaningful work of Art – a claim I strongly and even fiercely deny – and second, that it assumes that the whole (metaphorical) orchard can be counted on to bear a fruit though, perhaps, none of the trees is a fruit tree. It may be that there is much to learn about Yates through the analysis of the whole oeuvre, but I don’t know – and I seriously doubt - that that has any more bearing on the plight of these sisters than does his own alcoholism. His drunkenness didn’t make them miserable and pathetic creatures, and his success at writing seven novels and countless short stories before his liver failed won’t save them. They are what they are for their own reasons and by their own natures in the all too real world of The Easter Parade.
I reject these attempts to mollify the bleakness of this experience because I believe they pervert the true meaning of the Art, as experience, but most importantly because they seem to me based upon an utterly false conception of meaning, itself. Such attempt are predicated on the notion that the meaning of this novel is to be found in a comforting (if still alarming) rational explanation (Catharsis) of the sorry conditions of these lives, or in the author’s ulterior, or personal, motives for rendering those conditions; but I believe in my heart that this is flat-out wrong. Moreover, I believe this perverse notion is becoming more and more pervasive, more and more pernicious as well, as the idea sinks in and takes root, that the work of Art is but a commodity and its value is to be measured by our fickle willingness (or not) to pay for, or endure, it! But this – and that – is entirely wrong.
The meaning of a work of Art is something we must achieve—not something we can discover! Like Art, itself, meaning is an accomplishment, an accommodation we reach with the work under scrutiny, a satisfaction of our efforts. As such, it can be more or less complete, more or less enjoyable or easy, and more or less worth the effort. But it is, in the end, the result – the product - of our own effort, as well as the effort and the product of the author. He can only give us 'the permanent possibility of an experience.' We must be ready and able to achieve it. This puts meaning on a level with ambition. The consequence is a measure of who we are.
The Easter Parade is a challenge not only to our tolerance of harsh reality, it is a challenge to our willingness to confront that grimness for what it is, without trying to explain it away. Richard Yates did not write this novel so that we could speculate on the causes of human misery, or commiserate with his own disappointment with his alcoholic mother. I think he wrote it simply to bear witness to an undeniable and inexplicable fact about life in this world, viz. that there is inexplicable misery and terrible waste of life and promise in this world, and he knows what it looks like—and we should too.He did not try to explain it, or to explain it away. Neither should we!
It is in the second clause of the opening line that he issues the summons: “ . . .and looking back . . .”(Italics added). This cryptic phrase - so enticing that it makes us wonder, Who is looking back? – is, in my mind, the key to the mystery of meaning. He intends that “who” to be us! Looking back from what vantage? From the vantage of one who has read the book, from the vantage of one who has witnessed the tragedy. Yates’s virtue is in his talent for producing the permanent possibility of that experience. And in this, he has few peers! He didn’t need to write on beyond the first line to complete his story. But he needed to write on so that we could see and bear witness to the dumb fact– as, no doubt, he had in his own life. Those three words (. . .and looking back . . .) are like a summons to the reader to bear witness to the sad, pathetic fact already clearly and straightforwardly stated, without drama or sentimentality.
Richard Wilbur once wrote: “Art calls us to the things of this world.”* I should think we can say this is the summons of Life itself, without fear of being too far off. And yet our own needs and habits, of action and mind, so often get in the way, or warp or pervert our sense of the things of this world—even of the people and their lives. Very often, even mostly perhaps, our desire to be comfortable with the things of the world lead us to fitful speculation or philosophical abstraction –anything but the true and real and nasty business of witnessing some of the awful things of this world. This, I think, accounts for many of the negative reactions to Yates’s work, in general, and to The Easter Parade, in particular. Ironically, this reaction alone speaks volumes about the relative success of his effort. If he weren’t so good at presenting even these awful realities – as permanent possibilities of our experience - he might not be so widely reviled. The fact that he can do that and maintain his own composure as an author – not giving in to sentimentality or popular taste – is itself a mark of extraordinary integrity, if not genius.
The work did not save him from his battle with alcoholism, but perhaps it provided some solace. It is to each of us as readers to decide whether merely bearing witness is worth the effort and the heartbreak of reading his work. Other writers, like Graham Swift, can elicit our sympathies, and our pity and fear and offer a cathartic resolution of those fears (if not of the pity). Theirs is a more hopeful vision than the one Yates has to offer. No doubt they are easier, and more pleasant, to read—and perhaps rightly so –but Yates is a touchstone of the brutal honesty by which we must measure them.
The songwriter Paul Simon once wrote in a lyric:
Each and every one
To stand before the eyes of God
And speak what was done.”
*It will be noticed, I am sure, that I am not chary about referring to other reviewers and writers and sources that have illuminated my own understanding. What is important, though, is that I have not gone outside the text to import a meaning that it doesn’t already allow—if I am ready to receive it. These various sources help me to be ready!