Reflections in a Golden Eye ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Carson McCullers was an American writer who lived from 1917 to 1967. She published her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, when she was only in her early twenties. It was a literary sensation that established her as an important American writer and one of the most gifted writers of her generation. Her second novel, Reflections in a Golden Eye, was published in 1941, when she was twenty-four. While it was not the critical and commercial success of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, it is still a fascinating and highly readable book.
Reflections in a Golden Eye is set at a sleepy peacetime army base in Georgia in, let us say, the late 1930s. The story, the plot, is centered around five characters: Leonora Penderton is the wife of an officer. She is free-spirited, rather course and vulgar, attractive and not very smart. She is married to Captain Weldon Penderton and it is not a happy marriage. He is bitter, withdrawn, suspicious, and a closeted homosexual. He and Leonora have separate bedrooms. Major Morris Langdon is much more temperamentally suited to Leonora Penderton than her husband is. He drinks to excess, is jovial, likes a good time, and is having an affair with Leonora. Major Langdon’s wife is Alison, a nervous, sickly, neurotic woman who despises her husband and depends a great deal on her feminine Filipino houseboy, Anacleto, to make life palatable for her. The fifth character is private Ellgee Williams; he is a country boy who doesn’t know much of the world before enlisting in the U.S. army. He has never been around women much, being raised by a woman-hating father, and becomes obsessed (silently and secretly) with Leonora when he glimpses her naked. He takes to breaking into her house at night and, without making a sound, stands in her bedroom and watches her sleep.
Private Williams tends the stables on the base and, since Captain Penderton rides almost every day, the two of them come into contact frequently. Captain Penderton develops an infatuation (love and same-sex attraction mixed in with an unreasoning hatred) for private Williams, not knowing or not caring that private Williams is infatuated with his wife, Leonora. Of course, private Williams is only vaguely aware (or not aware at all) of Captain Penderton’s sexual longing for him. It might be that he is too unsophisticated to know of those things or to understand, even if he does know.
Reflections in a Golden Eye moves along almost in the way of a Greek tragedy toward its inevitable tragic conclusion. It’s a simple story with clear-cut themes of lust, longing, and isolation. All the characters are flawed in some way, misfits in some fundamental way. Happiness and satisfaction are qualities that don’t exist in this world. It’s a world of superficial, self-indulgent people, destructive to themselves and to their world. Keep those before-dinner cocktails coming and also the after-dinner ones. We must keep drinking to give ourselves the impression we’re happy.
Copyright © 2019 by Allen Kopp