Monday, October 2, 2023

Novels by Atheist Women

Novels with Atheist themes by George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Patricia Highsmith

This discussion will focus on the novels by three Atheist authors, all women, that feature atheist characters vis-a-vis the societies in which they live and work. The protagonists' effects on their small societies will be interrogated. All three novels have been selected as particularly significant due to the time frames in which they took place and where they were written. 

Nineteenth-century England was a society replete with intellectual and philosophical excitement, as well as unrest. That picture of a changing world view has been excellently portrayed by George Eliot (1819-1880) in the 1871-1872 novel, Middlemarch. The waning of the old order in post World War I England has been depicted through the lives and thoughts of its characters in the novel, Mrs. Dalloway from 1925, written by Virginia Woolf (1882-1941.) The 1983 novel, People Who Knock on the Door, written by Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) is a devastating portrait of late 1970's America, which was undergoing a Fundamentalist religious revival.

All three novels depict societies in transition and stress, and although Highsmith is not as well known as the other authors, her story has been selected for its superb style, as well as for the timeliness of its subject.  Abortion is not only discussed but is carried out in her novel. As of the writing of this discussion, the Supreme Court of the United State has overturned the Roe v Wade 1973 Decision which guaranteed American women the right to legal abortion. The present Court's decision shares much of the thinking that Highsmith criticizes in her novel.

George Eliot's Middlemarch

George Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans, was brought up in a religious family, but as an adult was exposed to the company of notable intellectuals and began to doubt her religion. Her wealthy friends, Charles and Mary Bray, entertained such eminent thinkers as Herbert Spenser, Harriet Martineau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Eliot met them all.  By the time of her religious father's death in 1849, she was no longer a believer.  She translated David Strauss' Life of Jesus, Critically Examined from the German in 1846, which argued that there was no literal truth in Biblical texts. The book caused an uproar in England, and Eliot's translation was condemned by the religious community.

She also translated Ludvig Feuerbach's 1841 Essence of Christianity. Feuerbach believed that god was a human invention, and that the wonderful traits attributed to this non-existing being had been projected on it by humans.  He explained that humans had the capacity to improve themselves and others, but were reluctant and fearful to take up the daunting task. (For an expanded discussion of Feuerbach's thought and his work, please see Atheist Philosophy at Atheist By 1854,  Eliot began to live with the well known philosopher and critic, George Henry Lewes, who was married. Lewes' wife refused to give him a divorce, so Eliot and he lived together until his death in 1878.

Eliot was known as an excellent and erudite translator, novelist, philosopher and critic. The novel, Middlemarch, is an all-encompassing work of art, replete with science, religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and political and social reform as well as other important issues of the time. The story is set in a fictional English Midland town during the years of 1829-1832. The title is a reflection on the mediocrity of the town and its society that creates frustrating boundaries for the ambitions of her main characters, as well as a realistic depiction of the necessarily slow march to the future in England.

The two most important plots center on Dorothea Brooke, a young, beautiful and wealthy heiress, and Tertius Lydgate, an ambitious and progressive physician who has recently moved to Middlemarch. At the opening of Middlemarch, Dorothea is a passionate religious believer. Eliot describes her as often kneeling down by the bed of a sick laborer and praying, sometimes fasting like "a Papist" and given to sitting up all night reading theological works. Lydgate, the physician, is "fired by the possibility that he might work out proof of an anatomical conception and make a link in the chain of discovery." He "longed to demonstrate the more intimate relations of living structure and help to define men's thought more accurately after the true order . . . what was the primitive tissue?"

Dorothea lives with her wealthy uncle and sister, and meets the Reverend Edward Casaubon, a rich and scholarly pastor, who is visiting their home.  Her enthusiastic imagination is almost instantly taken up with his description of the huge scholarly work of many volumes that has consumed years of his life. Casaubon believes, and has been attempting to prove, that "all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed.”  It can be assumed that he believes that true religion or the idea of the Christian god will be revealed by his research.

Dorothea imagines herself helping the much older Casaubon in what she naively believes is a great work. She thinks to herself that "it would be like marrying Pascal." She rejects another younger suitor, Sir James Chettham, and marries Casaubon.  Not having been given a proper education by her easy going uncle, Dorothea seizes on a marriage with Casaubon to complete her desire for a meaningful life.  In reality, her husband is a dry, unimaginative man, with little passion or greatness to redeem him.  He is pleased to have attracted a beautiful young woman, but early in the courtship, he becomes aware that the engagement is not giving him as much pleasure as he had anticipated.  Their marriage is a disaster for both people.  But Casaubon is very limited in the  capacity and ability to love and to be a full human being, qualities which Dorothea has in abundance.

Lydgate, while holding better ideals and being more fully human both in ambition and in love, goes astray early in the novel.  Instead of voting for the more worthy Farebrother for chaplain of Middlemarch's new hospital, he gives way and votes for an unworthy cleric, Mr. Tyke, who is not a good man, and whose sermons are replete with cant and doctrine.  Lydgate votes for Tyke against his good friend, Farebrother, who gives good sermons and tries to help people because he wants to be in favor with Mr. Bulstrode.  Bulstrode is the head of the Middlemarch Bank and is a bullying, hypocritical and opinionated man.  His religion is narrow and ultimately turns out to be a terrible sham, covering many heinous acts.  Some people in the town refer to him as a Pharisee or an Evangelical.   Neither description is meant as a compliment.

Lydgate allows himself to be distracted from his research by the Mayor's beautiful and shallow daughter, Rosamond Vincy.  He does not heed the warning from his past, when he had briefly fallen in love with a woman who murdered her husband.  (In a sense, Rosamond kills Lydgate by encouraging him to turn from his brilliant research to making money as a physician in London.) He marries Rosamond, getting into debt and gambling to get out of his financial obligations.  He eventually becomes embroiled with Bulstrode's past and present crimes as he has borrowed money from that religious hypocrite.  Lydgate falls heavily under suspicion for being an accomplice in Bulstrode's murder of someone who was going to give away the banker's past crimes.  Rosamond and Lydgate end up having to leave Middlemarch for London.  Lydgate becomes a successful doctor there, treating rich men for gout and writing a book about gout.  He dies too early, in his fifties, and Rosamond remarries a rich doctor who likes her children.

Dorothea ultimately fares much better, but she is forced to go through a great deal of heartache and travail before coming into her own.  By the time she and Casaubon honeymoon in Rome, they are both unhappy. There is a hint of something sexually wrong in their marriage, perhaps Casaubon's impotence.  Even the great art of Rome has no attraction for her.  But she meets Casaubon's young relative.  Casaubon has been supporting him for some time.  Will Laidlaw is handsome, curly haired and very appealing.  He is also rebellious. Although they don't seem to realize it, the author lets the readers know that there is a strong, immediate attraction between Will and Dorothea. 

