“It’s a matter of asserting free will.”

I mentioned yesterday that Caroline begins The Comforters on a retreat, and I meant the kind of retreat lay Catholics go on to get away from the world for a bit and contemplate things. Outside the time period of the novel, Caroline converted to Catholicism. Before that she was living in sin with Laurence, an irreligious Anglo-Catholic of devout (but understanding) family. Caroline’s reason for conversion is unclear (that is, she seems simply to have acquired faith at some point), but she’s very serious about her faith and it’s changed their relationship significantly.

Muriel Spark too was a convert to Catholicism, so of course it’s tempting to see Caroline as at least somewhat based on herself. According to the Wikipedia entry on Spark, she considered her conversion “crucial in her development toward becoming a novelist.” Yet the same entry claims of The Comforters that “It featured several references to Catholicism and conversion to Catholicism, although its main theme revolved around a young woman who becomes aware that she is a character in a novel.”

Not that we should take Wikipedia as super reliable here anyway, but I must protest. The Comforters is almost supremely concerned with religion, especially with its relation to free will. Caroline’s determination to thwart the author is obviously along these lines, and the very fact that she can thwart the author—and yet still remains firmly a part of the book, just a somewhat different book&mash;falls very much in line with non-Calvinist Christian ideas about free will (n.b., though Spark was apparently never a Presbyterian, she was born and raised in Edinburgh).

And the whole effort to exercise her free will in this way is a matter of faith for Caroline, because her belief in the existence of the book is a matter of faith. She is defiant when all her friends think her mad. “I don’t demand anyone’s belief,” she tells her friend the Baron. “You may call them delusions for all I care. I have merely registered my findings.” Ultimately, this is the same relationship Caroline and her religious beliefs have with all the non-Catholic characters in the novel. Laurence doesn’t actually belittle her Catholicism—he is awfully used to it from his family—but he does see it as a kind of quirk of her personality that he basically puts up with or ignores. He treats her belief in the book the same way: he doesn’t share it, and he doesn’t really care unless it starts to inconvenience him.

By the last third of the novel, Caroline is waiting impatiently for the book to be finished. She knows that she won’t be able to understand what’s been going on until it’s done. And her most basic answer about how she knows she’s right: “The evidence will be in the book itself.”

And here’s the thing: Caroline is right. There is a book. I held it in my hand. They are all characters. The awful Georgina Hogg is such an artificial being that she actually disappears when no one is watching her. And there’s an author, who can grind those gears of plot to show just what she wants—that Caroline’s faith is justified, and there is a book. That when Laurence, frustrated by her unwillingness to go along with the plot rather than attempting to exercise free will, thinks, “Why the hell should we be enslaved by her secret fantasy?”—meaning, of course, the metafiction business but also the fact that she’s destroyed their sex life—he‘s the fool, and her fantasy is all too real.

I must say this was a bit of a disappointment for me, if only because it seems so awfully commonplace. It is ingenious as well. There’s an aha! But isn’t it just a little bit of a cheap trick as well?

3 comments to “It’s a matter of asserting free will.”

  • I laughed when I got to your final line because that was basically my emotional arc even just reading through your blog post: “ah-HAH! … hmm, slightly disappointing.”

    Though, it might be interesting to read this book and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood against one another, since they are both profoundly Catholic and yet seem to take opposing (or do they?) attitudes to free will. It seems as though Caroline’s exercise of free will here is actually a support for or evidence of her faith, whereas Hazel Motes’s resistance to his faith/salvation is…I don’t know if destructive, or just irrelevant. Jesus gonna get him, in the end!

    It certainly sounds like different versions of Catholocism at play.

  • Perhaps a touch disappointing, but I didn’t peg Spark for so ingenious a writer. I’ve got this for my first Spark book and look forward to reading it. Have you read many of Spark’s books? If so, does her inventiveness mature in fascinating ways?

  • Emily—I’m really glad you said that, because I was worried when writing this post that I was going to sound like too much of a jerk. Sadly, I’ve still not read any O’Connor (though I certainly want to), but I would say your statement about Caroline is dead on. Sort of makes me want to do a bit of a(n) “(Anglo-)Catholic unit”…O’Connor, Spark, Graham Greene…

    Anthony—I’ve read this one, some short stories, and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. That last can seem like a pretty light read, and is certainly fun enough to be read that way, but I think it certainly shows a very smart lady with a sharp wit behind it. And I was a great fan of the short stories. But I don’t think I’m yet prepared to say exactly what kind of evolution she undergoes. I was surprised at how solid this was for a first effort and I’ll certainly be reading more of her.