12 Winters Blog

Gass’s use of enclosure & a little Shakespeare

Posted in February 2010 by Ted Morrissey on February 14, 2010

I’m carefully reading and annotating William H. Gass’s 1966 novel Omensetter’s Luck.  I’m in the process of boiling down about four chapters of my dissertation into a 30-page paper or so (an editor in England is interested in seeing it when it’s completed — I sent him the paper I’m presenting at the University of Louisville next Saturday, as my Louisville paper is a much abridged version of this one I’m working on).  But I’ve been doing a lot more work on Gass since writing my dissertation last summer, and I’ll be getting much deeper (no pun intended) into Gass’s The Tunnel and Omensetter’s, which has more intersections with The Tunnel than I’d initially realized.  Gass began working on The Tunnel essentially when Omensetter’s was published, but he’d written Omensetter’s several years before — it took him awhile to find a publisher, which he discusses in the afterword in the Penguin Classics edition.

The complex metaphor of the tunnel itself (that is, the one that the novel’s narrator, William Kohler, is digging surreptitiously in his basement) has several analogues in Omensetter’s.  For example, in the “The Love and Sorrows of Henry Pimber” section of the novel, a fox has fallen down an old well on the property that Brackett Omensetter is renting from Pimber.  Omensetter is inclined to let the fox stay in the well until it figures a way out (which is unlikely at best) or until the Ohio River floods and washes the dead fox out of the well in the spring.  Pimber, who at some level sees the fox caught in the well as himself, wants to do something about its situation immediately; he eventually returns home for his shotgun and kills the fox, also wounding himself when a ball of lead ricochets off the well’s walls and strikes him in the arm.  The fox in the well is alluded to often in the novel.  But it is just one example of enclosure or entrapment in the novel.  Graves keep showing up in the text as well, and they seem to be another manifestation of enclosure/entrapment.  For example, Reverend Jethro Furber seems obsessed with the three graves in the corners of his garden — each being the grave of one of his predecessors, and the fourth corner awaiting Furber’s own interment.

Images of falling are also prevalent in Gass’s works — perhaps more on this in another post — but now I want to mention Shakespeare and, in particular, Macbeth.  There is a significant amount of work being done on the early modern period and trauma cultures throughout England and Europe, and how that trauma was manifested in the work of all kinds of artists, including the Bard’s.  What I’ve been thinking about lately is the witches in Macbeth and the fact that they don’t seem to occupy a real, physical environment.  4.1 is a prime example.  Macbeth visits the Weird Sisters in a darkened cavern, we’re informed, but where this cavern is precisely and how Macbeth knows to go there are unstated in the text of the play.  I’m beginning to think of the witches as symbolic of Macbeth’s traumatized psyche (traumatized by his own murderous disloyalty) — this is not a new angle on the play by any means — but also, to extend this idea, I’m seeing the cavern as Macbeth’s own unconscious:  a “place” he is plumbing.  If so, then the witches’ prophecies are, in essence, prophecies to be self-fulfilled in a modern psychological context; and, in fact, it does seem that Macbeth is intent on fulfilling them:  moving himself and his army (and Lady Macbeth) to castle Dunsinane, even though the third apparition warns of his doom in connection with Dunsinane; also abandoning Dunsinane for the field of battle as the English approach, even though he’s just informed us that the castle could withstand a lengthy siege.  (My Gass-Shakespeare connection was bolstered this morning as I read the section of Omensetter’s in which Furber compares himself, at length, to Hamlet.)

There is much to ponder here, and as I continue to annotate Omensetter’s it will all be a part of my witch-like brew.

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