Will, although no great master of the German theological and biblical scholars, lets Dorothea know that Casaubon's research, so lengthy and prolonged, is out of date.  Casaubon has not availed himself of the German scholarship, which has made great breakthroughs in historical research.  Casaubon has ignored their work, and the result is that his own research has become worthless.  Before they return to England, Dorothea tries to persuade Casaubon to let her help him organize his protracted notes so that he can begin to write his book, which has been his lifetime goal.  He refuses.  There is a glimmer of understanding for the readers, as Eliot permits a glimpse into his consciousness.  Casaubon is defending  a project which he is afraid is no longer useful.  But when they return to England, he continues his irrelevant research, and accepts Dorothea as a helper.

Although Will is temporarily unmoored, he decides to stop accepting Casaubon's money and strike out on his own.  He is hired by Dorothea's uncle to write and plan a doomed political campaign.  In the meantime, Casaubon has forbidden him to visit their home any longer.  Dorothea's husband has obviously divined what Dorothea remains unaware of, or perhaps refuses to become aware of, that she and Will are not only attracted to each other, but are falling in love. 

A meeting between Dorothea and Will is an important convergence in the novel, as Dorothea discusses how far she has travelled from her younger religious enthusiasm.  She tells Will that she has her own comforting belief.  She explains:  " That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil," (In this section, Eliot does not capitalize "divine power," implying that it is human power.) Dorothea continues to insist that being against evil will help in "widening the skirts of light and making the struggle against darkness narrower."

Will answers that her belief is a "beautiful mysticism." She disagrees, saying that her religion is her life, not something that can be neatly labeled. She explains, "I have been finding out my religion since I was a little girl. I used to pray so much- now I hardly ever pray."  When she has finished describing her religion to Will, she asks him what is his religion, what is the belief that helps him the most?

He answers: "To love what is good and beautiful when I see it. But I am a rebel; I don't feel bound, as you do, to submit to what I don't like."

"But if you like what is good, that comes to the same thing," says Dorothea, smiling. Will admits that Dorothea is subtle in her reasoning.

This important exchange between the two is in the middle of the book. George Eliot is revealing, through Dorothea, her own secular religion. The thinkers of her age were very engaged with finding a touchstone of faith in the secular here and now. Darwin's explanations of natural evolution and scientists like Lyell, who refuted the Mosaic geologists' account of god's Great Flood with his naturalistic geological studies, had begun to shake the old certainties.

Eliot's age was faced with the irrefutable science that the earth and its inhabitants had come about without the decree or intervention of a supreme power.  That realization placed a great deal of responsibility on the intellectuals of the time, who had the dilemma of finding something for people, and for themselves, to believe in. Thinkers such as Comte (1798-1857) had formulated Positivism, which was a sort of secular belief system, a religion of humanity.  But then he had gone too far, and made that religion, in turn, too dogmatic.  George Eliot had gone through a long process of her own to arrive at a secular religion before she wrote Middlemarch.

Finding a belief system that no longer relied on a supernatural basis engrossed many of the best minds of England, and of the rest of Europe.  The growing rigidity of Comte's secular religion began to alienate earlier supporters, such as George Lewes, Matthew Arnold, T.H. Huxley and John Stuart Mill.  George Eliot was known to be interested in Comte's central idea, but not his later formulations.  U.C. Knoepflmacher states that Comte's central idea was not too far removed from thinkers such as Feuerbach, which would have been quite congenial to Eliot although she rejected the dogmatism of Comte's later thought.

To emphasize Eliot's and her creation, Dorothea's, secular devotion to the concept of duty, I would like to quote an author who was present at Eliot's well known visit to Cambridge in 1873. "She, (George Eliot) stirred beyond her wont and taking the three words which had so often been used as the inspiring trumpet-call of men--the words, God, Immortality, Duty... (Eliot said) how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and how absolute the third."  The writer continued that after her talk, he felt that he was gazing "on a sanctuary with no presence to hallow it, and heavens left empty of God."  But duty remained for the Victorians, and Eliot's creation, Dorothea, is bound to Casaubon and her duty to him in Middlemarch.

What Casaubon's has decided is his duty to Dorothea is abominable.  Eliot writes perceptively of his misery, and yet it is difficult to have much sympathy for him.  Dorothea works dutifully at the tasks he sets her for his "great work." He has suffered a heart attack and finally persuades Lydgate to admit to him that he may not live much longer. Casaubon dies before he is able to force a promise from Dorothea that she will not marry Will after the scholar's demise.

But the last will and testament that he has left behind turns out to be breathtaking in its pettiness and vengeance.   He has left his fortune to Dorothea, but she must forfeit it if she marries Will.  Casaubon has not only damaged her future fortune, but he has threatened her reputation as well.  Many people in mediocre Middlemarch will believe that Dorothea and Will had a prior connection, perhaps even an affair, while Dorothea was married to Casaubon.

God does not have a hand in the outcomes of any of Eliot's characters in Middlemarch.  There are many interesting subplots in this secular novel, such as the deserving success of the Garth family.  The father of this family has doing good work as his touchstone, and never mentions a higher power. The miser, Featherstone, attended by the admirable Mary Garth, who refuses to marry a parson, takes financial revenge on his pious relatives in his last will.

A very powerful subplot in Middlemarch is the unmasking of the hypocritical, religious and wealthy Bulstrode. In his youth, he had been employed by a rich and extremely religious family in one of their lesser known businesses, pawn broking and receiving stolen goods.  He had been charged by the owner's widow, to find her daughter, who had deserted her dishonest family and disappeared. Bulstrode was able to locate her, but he hid the fact and married the widow, inheriting her money. The descendant who was cheated of his rightful inheritance was Will Laidlaw, who turns down Bulstrode's offer of a large sum of money. Bulstrode offers the bribe in an attempt to cover up his crimes, which he is afraid are about to be revealed.

When Bulstrode lets Raffles die by not telling the servant who is attending the man to keep liquor (or narcotics) away from him during a severe attack, Bulstrode loses his position and reputation in Middlemarch.  Raffles knew of Bulstrode's past and had told someone else before dying. Bulstrode comes to be viewed as a dishonest man and probably a murderer. Lydgate is dragged down with him, as he was the attending physician. Although Lydgate had given the correct directions to save Raffles, he had not scrutinized the circumstances of the man's death.  He knows that the large loan he has received from Bulstrode has influenced him. 

Bulstrode is forced to leave Middlemarch with his wife, who forgives him. Eliot has thoroughly scrutinized a religious hypocrite in her novel, seeing and reporting his motives and psychology.  It is a very penetrating glimpse of self-deception and hypocrisy.

There is a nicely resolved ending. Dorothea gives up Casaubon's fortunes to marry Will. At first they live on Dorothea's seven hundred pounds a year.  But Will becomes a reformer and does well in politics.  They have children and lead a happy life together.

