Curiously, the character in this novel who keeps coming back to me the most barely appears in the narrative. In ancient Roman comedy, one of the many stock characters was the Leno, a slave dealer. In this novel, the Leno appears near the climax to purchase several individuals who are deeply in debt. He really isn’t described enough to even be called a character. He is merely incidental, a part of life. And yet that is what makes him so memorable. That and the fact that one of the few things Wilder tells use about him is that he is smiling.
Ever since I first encountered Thornton Wilder’s novels in high school, his work has been significant to me due its lyrical beauty and lack of preoccupation with sexuality. Both aspects, while striking major chords with me, tend to bring Wilder critical scorn and the indifference of those readers who accuse him of not dealing with “real life,” a phrase which really means “my life.” In a review of Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, I suggested that not focusing on sexuality might enable an author to zero in more sharply on other themes. This novel of Wilder’s, his third, is a perfect example of that. The themes covered in The Woman of Andros are startlingly numerous for a work that does not even reach two hundred pages. However, they do unite in a somewhat intangible way. Before delving into that, I think it crucial to establish something that astonished me as I finished reading. The Woman of Andros is a Christian novel.
By this, I do not mean that Wilder has any proselytizing agenda here. He is also rather pointedly uninterested in slandering any other religious beliefs and there is certainly no sectarianism to be found; the Christianity present is quite broad. In fact, apart from two brief statements that establish the novel as taking place shortly before Christ’s birth, there are not even any references to the Christian religion. Yet The Woman of Andros is Christian, through and through. Building on a comedy by the Roman dramatist Terence (who had derived his plot from a now lost play by the Greek writer Menander), Wilder uses a quiet, simple story to dramatize the transcendent impact of Christian doctrine on human relations. The fact that not one of the characters is a Christian makes Wilder’s ultimate message sophisticated but deeply problematic.
The Woman of Andros takes place on the fictional Greek island of Brynos. Pamphilus, son of the well off merchant Simo, has fallen under the spell of the Andrian courtesan Chrysis, much to the dismay of his father. Chrysis has become popular with many of the island’s young men. In addition to her professional activities, Chrysis beguiles the youth of Brynos with philosophical discourses and recitations from classical poetry and drama. She also supports several friends who have fallen on hard times, many of whom live with her. These individuals, broke, sick, physically disabled, mentally ill, are seen as useless by the islanders. All of Chrysis’s unconventional behavior scandalizes the respectable people of Brynos. As Pamphilus becomes closer to Chrysis and her circle, he finds himself falling in love with her younger sister Glycerium, further upsetting Simo.
Again, there is a great deal going on in this little book. In trying to come up with a thematic summary, the best I can do is discuss the commodification of human beings. Throughout The Woman of Andros, I got the distinct feeling that Wilder was offering us a choice. Option one: we can insist on viewing each other as having a value above and beyond the functional/monetary. If we do this, we must at least attempt to respect the intrinsic dignity of every person. Option two: we can accept that, in our brutal world, we are ultimately only worthwhile as long as we can provide something heavy on the scales. If we can’t do that, we might as well become goods ourselves. That’s where the Leno comes in. He is not a villain. He simply cannot conceive of any man or woman having value beyond their usefulness. He chose option two. Anyone who picks option two, while they may not be a Leno themselves, ultimately accepts the Leno’s business as legitimate.
Of course, going with option one is anything but easy. If we try not to dismiss others when they become troublesome, we have to deal with their failures, their immaturity, their nonsense, their ingratitude. And they have to deal with ours. In the novel, Chrysis’s dependents, while privately adoring her, are outwardly ungrateful. None of Wilder’s characters who choose option one gain any obvious joy or peace from it. In fact, their previously settled worlds are thrown into confusion and heartbreak. However, none seem to regret it. Wilder tries to tell us that, for all its clarity, life with option two lacks the magic and illumination of love. It also robs anyone who picks it of the moral right to claim protection when they themselves (or someone they care for) ends up as merchandise on the Leno’s ship.
I am with Wilder on all of this. My problem arises with his fusing option one with Christianity. Perhaps “Christianity” should be swapped out for “religion.” One of Wilder’s most moving characterizations in this novel is a young priest of Apollo. This man devotes himself to a life of compassion and mercy and, while silently relied on by the islanders, is thought of as something of an oddball. Wilder was obviously no fanatic. He sees anyone, even pagans, as capable of the inner glow of option one. Yet Wilder’s novel gently but firmly implies that the child born in Bethlehem offers humanity the best hope of maintaining a life free from commodification. I cannot follow him there. While the priest of Apollo shows Wilder’s faith to be nuanced, The Woman of Andros still contains the notion that the cruel ancient world needed to be redeemed by the healing power of Christ. Aside from its misunderstanding of pre-Christian culture and religion, this view ignores the fact that the coming of Christianity hardly ushered in an era of peace and love. Even the softer idea offered by Wilder’s characterization of the priest of Apollo, that humanity needs some form of religious belief to helpfully codify option one, doesn’t work for me. I have known many sincere people of various religious beliefs. While plenty follow option one, quite a few follow option two. They seem to justify this by pointing to their mere belief as proof of their decency. Thus believing, they are free to mock people in pain, laugh at the misfortunes of others, relish their material success, and dismiss the pleas of those whom life has placed beneath them. It has always seemed to me that they worship a remarkably indulgent deity.
While the last section may hint at my private beliefs, I can say that I am also intimately acquainted with many secular-minded people, several of whom are politically left-wing. Some of these people have a passionate disdain for religion and frequently proclaim their sympathy for the downtrodden. Yet many of these same people, when faced with tests of compassion and mercy among their own families and friends, are content to sneer and demand to know what that person can offer them. Still, many secularists I know do the exact opposite and follow option one through thick and thin.
As someone who agrees with Wilder that option one is essential to attaining full humanity, I am confused and frightened by this novel and how it squares (and doesn’t square) with what I’ve seen of the world. Can option one be turned into a convenient system for all to follow? If there is no clear set of rules to, will option one always be elusive while option two stands stark and clear? Wilder seems to anticipate this with Chrysis’s prayer, eventually adopted by Pamphilus: “I praise all living, the bright and the dark.” Of course, this statement, like option one, leaves more questions than answers and insists on being its own reward. For many, this will always be impossible. Fair enough, I suppose. Just as long as those devotees of option two remember that the grinning Leno is never too far from shore.