The Woman of Andros is set on the obscure Greek island of Brynos before the birth of Christ, and explores Everyman questions of what is precious about life and how we live, love, and die. Eight years later, Wilder would pose the same questions on the stage in a play titled Our Town.
by Stephen Rojcewicz, MD
Chrysis, a courtesan, has come from Andros to the Greek island of Brynos, establishing herself as a mentor to the young men of the island, educating them in Greek literature and philosophy. Profoundly affected by the dinner parties/symposia given by Chrysis, the young man Pamphilus soon comes to question the meaning of existence, and to ask questions such as “How does one live?” and “What does one do first?”1
Although his father, Simo, has planned for Pamphilus to marry a neighbor’s daughter, the youth falls in love with Glycerium, Chrysis’ younger sister. At their third meeting, “those caresses that seemed to be for courage, for pity and for admiration, were turned by Nature to her own uses.”2 Aware of the relationship between Pamphilus and her sister, Chrysis, although she also loves the youth, tells Pamphilus on her deathbed: “I want to say to someone . . . that I have known the worst that the world can do to me, and that nevertheless I praise the world and all living. All that is, is well. Remember me as one who loved all things and accepted from the gods all things, the bright and the dark. And do you likewise, Farewell.”3
At Chrysis’ funeral, Simo, the father of Pamphilus, notices that the young man embraces the pregnant Glycerium, drawing the girl back from her attempt to fling herself on her sister’s corpse. Through subsequent discussions, Simo agrees that his son Pamphilus can marry the girl. In the break-up of Chrysis’ household following her funeral, however, Glycerium is almost sold into slavery, but the father Simo rescues her, bringing her to his home, where she comes under the care of Pamphilus’ mother. Soon labor begins, but both Glycerium and her child die in childbirth. Pamphilus, however, retains the major lesson of Chrysis, the woman of Andros, as emphasized by the sentence that ends the penultimate paragraph of the novel: “But in confusion and with flagging courage he repeated: I praise all the living, the bright and the dark.”4
Published by Albert & Charles Boni on February 21, 1930, The Woman of Andros, Thornton Wilder’s third novel, immediately garnered glowing reviews in numerous journals such as The New York Times, Time Magazine, and the London Times, but received mixed or unfavorable reviews in other periodicals. The positive reviews praised the novel’s fine writing, subtle sensitivity, use of aphorisms, and overall beauty. Henry Seidel Canby in The Saturday Review of Literature (1930), for example, called the book “the quiet, perfectly finished meditation of a scholar in literature . . . touched with a fire of beauty, and raised by a fine imagination into an understanding that is more than esthetic and intellectual.”5 The mixed reviews claimed the book was self-consciously beautiful, more an exercise in style than a realistic presentation of human beings.