Many readers have asked why Eliot allows Dorothea to subsume her earlier ambitions to Will's and to become a housewife and mother.  But Dorothea has never been educated properly to be active with real consequences.  When she has Casaubon's fortune, at least two of her plans for improving conditions in the immediate and a larger area never bear any results.  She appears to have been floundering and unable to realize her goals.  Eliot has already mentioned the dearth of most women's education at that time in the early section of the novel. 

So she ends Middlemarch realistically and hopefully by writing that "...the effect of her (Dorothea's) being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”  Eliot's heroines and heroes pursue a secular life and ends and the author has faith that their ideals and work will lead to an improved and happier world.

Preface to the discussion of Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway:

To better understand the devastation of World War I and the ensuing deaths from the Spanish Flu in England, two excerpts from have been included below prior to the discussion of the novel.

"England was one of the Allied Powers, along with France and Russia.  Many more European countries became involved with the allies as the war continued.  These nations, called the Entente Allies, fought against the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria- Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.  Italy remained neutral until 1915 when it joined the Entente Allies. The United States entered the war as a co-belligerent on the side of the Entente in 1917.  The Entente Allies finally prevailed but at the horrible price of loss of human life.  The cost to the principal combatants was extremely high. Spiritualism was a response to the death, disease and waste caused by that disruptive war.

Before turning to the rise of Spiritualism in England, it is necessary to understand the devastation in that nation during and after what ironically was called "The Great War."  There are different views among historians concerning the accuracy of the many accounts of poor and irresponsible tactics by the generals and politicians on both sides of the conflict.

Suffice it to say, however, that there was definitely poor battle planning and a general lack of solicitude for the common soldiers who fought under terrible conditions in trenches. By the war's end, the Allies had lost about 16 million soldiers.  The Central Powers had about 4 million men killed.  Some of the figures mentioned in this paper have been contradicted by other sources, but the number of war dead was very high.  That fact is not in dispute.

While many young men died in combat, many others succumbed from diseases such as cholera while fighting in muddy, water-filled trenches. The terrible conditions of those trenches have been described in many histories and memoires of World War I.  Other combatants succumbed to pneumonia, their immune systems weakened by wounds.  There was an initially less deadly strain of the so-called "Spanish Flu," that killed more soldiers trapped in prison camps.

It is impossible to calculate the sickness and death caused to the civilian population of England during World War I.  The battlefield deaths were recorded, but there were no such records for the civilians other than obituaries.  The disruptions in trade caused food shortages, which resulted in disease and malnutrition in the general population.  There were more food shortages brought about by the mobilization of millions of men who had worked on farms prior to the war.  Without those workers, there was a large slowdown of food production.  People were more likely to fall ill of various diseases when they were not properly fed or cared for.

In May 1918, the pernicious "Spanish Flu" appeared in Glasgow's civilian population, and by June had spread to the citizens of London.  The most vulnerable victims of that sickness were 20 to 30 year olds.  It was less deadly for the old and for children, who are generally the ones likely to succumb to most types of influenza. By the time the sickness had waned around 1919, about 230,000 British citizens had died from the flu or its complications. Worldwide, the Spanish Flu killed somewhere between 40 million to a 100 million people.

Britain was devastated by the Great War and its aftermath.  Death after death seemed to come in an unending succession.  But death was not the only toll on the former soldiers and their families.  Many soldiers who had survived the war came home alive, but often with scarring and missing limbs.  Others had come down with "shell shock" or what we now call "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."  Nervous symptoms often rendered the victims unable to work, which made them incapable of supporting themselves and their families.

The terrible war years and their aftermath saw increasing resentment against the Church of England. At the outset of the war, the Church had pressed for aggressive military action.  Many additionally resented the Church for its role in recruiting soldiers.  Traditional religion was held in less respect than it had ever been.  But while the power of the traditional religions began to wane, people still wanted to be given hope for an afterlife.  They did not want to accept that they would never see their lost loved ones again.  Niche religions began to seem attractive and many people drifted over to them."

For a more thorough discussion of the topic, please see World War One and The Rise of Spiritualism at

Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf (1852-1941) was the second child of the second marriage of Leslie Stephens and Julia Duckworth. Stephens was a noted English historian, biographer, literary critic and intellectual. Julia Duckworth was a pre-Raphaelite model and philanthropist.  She was a favorite model for her aunt, the celebrated photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. Many members of both families were agnostics and intellectuals.

The death of her mother and a sister when Woolf was still a young person was devastating to her, and she began to have episodes of mental instability and possible insanity.  Her condition was not ever properly diagnosed. She and her artist sister, Vanessa Bell, became part of the famous English Bloomsbury Group when they came of age. Virginia and her husband, Leonard Woolf, were leading members of Bloomsbury. This well known and much written about gathering of writers, philosophers, intellectuals and artists was made up of members such as the novelist, E.M. Forster, Roger Fry, the art critic, the poet, Rupert Brooke and the famous economist, Maynard Keynes. Lytton Strachey was a leading member as well.  His book, Eminent Victorians (1918) often mocked and repudiated the Victorian Age, which had preceded Bloomsbury. The members of Bloomsbury believed that World War I had put an end to the Victorian period in England. Many intellectuals in the group were atheists and most had been very influenced by G.E. Moore's 1903 Principia Ethica, which emphasized the importance of personal relationships and the private life, as well as prioritizing aesthetic appreciation, "art for art's sake."  Virginia and Leonard Woolf founded and operated the Hogarth Press, which published serious works, such as Freud's writing, and also Virginia's Mrs. Dalloway.

With the darkening mood which accompanied the beginning of World War II, Virginia Woolf's instability returned and she committed suicide in 1941. Her works continue to inspire feminists in the present day.  She is considered one of the foremost literary figures of the 20th Century and beyond.

Mrs. Dalloway takes place during an entire day and evening in 1923 London. Woolf was a modern author, who experimented with new styles such as "stream of consciousness." This style is sometimes called "free indirect discourse.” In "Dalloway," the different aspects of the main characters can be experienced through their interior thoughts and speech patterns. The judgmental, all-powerful author of former years seems to disappear, seeming to lose control of her creations. In "Dalloway," the reader follows three characters during the day, Clarissa Dalloway, her former suitor, Peter Walsh, and a shell-shocked veteran of World War I, Septimus Warren Smith, who is in London with his Italian wife, for diagnosis and treatment of his condition. The reader is given access to the three characters thoughts, speech patterns, and the flow of their minds, which move from the present time to their past experiences and also to their musings about the future. There is some access to the thoughts of many minor characters as well, but they are generally limited.

For the purposes of this book review of Mrs. Dalloway, with reference to its atheist stance, there will be a focus on moments of each of the major characters' display of atheism, thinking about atheism or religion, and accepting non-belief or embracing religious belief.

