Liam's Reviews > Reflections In A Golden Eye

Reflections In A Golden Eye by Carson McCullers
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's review
Jul 10, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: downbeat, heartbreaking, favorites, quick-reads, c20th-prewar
Read from July 10 to 11, 2011

This is a very touching and quietly profound novella. The plot involves the relationships of a small central cast, set in a peacetime army post. Two neighbouring senior officers, Captain Penderton and Major Langdon, live affluently, childless, with their wives: Leonara Penderton and Alice Langdon. A quiet private, Elgee Williams, is commissioned by the Captain to clear a space of woodland in front of his house and becomes obsessed with the Captain's free-spirited, child-like and often-nude wife. Captain Penderton represses his true sexual identity with obsessive workloads. Alice becomes increasingly unbalanced by knowledge of her husband's infidelity and confides in her Filipino servant, and best friend, Anacleto.

Each character harbours secrets they are unable to share. McCullers major strength in this book is in how individually she writes each character's sadnesses, preoccupations and psychological blind spots. Her relationship with her characters is always sensitive and sympathetic, but primarily interested in how incompatible and incomprehensible peoples' true natures can be. The characters secrets draw you into the story in a suspenseful way, but the real theme is less 'secrecy'; more 'misunderstanding'. Especially wilful or indifference misunderstanding. In a way that seems very true to life, the characters appear constantly frustrated with their ignorance, but at the same time unwilling to confront reality. This is most obvious in the character of Captain Penderton, who exists in a pitiable state of simultaneous knowing-and-not-knowing, keeping his knowledge of his wife's adultery a secret, whilst hiding an even deeper secret: that he is almost indifferent to it.

In lots of stories you have an identification of a human foible and then a solution of this through a character arc involving a character or event who drastically challenges this world view. However the sorts of unhappiness that McCullers observes are the lingering, niggling kind. Not car crashes but rust. Though all lonely and unfulfilled, the characters in 'Reflections in a Golden Eye', rather than realising their shared pains, only amplify each others loneliness, through a series of consequential misunderstandings. The book could be criticised for portraying the troubles of the affluent and privileged rather than, say, the Penderton's black servant, Susan. However the sadness in this book is the kind that comes from a privileged sense of great expectations, and the difficult task of squaring your illusions with your real prospects.

Here are some excerpts:

The sun and firelight were bright in the room. There was a dancing spectrum on one of the walls and she watched this, half-listening to Anacleto's soft conversation. 'What I find so difficult to realize is that they know,' he was saying. Often he would begin a discussion with such a vague and mysterious remark, and she waited to catch the drift of it later.


'Anacleto', she warned him softly. Anacleto had used the term 'woery woman' several times before she caught on to the meaning. At first she thought it might be a native term, and then it had come to her finally that he meant 'whore'.

Anacleto shrugged his shoulders and then turned suddenly to her, his face flushed. 'I hate people!' he said vehemently. 'At the party someone told this joke, not knowing that I was near. And it was vulgar and insulting and not true!'

'What do you mean?'

'I wouldn't repeat it to you'

'Well forget it,' she said. 'Go to bed and have a good night's sleep'.

Alison was troubled over Ancleto's outburst. It seemed to her that she also loathed people. Everyone she had known in the past five years was somehow wrong. Morris Langdon in his blunt way was stupid and heartless as a man could be. Leonora was nothing but an animal. And thieving Weldon Penderton was at bottom hopelessly corrupt. What a gang! Even she herself she loathed. If it were not for sordid procrastination and if she had a rag of pride, she and Anacleto would not be in this house tonight.


Private Williams ordered a glass and for the first time tasted alcohol. Three men, all old-timers, were surprised when Private Williams left his table to sit with them for a while. The young soldier looked into their faces and seemed to be on the point of asking some question of them. But in the end he did not speak, and after a time he went away.


A peculiar reverie had taken hold of him. As he always had been keenly ambitious he had often amused himself by anticipating his promotions far in advance. Thus, when he was still a young west-pointer the name and the title 'Colonel Weldon Penderton' had to him a familiar and pleasing sound. And during the past summer of this year he had imagined himself as a Corps Area Commander of great brilliance and power. Sometimes he had even whispered the words 'Major-General Penderton' aloud to himself - and it seemed to him he should have been born to the title, so well did the sound of it fit with his name. But now during the past weeks this idle dream had strangely reversed itself. One night - or rather it was one-thirty in the morning - he had sat at his desk in a trauma of fatigue. Suddenly in the room three words had come unbidden to his tongue:

'Private Weldon Penderton.' And these words, with the associations they engendered, aroused in the Captain a perverse feeling of relief and satisfaction. He now experienced a subtle pleasure in imagining himself as an enlisted man. In these phantasies he saw himself as a youth ... with a young, easy body that even the cheap uniform of a common soldier could not make ungraceful, with thick glossy hair and round eyes unshadowed by study and strain. And the background of all this was the barracks: the hubbub of young male voices, the genial loafing in the sun, the irresponsible shenanigans of camaraderie.

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