The novel elicited a major literary controversy when the Marxist writer and critic Michael Gold berated Wilder in the April 1930 New Masses for not addressing the social issues of contemporary America. In his October 1930 New Republic review, Gold condemned Wilder for not writing about worker exploitation and unemployment, but focusing instead on the past as a “historic junkshop.” Gold drenched his essay with ad hominem comments and homophobic slurs.6 The resulting uproar provoked a vigorous response by other writers, mostly defending Wilder. A few days after Gold’s attack, for example, the poet Hart Crane commented on “the recent rape of The Woman of Andros conducted by Mike Gold.”7 Although he did not respond publicly at the time, Wilder told an interviewer in November, 1933 that radical critics were wrong in claiming that humans are “solely the product of the economic order,” and that “the fundamental emotions, love, hate, fear, anger, surprise are common to all mankind, in any milieu, in any age.”8
Subsequent critical works and monographs on Wilder have varied widely, with many praising the gracefulness and beauty of the novel’s prose, but others criticizing the style as affected. Commenting on the novel’s diction and classical structure, Malcolm Cowley (1956) summarized the novel as a “Greek pastoral as beautifully handled as the figures on a Greek vase.”9 Helmut Papejewski (1968) lauded the elegant writing, the depiction of the natural Mediterranean setting, and the masterly portrayal of the main characters, especially in their turning to the painful side of life or to mutual love.10 Gilbert Harrison (1983) found the novel to contain some of Wilder’s most graceful writing.11 However, though applauding the novel’s creation of atmosphere and tone, Rex Burbank (1961) claimed that Wilder was now becoming increasingly derivative, reverting to the aestheticism and “poetic” style of his early three-minute plays, to the point that this novel lacked the dramatic intensity of his earlier novels. The characters, moreover, resembled philosophical concepts, not living people, and the writing sometimes descended into sententiousness and preciousness.12 Richard Goldstone (1975) opined that The Woman of Andros lacks the thrust and the resonance, the amplitude and the vitality of a conventional novel.13 David Castronovo (1986) commented on stylistic repetition and the use of the pathetic fallacy—that is, the attribution of human feelings to the natural world. As an example Castronovo quoted the first few words of the novel, “The earth sighed as it turned in its course.”14 Missing from his critique, however, is the awareness that this example reflects an intertextual purpose, linking the sigh to the opening of Wilder’s first novel The Cabala with its “long Virgilian sigh” and not recognizing the allusion to Vergil’s use of the “tears of the world.” The contemporary literary critic Michael Dirda (2013) provided the most appropriate summing-up of the novel’s style: “if ever a work of fiction deserved to be called exquisite, this is it.”15
Located just after the copyright page, Wilder’s author’s note states: “The first part of this novel is based upon the Andria, a comedy by Terence who in turn based his work upon two Greek plays, now lost to us, by Menander.”16 Writing in Latin, Publius Terentius Afer (circa 195-159 BCE), known as Terence, was a Roman slave of North African origin who produced Andria in 166 BCE. As Malcolm Cowley (1956) has noted, Wilder “transforms the borrowed material, with a richness of invention that would be rare in any age, and becomes original through trying not to be.”17 Mathias Hanses (2013) has traced how Wilder modifies Terence: placing the narrative on Brynos, rather than in Athens, expanding the frame of action from one day to approximately one year, updating the time setting to 200 BCE, eliminating many supporting characters, and changing the genre from dramatic comedy to narrative tragedy.18 Most fundamentally, Wilder transforms Terence’s Chrysis from a woman without intellectual attainments to an educated courtesan who is aware of the sorrows as well as the joys of life, and tries to awaken the love of beauty, literature, and humanity in young men, through discussion of literature and philosophy.
Many scholars have noted the beauty of the first and last paragraphs of the novel:
The earth sighed as it turned in its course; the shadow of night crept gradually along the Mediterranean, and Asia was left in darkness. The great cliff that was one day to be called Gibraltar held for a long time a gleam of red and orange, while across from it the mountains of Atlas showed deep blue pockets in their shining sides. . . .Triumph had passed from Greece and wisdom from Egypt, but with the coming on of night they seemed to regain their lost honors, and the land that was soon to be called Holy prepared in the dark its wonderful burden.19
Wilder’s final paragraph refers back to the opening one in a classical ring composition, repeating the theme of night and evoking “the land that was soon to be called Holy.”
On the sea the helmsman suffered the downpour, and on the high pastures the shepherd turned and drew his cloak closer about him. . . . And in the East the stars shone tranquilly down upon the land that was soon to be called Holy and that even then was preparing its precious burden.20
These two paragraphs signal Wilder’s examination of the relevance of classical culture to modern civilization, a central program in many of Wilder’s writings. Christopher Wheatley (2011), for example, has argued that The Woman of Andros is Wilder’s examination of a “cultural crisis where the older order yields to Christianity because the status quo is exhausted.” This is not a blanket rejection of the classical world, but an act of creative syncretism, since “Christianity will rapidly incorporate Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic ideas . . . revitalized because of Jewish-Christian concepts of history, God, and love.”21 Mary Koutsoudaki has demonstrated that Chrysis, through her use of Platonic dialogues, her approach to life, and her manner of inquiry acts as a Socratic character in reference to the young men.22 To this insight can be added the fact that, in developing the character of Chrysis, Wilder also relies on the Platonic dialogues Menexenus and Symposium, which praise two courtesans—Aspasia, who teaches rhetoric to Socrates and composes speeches, and Diotima, who instructs Socrates in the progression of love from physical attraction to the love of beauty and of the beautiful soul.