The shifting plot begins with Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway leaving her fashionable and expensive house early in the morning to buy flowers for her party that evening. She is the wealthy wife of a prominent civil servant, Richard Dalloway.  She is spoiled, charming and sometimes appears shallow and frivolous.  Clarissa has been very ill from the Spanish Flu, and there is a suggestion that there is something wrong with her heart.  This is an excellent metaphor for the general condition of her mood and present life. She is described as having her complexion become "quite white" since her illness.

Clarissa and her husband no longer occupy the same bedroom.  She has been sleeping in an attic room with a narrow bed, in an almost nun-like atmosphere.  She and her husband believe, or wish to believe, that this sleeping arrangement is for her health.  Yet Clarissa is very often associated with life-giving fertility symbols, such as flowers and water.  She wears a green dress to her party.

During the day, her thoughts flow freely to her past youth spent at a country house, her present life and concerns, and a future which contains some worry for her daughter, Elizabeth.  She is visited by her former suitor, Peter Walsh, who has been gone for years in India, as a British civil servant.  Peter has returned to England and visits Clarissa before her party.  He tells her that he is in love with a married woman in India and has come to England to try to obtain a divorce for his lover.

He is also seeking some sort of employment to supplement his pension now that he will have a wife, and possibly her children, to support.  Although he has always been rebellious and has disliked the upper British establishment, he has never broken away from it, and now turns to it to find him a suitable job. The establishment will try to help him, because he is still part of their class. 

The story line will follow his musings during this day, especially during his long walk after visiting Clarissa. He will go through Regent's Park before returning to his hotel and his musings will give the reader a glimpse of the failed love affair between Peter and Clarissa in their youth and some of the reasons for its failure.  Readers will also see his hopes for more income and his hazy view of the future with a new wife. 

Septimus Warren Smith is the third most important character in Mrs. Dalloway.  He is suffering from post traumatic stress (then termed "shell shock") stemming from his horrifying experiences as a soldier in World War I.  Probably to survive the horror, he had turned off his emotions, and felt nothing, even when his close friend, Evans, was blown up in front of him.  He was decorated as having served with honor, and is valued by his business firm as an excellent employee in his present life.  He has even been composing poetry. But several years after the war's ending, he has become very unstable and suicidal.  He can no longer work or write.

He and his Italian wife are waiting in the park for the correct time for Septimus' appointment with a well known psychiatrist.  Lucrezia, his Italian wife, is a hat maker.  She does not understand his condition in the least but loves him and is determined to get him help. The reader is sometimes given entry to Lucrezia's thoughts, but it is the disordered thinking of Septimus that is prominent and one is able to see how confused his mind has become.

Virginia Woolf made clear when she wrote about Mrs. Dalloway, that her creation, Septimus, is a counterpart to Clarissa Dalloway.  They share many interior doubts and stresses.  Septimus will succumb to suicide during the course of the day, but Clarissa remains attached to reality and life.  The help and solidity of her husband has helped her, but Lucrezia, Septimus' wife, is unable to prevent his self murder despite for great love for him.

The novel contrasts the fleeting thoughts of its protagonists and some minor characters, with the outer bourgeois solidity of London- its cars, its Parliament, its buildings, its shops, jewelry, airplanes and so on.  It seems that the death and misery of the Great War and the "Spanish Flu" of a few years earlier has been forgotten, but there are frequent reminders in the novel of the war's trauma and the end of the certainties of god and country that permeated the earlier Victorian era. Most importantly the thoughts of Septimus remind the readers of the horror that many endured during the war.

When a car backfires in the street outside the flower shop where Clarissa is purchasing flowers for her party, both she and the shop lady are quite startled.  It is obvious that they have not forgotten the bombing of London by the Germans a few year earlier.  The car belongs to the Prime Minister of England, who will appear at Clarissa's party that evening.  Noises like the car backfiring frequently remind Septimus of the death of his friend, Evans, and during such episodes he believes he sees Evans and then tries to warn him about the bomb that will cause the man's death.

The bystanders in the expensive London shopping area are enthralled by the sight of the Prime Minister's automobile.  They are reminded of England's greatness when the car passes by.  But the Prime Minister is not really seen; he seems immersed in the interior of the auto. The incident is really a non appearance, which is symbolic. 

The conservative Prime Minister will be defeated in the next election and the Labor Party will take over government power.  Richard Dalloway is preparing for his retirement after the election; and he is planning to write a history of a famous English family when he is no longer in the government.  Woolf's readers would have been aware of the ascendancy of the Labor Party and the new dispensation of English politics.

Another strange phenomenon takes place at this time over different areas of London.  A sky-writing airplane flies over the people in the streets.  Here is Valentine Cunningham on the sky-writing incident: "Language is dying as we and the Londoners look vainly on BLAXO? KREEMO? TOFFEE? What word is the plane writing? Nobody will ever know." There is also a shift from a plane being an instrument of death in the late war to a plane now in service to capitalism.  But the new message is incoherent and serves merely as a sign of the shifting new world that has lost all certainty, even that of words.

The reader is given a glimpse of Clarissa's thoughts on death as she walks along the street. "Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking toward Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely."  Clarissa is not a believer, and does not entertain fictions about an afterlife.

Later, Clarissa thinks about William Shakespeare's play, "Cymbeline," and specifically a dirge in the play that begins with: "Fear not the heat of the sun..." The dirge, sung over the bodies of two men believed to be dead, ends with the line that all people "...must come to dust."

Clarissa continues to have some emotional responses to the "old devotions" of her upper class education.  But Woolf is clear that Clarissa is not a believer in a deity. The reader is made privy to Clarissa's thoughts: "Not for a moment did she believe in God." Instead she "... feels the secret deposit of exquisite moments."  Those moments are all of life's natural happenings, never from any supernatural events. They are the sights and sounds of daily life,  "...cats, canaries, gay sounds and lights, and her husband."

Clarissa then remembers how she felt a spiritual revelation, as well as a physical one, when she was kissed by Sally Seton, her young girlfriend.  This kiss happened in Clarissa's youth.  She remembers "...the radiance, the burnt through, the revelation, the religious feeling!" Clarissa has never felt that passion again in her life.  Septimus also experiences feelings of burning during the day's course, but they are usually frightening and horrifying.

When Peter Walsh visits Clarissa in her home that day, he cannot give up an old habit, pulling out a large pen knife and fiddling with its half open blade.  He has played with a knife since his youth.  This rather compulsive act is symbolic of his ineffectual defense against society. It also reflects his rebellion against the old Victorian order, but it is not a heroic stance in any sense of the word.  His defiance has been reduced to this diminished fondling of a phallic symbol.

Clarissa is sewing a rip in her green party dress when Peter comes in and she brandishes  her sewing scissors in an unconscious act of defense against him. These small defenses on the part of the two former lovers are a sad commentary on the young passion they shared and that has become so embedded in their memories.

After he leaves Clarissa, Peter walks to his hotel through Regent's Park, where Septimus and his wife are waiting for the correct time to go to his psychiatrist appointment. During the times that Clarissa,  Peter and Septimus walk through the streets of London and in the park, time is being publicly and loudly kept by Big Ben, and its striking often signals a move from one character's consciousness to another's.

