In 1962 and 1963, Wilder spent twenty months in hibernation, away from family and friends, in the town of Douglas, Arizona. While there, he launched The Eighth Day, a tale set in a mining town in southern Illinois about two families blasted apart by the apparent murder of one father by the other. The miraculous escape of the accused killer, John Ashley, on the eve of his execution and his flight to freedom triggers a powerful story tracing the fate of his and the victim’s wife and children. At once a murder mystery and a philosophical story, The Eighth Day is a “suspenseful and deeply moving” (New York Times) work of classic stature that has been hailed as a great American epic.
by Ashley Gallagher
The Eighth Day, recipient of the 1968 National Book Award, was written nearly thirty years after the premiere of Our Town and stands as the penultimate novel of Thornton Wilder’s career. At seventy years old, Wilder’s inspiration for The Eighth Day was prompted by his sojourn to Douglas, Arizona. As Tappan Wilder indicates in his afterword included in the 2006 reissue of The Eighth Day, his uncle began fervently writing and, pleased with the novel’s progress, commented: “‘[it is] just original enough to seem fresh; it’s not really like usual novels.’”1 Indeed, among other unconventional aspects, The Eighth Day has a nonlinear structure. The prologue reveals the 1902 murder of Breckinridge Lansing by John Ashley, followed by Ashley’s mysterious rescue while en route to his execution. In the first chapter entitled “The Elms,” an omniscient narrator transports the reader to Coaltown, Illinois, hometown of the Lansings and Ashleys. Here, John Ashley is established as an American hero; he is seen as an invaluable citizen of Coaltown and a beloved family man. While this first chapter sheds doubt on Ashley’s conviction it also introduces the reader to the Ashley family and their struggle to survive after their patriarch’s disappearance. The reader also learns of Ashley’s son, Roger, who moves to Chicago seeking employment to support his family, while Roger’s younger sister, Sophia, turns the Ashley home into a boarding house. Just as the narrator reaches 1905 with the Ashley family reasonably intact, with the exception of Lily who runs away to become a singer, Wilder switches the reader’s focus from the Ashley family back to John Ashley. As the title “Illinois to Chile 1902-1905” suggests, Ashley embarks on a three-year journey to escape capture. During this time, while Ashley is forced to take on various occupations and personas, he still remains a hero. Once in Chile, he takes up building churches and repairing hospitals until his true identity is discovered by “rat catcher” Wellington Bristow, and Ashley is forced to fake his death. However, as fate or Wilder would have it, while in his flight, Ashley drowns at sea in 1905. For so complicated an escape, Ashley’s death is sudden and simply stated at the end of the chapter. Yet, this is not the last the reader sees of John Ashley. In The Eighth Day’s third chapter, “Chicago 1902-1905,” the reader learns of Roger’s success as a Chicago journalist and relationships with women before a flashback to 1883, Hoboken, New Jersey, the meeting place of Beata and John Ashley. The two meet, fall in love, and eventually move to Coaltown under the pretense of being man and wife despite never having been officially married. The second to last chapter concentrates on the tumultuous and unhappy union of Breckinridge and Eustacia Lansing as well as Lansing’s illness days before his murder. The sixth and final chapter of The Eighth Day reunites the Ashley and Lansing families and divulges the fates of the Ashley children, their mother, and Eustacia Lansing; except for Sophia, they all exemplify the American Dream. Roger marries Félicité Lansing and becomes a famous journalist, Lily becomes a world-renowned singer, Sophia outlives all of her siblings but sadly had to be institutionalized, and Constance travels the world as a suffragette. Beata Ashley moves to Los Angeles, creating a new boarding house and adopting an abandoned deaf child. Eustacia also moves to California and works as a housekeeper. Ultimately, the reader also discovers Lansing’s true killer is his son, George, who, in an effort to protect his mother from abuse, shot his father. By the time of this revelation, the murder mystery has become secondary to the intertwining fates of the Ashley and Lansing families.