The novel is filled with Chrysis’ aphorisms, by which she seems to be an alter ego for Wilder. Arguing against Rex Burbank’s objection that the aphorisms can be sententious and overly subjective, Bernard Grebanier (1964) has viewed them as revealing the author’s deep humanity, and no more sententious or subjective than the Choruses of Sophocles.23 M. C. Kuner (1972) has expanded Chrysis’ deathbed lines, “I praise the world and all living . . . the bright and the dark” into a programmatic statement for much of Wilder’s fiction.24 Underscoring the significance of Chrysis’ aphorisms Wilder attributes to her a statement that he himself uses, with slight variations, in three other works. After a man has condemned her means of livelihood, Chrysis smiles, saying: “It is true that of all forms of genius, goodness has the longest awkward age.”25 In a 1927 entry in a personal notebook, Wilder used these very words when writing about Christian evangelicals at Yale. As noted by Lincoln Konkle (2006),26 Wilder next utilized a variation of this aphorism in the foreword to The Angel That Troubled the Waters and Other Plays (1928); commenting on himself as a sixteen year old author, he writes: “in life and in literature mere sincerity is not sufficient, and in both realms the greater the capacity the longer the awkward age.”27 Finally, Wilder specifically mentions The Woman of Andros as the source for one of the epigrams prefacing his 1935 novel, Heaven’s My Destination.
Despite Gold’s diatribe, the novel does concern contemporary issues, but in a subtle manner. Expanding the understanding of the young men by teaching them about the inner life of women, for instance, Chrysis addresses women’s rights and education, and the plight of immigrants.28 As an example of a recurrent motif, Chrysis recites the fable of a hero who is allowed to return to earth for one day but becomes overwhelmed with pain because the world “is too dear to be realized.” The exploration of this experience reaches its peak in Emily Webb’s graveyard scene in Our Town. Addressing classical philosophy and literature in The Woman of Andros, Wilder develops themes to which he will return throughout his career.
1Thornton Wilder. The Woman of Andros. New York: HarperPerennial, 2006, 150.
5Henry Seidel Canby. “Praise All Living.” The Saturday Review of Literature, 1930, 771-72.
6Michael Gold. “Wilder: Prophet of the Genteel Christ.” The New Republic 22 (October 1930), 266-68.
7Hart Crane. The Letters of Hart Crane 1916-1932. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952, Letter of October 21, 1930, 357.
8Penelope Niven. Thornton Wilder: A Life. New York: Harper & Row, 344.
9Malcolm Cowley. “Introduction,” A Thornton Wilder Trio. New York: Criterion Books, 1956, 19.
10Helmut Papejewski. Thornton Wilder. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1968, 37-45.
11Gilbert Harrison. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New Haven and New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983, 142.
12Rex Burbank. Thornton Wilder. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1961, 56-62.
13Goldstone, Richard. Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Dutton, 1975, 256.
14David Castronovo. Thornton Wilder. New York: The Ungar Publishing Company, 1986, 59-60.
15Michael Dirda. “The Chameleon: Thornton Wilder’s multifaceted life and works.” Harper’s Magazine, January 2013, 74.
16Thornton Wilder. The Woman of Andros, 136.
17Malcolm Cowley. “The Man Who Abolished Time.” Saturday Review, 6 October 1956: 13-14, 50-52.