Peter is still smarting from Clarissa's rejection of him in the past, as well as her conventionality.  But then he recalls that Clarissa is one of the most thorough going skeptics he ever met- "...long thinking about her being against the gods."  He remembers, "... how later, she, (Clarissa, after her sister's death) thought there were no gods; no one was to blame; so she evolved this atheist's religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.”

Clarissa, through the thoughts of Peter, is revealed to be stronger than Peter, who can neither accept the society he moves through or leave behind him its dying belief system.  He has also revealed several times that he is more than inclined to be helped to find employment in London to supplement his pension, calling on the English upper classes to help him and counting on his class affinity with them to do so.

Peter is moved by the young, uniformed boys who are laying a wreath on the Cenotaph, the empty tomb, which is a tribute to the "Glorious Dead" of World War I.  There is a symbolic reference here to Christ's empty tomb. But there is no resurrection nor is there glory for the war dead, who suffered cholera, mud and other indignities before dying in the war. There is no resurrection, either, just as there was no resurrection for Jesus.  Such tales are all myths.  Peter is once again taken in.

Along the way, Peter encounters the statue of General Charles George Gordon in Trafalgar Square. He does not see past the hypocrisy of Gordon who preached compassion but was brutal to colonized people. The other British statues in the Square are also of so-called heroes who oppressed people in other countries for British gain.  Peter is shown by his own thoughts and reactions to still be a prisoner of the old Victorian and Imperial Empire.  His rebellion is a sham.

Septimus Warren Smith, Clarissa's counterpart, also is unable to rise above his perception of much of the horror of the world. He is at first unable to feel any real emotion and this condition persists for some years. He reads books with serious metaphysical questions and some terrifying descriptions, such as Dante's "Inferno" and the works of the Greek tragedian, Aeschylus. Septimus comes to believe that beneath the surface of such texts and other readings, there is a secret message that reveals "the horror," "the hatred," and "loathing" of the world.

He believes that Shakespeare, like himself, loathes the act of copulation between men and women.  There is a hint here, of a same-sex passion or love that Septimus might have had for his dead friend, Evans, and that is the reason why he believes he "sees" Evans in the present time.  His thinking is too complex and confused, however, to come to any correct conclusions about it.

There is an interesting and ironic scene when Peter Walsh passes Septimus and Lucrezia in the Park, and Septimus mistakes him for Evans. It seems to be a commentary on Peter's lack of living in the truth and becoming "dead." Peter continues along his way, mistakenly believing the most conventional thing possible- that Septimus and Lucrezia are having a lovers' quarrel.

Clarissa shares some of Septimus' horror of the brutality of life.  We hear her thoughts, that "...It rasped her, to have stirring about in her this monster." She, too, feels she sometimes stands drenched in fire. But she remains moored to reality.  She is able to separate her thoughts and feelings from the objects outside herself.  She does not, when she hears "Big Ben," the clock,  believe that it is speaking to her. Septimus does.  Clarissa feels the effect of the ordinary sights and sounds of living, but she understands that they are separate and are not communicating with her.  Septimus often believes that those sights and sounds are sending messages to him.

Septimus's mind has become entwined with ordinary reality.  At times, he believes that his personal response to objects belonging to the real world is correct and real.  He cannot distinguish between himself and external objects.  Woolf says that: "...the world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flame." He hears birds in the park singing to him in ancient Greek. There are moments when he believes in god and in eternal life as he becomes interconnected with external reality.

Septimus is lost and the "the priest of health" that he goes to, wants to send him to a rest home in the country, away from his wife.  Septimus and Lucrezia naively talk about Septimus' suicidal impulses. This confession allows society, represented by Dr. Bradshaw, to compel Septimus to be confined by law. Bradshaw tells the couple that in the rest home, Septimus will gain a sense of "Proportion."

"Proportion" is Bradshaw's god.  What the doctor means by proportion, of course, is a conventional response to all the difficulties of living.  People who have not been taken into control by practitioners like Bradshaw experience the grief and joy of life.   Bradshaw will deaden those responses for those forced to undergo his regime of "proportion."

As though "proportion" is not enough to enervate humans,  Bradshaw  and his ilk also worship the goddess of Conversion, religious conversion, of course.  Woolf says that ". . . conversion feasts on the wills of the weakly.  Conversion stands on a tub at Hyde Park Corner and . . . walks penitentially disguised as Brotherly Love through factories and parliaments; offers help, but desires power." Lucrezia Smith knows this. But she is powerless against the law and religion, as well as the hateful love of proportion and conversion.

Bradshaw will kill all the joy of life for anyone undergoing his regime.  Septimus knows this too well, and he chooses death instead.  In the same way he flung himself into battle in the war, he flings himself ". . . vigorously, violently down into Mrs. Dilmer's area railings."  As Peter Walsh  nears his hotel, he hears the siren of the ambulance coming to pick up Septimus, who dies on the way to the hospital.  Peter ironically thinks about such conveniences as ambulances as "one of the triumphs of civilization."

The story returns to Clarissa's home. Her husband, Richard, has bought flowers for Clarissa and returns home to be with her before her party.  Clarissa retires to her bedroom for her afternoon rest, but is disturbed when her daughter, Elizabeth, comes upstairs to find her forgotten gloves.  Clarissa goes downstairs to confront the religious history tutor of her daughter, Kilman.

This woman has been fired from her teaching job for her defense of Germans  (she is of German origin) and some of the pernicious German ideas that helped bring on World War I.   We sense that her thinking is distorted and power loving.  She has become very poor and  when Richard Dalloway meets her, he takes pity on her and hires her as Elizabeth's tutor.

But Miss Kilman has become worse by undergoing her dire experiences.  She has been converted by a fundamentalist minister, Reverend Whittaker. In the course of tutoring Elizabeth, she has gained influence over the young woman.  Some critics believe Elizabeth will be converted but the text does not agree with them.  Kilman detests and envies Clarissa, because Clarissa is rich, idle and luxurious.  She believes all women who are like Clarissa should be put to work.  Clarissa, too, detests Miss Kilman, for her lack of joy, for her ugly mackintosh, for trying to take Elizabeth from her.  Suddenly, seeing Kilman as the pathetic woman she is, in her shabby green mackintosh, Clarissa laughs. She is laughing at herself and at Kilman, because she realizes her hate is misplaced.  Kilman detests Clarissa all the more for "laughing at her."

When Elizabeth and Kilman leave to go shopping, Clarissa thinks: "Love and Religion. How detestable they are!" She thinks, seeing religious people as "clammy, hot, domineering, hypocritical, eavesdropping, jealous, infinitely cruel, and unscrupulously dressed like Kilman on the landing." Had she (Clarissa) ever tried to convert anyone herself? Did she not wish everybody to merely be themselves?"