Wilder scholars focus primarily on the author’s optimistic view of America and Americans in The Eighth Day. As Wilder began writing The Eighth Day in the 1960s, the United States found itself in a state of turmoil. With such tragic events as the Vietnam War and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Sixties marked the decline of the Puritan ideals on which America had been founded. However, in The Eighth Day Wilder reaffirmed his belief in a Puritan vision of America as a nation chosen by God.2 The title, The Eighth Day, reflects Wilder’s conviction as it references the biblical story of the seven-day creation of the world. Accordingly, Wilder begins his novel with Dr. Gillies declaring that the world is in the eighth day of creation when man is left to continue to make progress. The epic scope of Wilder’s novel examines the Ashleys, representative of idealized Americans, and the Lansings, representative of the country’s disenchanted citizens. The distinction between the two Coaltown families is introduced with a description of John Ashley as industrious and inventive followed by Breckenridge Lansing who appears indolent and unimaginative. The intertwining Ashley and Lansing family sagas challenge and affirm their roles as “anatomies of the fabled American innocence.”3 Scholars have also acknowledged John Ashley as a model of the Kierkegaardian “knight of faith.”4 Once he has escaped execution, John Ashley begins a pilgrimage to Chile and puts complete faith in himself and God. By the end of the second chapter, Ashley is leading a productive life by contributing to other people’s welfare, a sure sign that, indeed, he has regained his faith.5 Wilder’s symbolic use of a tapestry contributes to The Eighth Day’s faith theme. As Roger inspects the unfinished side of the Deacon’s tapestry, he learns that although the significance of his struggle is unclear, there are greater forces at work creating a pattern and overall sense of unity.6 Upon learning of John Ashley’s death at sea, the reader realizes that it is not Ashley’s death that is significant but the way in which he lived, with honor and humility. While the reader is exposed to both the hopeful and dispiriting elements of American life, scholars believe that Wilder’s final message is a positive one: progress can still be made.
Although it would win the National Book Award, public reception of The Eighth Day in 1967 was mixed. While some critics thought Wilder’s “plot ambiguous and his theme labyrinthine,” others, like Malcolm Cowley, “admired the realistic evocation of a bygone era, and Wilder’s thoughtful ruminations on time, history and the American people.”7 Those who criticized the novel were generally disconcerted with the seemingly unrealistic view of American life. While these critiques of Wilder’s perpetuation of optimism and humanism in The Eighth Day may be grounded in one American reality, Wilder’s truth is based on the belief that man has come into the world to learn. As such, the reader sees individuals learning and a culture progressing, ever so slowly, toward a grand vision of America.
1Wilder, Tappan. Afterword. The Eighth Day. By Thornton Wilder. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. 437-453.
3de Koster, 57.
Babushkina, Irina. “The Russian Theme in Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day.” Thornton Wilder: New Essays. 1999: 259-267.
Borgmeier, Raimund. “‘A Further Case of the ‘Detective Novel Unbound’: Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day and the Mystery Novel.” Telling Stories: Studies in Honour of Ulrich Broich on the Occasion of His 60th Birthday. Amsterdam: Grüner, 1992. 296-309.
Brunauer, Dalma H. “Creative faith in Wilder’s The Eighth Day.” Renascence. 25. 1972: 46-56.
Ericson, Edward, Jr. “Kierkegaard in Wilder’s The Eighth Day.” Renascence. 26. 1974: 123-38.
Ericson, Edward E., Jr. “The figure in the tapestry: the religious vision of Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day.” Christianity and Literature. 22.3. 1973: 32-48.
Greene, George. “An Ethics for Wagon Trains: Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day.” Queen’s Quarterly. 88.2. Summer 1981: 325-335.
Kauffmann, Stanley. “Thornton Wilder.” New Republic. 156.14. 1967: 26-46.
Mayo, Nolie B. “A Tapestry for Humanism in The Eighth Day.” Missouri English Bulletin. 31. 1974: 79-82.
Updike, John. “Chasing After Providence.” New York Review of Books. 50.19. 2003: 35-36.
Venne, Peter, S.V.D. “The Message of Thornton Wilder: Some Reflections on His Novel The Eighth Day.” Literature and Linguistics. 3. 1970: 15-29.
Williams, Michael V. “Errors in Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day.” English Language Notes 27.3 March 1990: 69-72.
For further discussions of The Eighth Day, please visit the Bibliography.
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