18Hanses, Mathias (2013): “Mulier inopia et cognatorum neglegentia coacta: Thornton Wilder’s Tragic Take on The Woman of Andros,” in A Companion to Terence. Edited by Antony Augoustakis and Ariana Traill, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., pp. 429-445.
19Thornton Wilder. The Woman of Andros, 137.
21Christopher Wheatley. Thornton Wilder & Amos Wilder: Writing Religion in Twentieth-Century America. University of Notre Dame Press, 2011, 44.
22Mary Koutsoudaki, Mary. Thornton Wilder: A Nostalgia for the Antique. Athens: University of Athens, 1992, 49.
23Bernard Grebanier. Thornton Wilder. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1964, 21.
24M. C. Kuner, M. C. Thornton Wilder: The Bright and the Dark. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1972, passim.
25Thornton Wilder. The Woman of Andros, 158.
26Lincoln Konkle. Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006, 126.
27Thornton Wilder. The Angel That Troubled the Water and Other Plays, 1928, 3-4.
28Jennifer Haytock. “Women, Philosophy, and Culture: Wilder’s Andrian Legacy,” 210-213.
Burbank, Rex. Thornton Wilder. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1961.
Canby, Henry Seidel. “Praise All Living.” The Saturday Review of Literature, 1930, 771-72.
Castronovo, David. Thornton Wilder. New York: The Ungar Publishing Company, 1986.
Crowley, Malcolm. “Introduction,” A Thornton Wilder Trio. New York: Criterion Books, 1956, 19.
Cowley, Malcolm. “The Man Who Abolished Time.” Saturday Review, 6 October 1956: 13-14, 50-52.
Crane, Hart. The Letters of Hart Crane 1916-1932. Edited by Brom Weber. Berkeley: University of California Press. Original work published 1952.
Dirda, Michael. “The Chameleon: Thornton Wilder’s multifaceted life and works.” Harper’s Magazine, January 2013, 72-78.
Gold, Michael. “Wilder: Prophet of the Genteel Christ.” The New Republic 22 (October 1930), 266-68.
Goldstone, Richard. Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Dutton, 1975.
Grebanier, Bernard. Thornton Wilder. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1964.
Hanses, Mathias (2013): “Mulier inopia et cognatorum neglegentia coacta: Thornton Wilder’s Tragic Take on The Woman of Andros,” in A Companion to Terence. Edited by Antony Augoustakis and Ariana Traill, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., pp. 429-445.
Harrison, Gilbert. The Enthusiast: A Life of Thornton Wilder. New Haven and New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983.
Haytock, Jennifer. “Women, Philosophy, and Culture: Wilder’s Andrian Legacy.” In Blank, Martin, Brunauer, Dalma Hunyadi, and Izzo, David Garrett, eds. Thornton Wilder: New Essays. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill Press, 1999, pp. 207-216.
Konkle, Lincoln. Thornton Wilder and the Puritan Narrative Tradition. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006.
Koutsoudaki, Mary. Thornton Wilder: A Nostalgia for the Antique. Parousia Monographs 18. Athens: University of Athens, 1992.
Kuner, M. C. (1972): Thornton Wilder: The Bright and the Dark. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.
Niven, Penelope (2012): Thornton Wilder: A Life. New York: Harper & Row.
Papajewski, Helmut. Thornton Wilder. Translated by John Conway. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1968. Original work published 1965.
Wheatley, Christopher. Thornton Wilder & Amos Wilder: Writing Religion in Twentieth-Century America. University of Notre Dame Press, 2011.
Wilder, Thornton. The Angel That Troubled the Water and Other Plays, in The Collected Short Plays of Thornton Wilder, Volume II. Edited by A. Tappan Wilder. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1998, pp. 1-86. Original work published 1928.
Wilder, Thornton. The Cabala and The Woman of Andros. New York: HarperPerennial, 2006. The Woman of Andros originally published 1930.
For further discussions of The Woman of Andros, please visit the Bibliography.
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