Suddenly Clarissa sees the old woman across the way making her slow climb by herself up the stairs of her home.  She feels relieved by the neighbor's act of independence.  She thinks: "There is something solemn in that independent act, but love and religion would destroy that, whatever it was, the privacy of the soul. The odious Kilman would destroy it."

Those who think Elizabeth will be converted by Kilman are very wrong.  Because Woolf has included a definitive scene when Kilman and Elizabeth are done shopping and stop for some tea.  Kilman has done some good for Elizabeth in the past, making her aware of the poor.  But she has gone too far with the young woman, taking her to meetings about the Germans (political intrigue?), giving her books that Elizabeth doesn't read,  probably finding them boring, and taking her to tea with a boring minister.

Elizabeth doesn't finish her tea with Miss Kilman.  She leaves early, eager to attend her mother's party that evening.  She deserts Kilman, who is wolfing down tea and eclairs.  Her desertion leaves Kilman in agony.  Elizabeth takes no thought of Kilman at all while riding around London on the omnibus, contemplating her future.  She thinks of various careers, but is also realistic, knowing that she is somewhat lazy.  Mrs. Dalloway has triumphed. Elizabeth will not be converted.

Clarissa's party becomes a success.  Everything in the novel that happens all day converges at the party in some way. Guests arrive from Clarissa's past.  Sally Seton crashes the party because she is in town and has heard about it.  She has married a wealthy manufacturer and is now a titled lady, with five sons.  All her rebellion and beauty are gone.  The kiss she and Clarissa shared so many years before is now only a memory.  Peter Walsh has arrived as well, looking for a favor from Richard Dalloway in finding him employment.  But Peter also wants to see Clarissa.  He finds her false, conventional, and irritating, not living up to her early potential.  He is armed, as always, with his penknife, fingering the blade. Even the Prime Minister arrives at the party.

It has been noted that Clarissa's party appears to be the temporary resurrection of the out-dated ghosts of pre-war England. One has a sense that they will all die again when they leave the party.

Just as Clarissa becomes sure that her party is a success, Dr. Bradshaw and his wife arrive.  They apologize for being late, but Bradshaw announces that he was delayed because a "young man has killed himself."  This young man, of course, is Septimus, who escaped Bradshaw and all he stood for when he committed suicide.

For a moment, Clarissa seems selfish, because she thinks that "in the midst of her party, Death has arrived." But she leaves the crowded area, and goes into a vacant room by herself. She wishes to be alone.  She reflects that Septimus has killed himself because of the fear of men like Bradshaw.  (Neither Richard or Clarissa like Bradshaw.) She understands that Septimus has fled from the corruption and debasement of life that she often feels as well.

 She reflects on the terror, the fear of taking up life. But that is what she has done, what she has chosen. She feels close to Septimus, but she sides with life. Peter feels her luminous presence, despite his criticisms of her, as she comes to join him and Sally, the friends of her youth.  The last words of the novel are from Peter: "What is this terror? what is this ecstasy" he thought to himself. What is it that fills me with extraordinary excitement?

It is Clarissa, he said.

For there she was.

Patricia Highsmith's People Who Knock on the Door

Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) was an atheist. She was, and remains, a well known author of psychological mysteries and other works.  She is best known for her Ripley novels. Her main character, Tom Ripley, called The Talented Mr. Ripley in the first book of the series, is a cultured amateur painter and rich villa owner who achieves his goals through murder.  Her lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, was written under the pseudonym, Claire Morgan, and published in 1952.  As with many of her novels, it was made into a successful film and remains in print under her own name in the present day.

There were two Tom Ripley movies made about her anti-hero that were quite successful. Alfred Hitchcock made the excellent Strangers on a Train in 1951, which was based on Highsmith's novel with the same title. There have been over 15 movie adaptations of Highsmith's novels and more are being planned. Many of her works remain in print and are still popular.

An unusual novel came from her pen in 1983. As a lifelong atheist, she was negatively inspired by the rise of the Moral Majority and the ascendancy of Fundamentalist Christianity in the United States in the 1970's.  While living in France, Highsmith watched television programs that made her acquainted with fundamentalist ideas and preachers.

She visited the United States, which was her native country, in 1981 to gather material for the novel, People Who Knock on the Door, which pours scorn on proselytizing Christians in the United States.  Her book is a devastating picture of an average American family whose father embraces fundamentalism with tragic results.  She returned for more research on her book in 1982, spending the majority of her time in Bloomington, Indiana. Apparently the city in her novel, Chalmerston, was somewhat based on the city of Bloomington.

Highsmith lived the majority of her adult life as an American expatriate, but her picture of American Fundamentalism is so accurate as to make it seem as if the author had spent years living in the United States.

Her description of the travails of her main character, Arthur Alderman, who is not a believer, have the ring of truth.  The fundamentalist fervor against the choice of a young girl to terminate her pregnancy with an abortion is shockingly similar to the furor over abortion in present day America.

As of the writing of this essay, the American Supreme Court has overturned Roe vs. Wade in 2022, which had given women the legal right to end unwanted or dangerous pregnancies for some 50 years.  This decision has created a furor in the United States, particularly from Americans who embrace scientific inquiry, intellectual and sexual freedom, and the right of a woman to make her own decisions about her body. Highsmith was bitterly opposed to the Fundamentalist agenda and she turned her disagreement and dislike of that creed into a superb work of art.  Her Humanist stance is apparent on nearly every page of "People Who Knock on the Door." Her portrait of Christian Fundamentalist hypocrisy, meddling in people's private affairs, hatred of people who do not share its beliefs and its embrace of nonsensical "facts" rather than science and research is exact.  The Fundamentalist agenda and its ability to disrupt people's lives in the name of sanctity and morality remains eerily prescient in the present day.

People Who Knock on the Door is a book that insists on the ability of people who love science and tolerance to take charge of their existence and break free of the attempts on the part of religious bullies to hinder them from leading happy and complete lives.  Highsmith desires that people will reject the ignorance, hypocrisy and ill will of religious believers.

Highsmith is another fine woman author who is an atheist.  As did Eliot and Woolf, she is interrogating the problem of misplaced religious fervor.  In this book, she is criticizing the fundamentalist zeal in 1970's America.  She may as well be writing in the present era, which has seen an open attempted religious and political takeover of the United States by the Religious Right and corrupt politicians.

The novels of George Eliot and Virginia Woolf depicted the changes and social ferment taking place in Victorian England and post World War I London.  The novel being discussed in this part of the paper, "People Who Knock on the Door," centers on late 20th Century American conflicts of value, which are still being fought in the present day.  Highsmith's book depicts an alternative and more humane and happier approach to life rather than the narrow, hypocritical existence that Fundamentalist Religion is attempting to force on American families.

People Who Knock on the Door is a coming of age story, as well as a polemic against Christian Fundamentalism. There is only one principal character, Arthur Alderman.  Arthur is finishing his senior high school year in the small town of Chalmerston.  He is an excellent student in most of his classes, but particularly in biology and science, in which he excels.

His father, Richard, sells insurance and retirement packages and seems to make an adequate income for a comfortable middle class life.  He has not excelled at business however. The mother of the family, Lois, volunteers at a local children's charity/medical center. Arthur's one sibling is the 14 year old, Robbie,  who seems to be in emotional difficulty.  From early childhood he has been given to frightening emotional rages over trivial happenings.  Until recently he has also been afraid of the dark, believing in the existence of ghosts.  He and Arthur have never been close siblings.  There is also his Grandmother, who has a dance school in another state, but visits often.  Arthur feels supported and loved by her.

When Robbie becomes ill with a serious infection but recovers,  the father, Richard, becomes very religious.  He believes that prayers have saved his younger son. Until this crisis, he had been conventionally religious, attending a Fundamentalist Church more for appearances' sake, in order to have a reputation for being god-fearing.  He has not shown any particular religious conviction before.

But now Richard insists that the entire family attend church every Sunday.  Arthur, by contrast with his father, believes "Robbie" has been saved by receiving hospital care and oxygen rather than by a religious intervention. He begins to run into difficulty with his "reborn" father as his part time work is often scheduled on Sunday.  His father insists that he work and also attend church.  It is clear the man is becoming unreasonable and tyrannical. Soon Christian magazines appear all over their home.  Their content frequently criticizes abortion, evolutionary ideas, science in general and emphasizes what Arthur considers foolish religious mistakes.  He is disgusted by their ignorant content as his reading consists of books of science and philosophy. 

Arthur's problems with his father increase, and Richard hints that he may not pay for Arthur's college tuition at Columbia University.  Arthur has graduated from high school with straight A's, and hoping to please his father, also works part time.  Neither Arthur nor his girlfriend, Maggie, are believers.  They agree that neither of them believes Christ personally answers prayers.

Arthur begins to receive less and less support from his home.  He turns to his Grandmother, an elderly neighbor, and the owner of the shoe store where he has found summer work.  All these kind and intelligent people think well of him.  Arthur is a fine person, with only a few flaws which can be expected of such a young man.  He seems to be able to deal psychologically with a father who is becoming stranger and more hostile each day.

His brother, Robbie, begins to spend time with a group of older men with whom he is learning to fish.  He starts to drown worms for them for their fishing hooks.  Two of that men's group belong to the same Fundamentalist Church Arthur's family attends. Robbie does not seem to be doing well emotionally.  He is uncomfortable with girls. He has taken on his father's religiosity with fervor. Richard appears to favor this troubled son over Arthur. Robbie accuses Arthur of being sorry when Robbie recovered from his infection. He repeats their father's claim that god has touched him. Since Robbie is nearly 15 years old, he now begins to attend adult church services.

Arthur has begun dating a girl from school, Maggie, who becomes pregnant when they have sex without protection. Her family is more liberal than Arthur's.  Her father tells them that when he had some difficulty with alcohol some years earlier, he had recovered on his own. He turned away "people who knock on the door" and other religious help.  Both of Maggie's parents are supportive of her desire to get an abortion.  Arthur finds a doctor for her and she proceeds to make arrangements at the local hospital to have the procedure.

During this tense family time, Robbie seems to become stranger.  When he accidently breaks a vase, he goes into a worrying rage, getting red in the face and behaving irrationally.  The father, Richard, seems to be in an odd situation as well.  He talks about counseling a young person in spiritual distress.  Who the young person is will be revealed during the course of the novel.  It does not put Richard in a better light.  He has also decided to drop two of his well paying clients, because he does not find them religious enough.  He has decided to tell them to find someone else to help manage their investments.

The minister at their church has discovered that Maggie is pregnant because of town gossip and lets Richard know about the situation.  This fanatical father becomes even more aggressive when he learns of the pregnancy Arthur has participated in.  He attempts to talk Maggie out of having an abortion.  He claims he wants to take care of the baby.  He prays the young people will not consent to commit the sin of abortion.

Despite being ignored, Richard continues to pray and makes calls to the hospital where Maggie is staying prior to her abortion.  Her parents have the hospital block his overbearing calls, so he then sends Maggie and her family a barrage of telegrams.

Arthur's mother, Lois, seems wrapped up in her volunteer work and is a little out of touch with the family crisis.  She cooks and sews and tries to make peace between her husband and son, Arthur.  This will be her stance throughout the novel until the end. She does become very unhappy when a pregnant young girl at the medical center where she volunteers does not have the money for an abortion and commits suicide.  So Lois does not seem to share Richard's views that abortion is a sin.

Richard's church friend, Eddie Howell, drops by and increases the family tension. He is very aggressive when he speaks about "preserving life."  He claims that abortion is a major sin.  When Arthur leaves the room to go to bed, he finds religious pamphlets on the bed that contain long passages about the dangers of abortion. The zealotry of Richard's church connections has begun to be intolerable.

Maggie has the abortion and her physical condition is excellent.  But Richard will not finance Arthur's Columbia education.  Their generous grandmother is afraid to disrupt the family even more by giving Arthur any money.  Richard is her son-in-law and she is torn about what course to take with the university situation.

The parents leave for a short vacation and events take an bizarre turn while they are gone.  Irene, a young woman, comes to the Alderman home, looking for Richard.  She claims that Richard has helped her spiritually a great deal and she insists on trying to get in touch with him. She also attempts to get Arthur to "repent."  She seems odd and somewhat "off."  Robbie knows her and tells Arthur that she was practically a prostitute a while ago.  Presumably the church and Richard's "counseling" have led her to redemption.  After leaving, she continues to call on the telephone, trying to reach Richard.

When the family returns home, Arthur is coerced to go to church with them once again.  The sermon is about woman's place being in the home and against freedom for women.  Irene pursues Richard after church.  Arthur learns she was a prostitute on drugs very recently and now works as a waitress at a local diner.  Arthur begins to sense something wrong about the entire situation.

Maggie is at Radcliffe College and can't come home for the holidays because she has come down with chickenpox. Robbie continues getting odder.  He does not want to go to a costume party with a girl.  He is happiest with his older friends, who now are shooting animals.  He uses their guns to shoot and brings home a dead rabbit.

Richard oddly insists that Irene and her morbidly obese sister come to their home to celebrate Christmas.  As always, Lois yields to her husband's wishes.  During their visit, Irene talks about how Arthur has been sinning.  The dinner is a disaster and Lois does finally say later that the two young women are ill bred.

Later that month, Robbie frantically tries to get into the family house without a key because he has been in a fight with another boy and is bleeding copiously through his nose. He bursts in on Maggie and Arthur and lets Richard know that the couple is probably having sex.  Richard tells Arthur he must leave home for good.  Maggie's family takes Arthur in until he makes college arrangements and he tries to help out at their house.

Arthur's mother and grandmother decide to help him out with his college dorm and tuition fees, but he still must go to the local college and not Columbia.

In the aggressive way fundamentalists often have, Eddie Howell actually visits Maggie's home to try to get Arthur to attend church.  He is with Robbie.  Eddie gives many long exhortations, filled with misogyny and Christian forgiveness and threats.  Arthur is furious at this ridiculous, intrusive visit, but Maggie and her mother merely laugh at Eddie's boring behavior and beliefs.   In the meantime, Robbie has joined Richard in knocking on people's doors and trying to convert them to their version of Christianity. One thinks that they are probably unsuccessful most of the time.

Arthur and Maggie temporarily break up and begin to see other people.  Arthur is feeling very unhappy at this time because of his family difficulties and being forced going attend an inferior college. The loss of Maggie is very hard for him, particularly when nothing else in his life seems to be going well. Fundamentalist religion has been the instrument of his problems with his father, but Arthur is strong enough to refuse to become a Christian, especially the kind of Christian his father desires him to be.  Arthur remains dedicated to science and wants to spend his life teaching and researching science.  The reader knows he will pursue his course as he is sure of what he thinks is the correct way to live life.

When Arthur finally visits his family, he learns Irene is pregnant.  Robbie seems alert and watchful as the news of Irene is discussed. She does not plan to have an abortion, however.  She is planning on keeping the baby.  The church is encouraging Irene in her plan, as might be expected.  No one knows who the father is.  The family is quietly upset with the news.  At this point, readers will likely begin to have suspicions.  The family in the novel will become suspicious as well.

When Arthur goes to the diner where Irene works, she tells him that her baby is his father, Richard's, child.  Arthur returns to his family's home and talks to his mother.   Lois tells him she doesn't know if the story is true or not.  Richard has admitted to her that it is possible he is the baby's father.  He has slept with Irene once or twice,  he claims.   One wonders if once or twice is true, or if an affair was being carried on by the couple during the Christian "counseling" sessions.

After Arthur has gone back to his own living quarters, his mother calls him to come home immediately.  He hears shots as he drives up to the family home.   There are two shots from inside the house.  When Arthur goes inside, he finds his father dead .  Robbie has killed him and then gone to his room.  Arthur follows him and takes the gun away.  Robbie tells Arthur that Richard deserved to be killed because of Irene.  The police arrive and arrest Robbie.  Lois has seen him shoot her husband.

Eddie Howell shows up to visit Richard, and the family tells him that Richard has been killed. They also tell him that he is partly to blame because of his interference in their life.  Arthur tells him to "get the hell out."  The minister calls the next day, but Lois has already returned to her volunteer work.

Lois and Arthur tell the Grandmother that Robbie must go into a juvenile home because he is a minor.  Neither Robbie nor Arthur go to Richard's funeral.  Arthur has a very important exam and chooses to take it instead of being there when his father is buried.  He learns afterward that Irene has attended the funeral.

Robbie tells Arthur that their father had confessed to him about his affair with Irene.  He has learned to believe the Fundamentalist cant that sex outside of marriage is a sin. The emotional problems that he had been suffering have obviously been intensified by the religious beliefs and hypocrisy to which he has been exposed. 

The Fundamentalist Religion has been very much to blame for most of the problems in the Alderman family.  As expected, the minister visits the family again.  He insists that Irene will not have an abortion.  He claims the church will help her with the baby.

Robbie is admitted to a juvenile home for a six month sentence.  He will be reevaluated at that time.  His initial evaluation has been very poor and he has already gotten into a fight with another inmate.  He tells Arthur he never wants to go back to the family home, and talks vaguely about joining the marines when his time is up in juvenile detention.  

The story ends happily, with Arthur being admitted into Columbia.  There has been a nice amount of money from Richard's insurance and his Grandmother promises to help with Arthur's finances as well.  He and Maggie also get back together, but since they are both at different schools, their future is open-ended.  A pall seems to have lifted with the departure of Robbie, the death of Richard and the end of the church tyranny.

In the meantime, Irene's baby has been born and she wants Arthur's mother to see it, but Lois refuses.  Arthur talks his mother into moving to a different state.  Since Lois has already learned more typing and business skills, she can become gainfully employed.  One senses that a new environment will help both Lois and Arthur to get on with their lives.

At the book's end, Lois tells Arthur that she was out shopping and saw Lois, her sister and the new baby girl in a baby carriage strolling down the street. They did not see her. One can easily and sadly imagine the outcome for the poor child--she will be raised in an dysfunctional home and will attend a church that has nothing but negative and forbidding messages for its members.

Arthur has been very fortunate to avoid having had his life ruined by his unwilling contact with the Fundamentalist minister and the parishioners. What is left of his family, he, his mother and Grandmother, will be able to go into the future without living under the fundamentalist cloud of anger, hypocrisy, lies and ignorance that had threatened to overwhelm them.

Highsmith's novel has been very effective in exposing all the errors and wickedness of Fundamentalist religion. We are faced once again in our era by its resurgence in the United States. Let us fight them politically to ensure a humanist outcome for our nation. When it gains ascendancy, Fundamentalism poisons and ruins lives.  It is a religion of anger, hate, hypocrisy and negation. We must never let it control our democratic nation. We must keep our children's and our nation's future free, life loving and embracing humanist secular values. The fight is never over, but no matter how many times Fundamentalism gains strength, people of good will, of intelligence and of loving life will defeat them. It is a good fight and I hope all intelligent people will join it.

Primary Texts

Eliot, George. Middlemarch, Ed. Bert G. Hornback. 2nd Ed. New York, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc. 2000.

Highsmith, Patricia. People Who Knock On The Door. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1983.

Woolf, Virginia. The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway. Ed. Merve Emre. New York and London: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2021.


Billington, Josie. The Connell Guide to George Eliot's Middlemarch. Chippenham, Wiltshire. SN15 2 PR: The Connell Guides, 2012.

Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life.  Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, Inc. 2005.

Coles, Robert. Irony in the Mind's Life: Essays on Novels by James Agee, Elizabeth Bowen, and George Eliot. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia, 1974.

Cunningham, Valentine. (Introduction). Mrs. Dalloway, New York: Vintage Classics, 2004.

Fleishman, Avrom.  Virginia Woolf: A Critical Interpretation.  Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins Press, 1975.

Froula, Christine.  Virginia Woolf and The Bloomsbury Avant-Garde.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Gordon, Lyndall.  Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed The World.

Hardy, Barbara, Ed. Middlemarch: Critical Approaches to the Novel.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Jones, R.T.  George Eliot. Cambridge at the University Press, 1970.

Knoepflmacher, U.C.  Religious Humanism and the Victorian Novel: George Eliot, Walter Pater and Samuel Butler. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1965.

Schenkar, Joan. The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2009.

Wilson, Andrew. Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith.  London: Bloomsbury Paperbacks, 2021.

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