Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers (1941)
By Nava Atlas | On July 9, 2023 | Updated July 16, 2023 | Comments (0)
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941) by Carson McCullers suffered a fate common to sophomore efforts that follow hugely successful first novels. Just twenty-three when her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, came out the year before (1940), it established her as a literary wunderkind.
Reflections in a Golden Eye, conversely, received mostly poor reviews, critics unsure of what to make of the young author’s use of the literary device termed “the grotesque” in fiction — a hallmark of fellow Southern author Flannery O’Connor and others.
McCullers’ work was primarily associated with the genre of Southern Gothic, which the Oxford Research Encyclopedia defines as follows: “Characteristics of Southern Gothic include the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation.”
Many reviewers objected to the intertwined plots of obsession, dark secrets, and repressed sexuality — both gay and straight — of the novel. It was, in fact, one of the few breakthrough novels that included gay themes in the first half of the twentieth century. Perhaps, though, in the hands of such a young author, these themes were simply not well executed.
In his syndicated “Literary Guideposts” column, John Selby griped that of that season’s new books, Reflections was “one of the most vulgar. Its presence on bookshelves makes one marvel at the fuss raised over Joyce’s Ulysses by those simple folk of the twenties. Ulysses at least had the recommendation of genius.”
Despite the negative reception of Reflections in a Golden Eye, it was adapted to film in 1967 with an all-star cast that included Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, and Brian Keith. Like the novel, to which it was quite faithful, it got mixed reviews.
Perhaps audiences and reviewers were more ready in the late 1960s for the story’s themes than the previous generation had been in the early 1940s. Carson McCullers died in 1967, the year the film came out; it’s curious what she had thought of the adaptation.
A brief plot summary of Reflections in a Golden Eye
The story is situated in an army base in Georgia. Secretive, solitary Private Ellgee Williams does some work for Captain Penderton, happens to see the latter’s wife, Leonora, strolling around nude, and becomes obsessed with her.
Leonora’s lover (one of many she has had throughout her marriage) is Major Morris Langdon, who has a depressed wife, Alison, at home. Alison’s only comfort is her effeminate houseboy, Anacleto. Captain Penderton is a closeted homosexual who is attracted to Pvt. Ellgee Williams, unaware of the latter’s attraction to his wife.
This is a nutshell summary, but suffice it to say that the convergence of obsessive desires and clandestine affairs leads to a murder, which is the climax of the novel.
Following are two of the many reviews that appeared in 1941, when the novel was published. The first is basically a plot description that comes to a kinder conclusion than was typical of other reviews.
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See also: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
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Carson McCullers writes her second novel
From the original review by H. Bruce Price in The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY, March 9, 1941): Last spring Carson McCullers’ first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, aroused a burst of glowing tribute. It was, you remember, a quiet, meditative, slow-moving book. Her second novel, Reflections In a Golden Eye, is a different sort of story.
Only two-thirds as long as the first, it moves swiftly with breath-taking tension. But time is still given for the study of a half-dozen characters, expertly created, and here again, many reflections in the mind’s eye of the reader are indelibly grotesque.
The locale is an army post down South. Among the enlisted men, there is Private Williams, an idiot boy from the backwoods. One night he looks through an open door of a house and sees Captain Penderton’s wife, Leonora, striding naked through the hall.
Private Williams had never seen a naked woman before, and his reaction to the sight impels a series of nightly vigils as strange and pathetic as a man ever kept. Leonora belongs not to the Captain but to his friend, Major Langdon, who is a stupid, healthy fellow, so unlike her husband.
Captain Penderton is brilliant. neurotic, and sexually perverted. He feels nothing but distaste for the Major’s wife, Alison. She is a sorrowful little creature, stricken with heart trouble and insane with grief over the loss of her only child. Her one comfort is the sensitive and aesthetic companionship of Anacleto, her Filipino servant.
We are told on the first page that all these people are participants in the tragedy of murder. However, only three of them, including the murderer and the victim, have any connection with it. Running parallel to the story of the murder is another story involving all but one of the characters. The two stories are quite independent of and superfluous to each other.
The total effect of each story is weakened by the total effect of the other. And yet they are so skillfully interwoven that the whole book seems to flow smoothly and naturally, and no reader could possibly tell them apart until reaching the end. Each story, taken separately, is constructed for suspense, surprise, drama, and curious irony. Every part of them, and the whole book, is exquisite.
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See also: The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
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The following piece isn’t so much a review as a rant. There is little description of the characters, themes, or plot. Instead, the critic devotes most of her pen to editorializing on the “depravity” of the novel. In a banal conclusion, she expresses her desire for the young author, Carson McCullers, to find more “pleasant” people and situations to write about (advice McCullers didn’t heed, fortunately).
Erroneous View of Army Life, Says Fort Banning Critic
From the original review by Phyllis Davis in The Columbus Enquirer (Columbus, GA), November 4, 1940): Every now and again, we find that a young writer, and perhaps a talented one, through unfortunate advice or a desire for instant recognition, is misled into confusing good literature with a type of writing that will “sell” temporarily.
It would appear that Carson McCullers has allowed such reasoning to color her early attempts at writing.
The men and women in this, her latest tale, as in the greatest part of her first book, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, are unfortunate ones — pitiful misfits in what she would have us believe is a whole world of misshapen personalities.
These characters, her editor told me when I shuddered at them, are “human beings, just like everybody else.” Human beings they certainly are, but just like everyone else — no! That idea is too alarming to contemplate at length.
In this story, Mrs. McCullers has selected the army for the background, and there, she has struck many a technical snag, for her knowledge of army life, its customs, and official military etiquette is slim indeed.
One wonders if all the professions so intimately represented in modern fiction — the law, medicine, and literature — must not suffer the twinges of righteous indignation when the inexperienced and uninformed hand attempts to pain such weird and surrealistic pictures of its lives and habits.
Surely, anyone in the army reading this story must have felt irked at first, but as the plot unfolds and becomes more and more foreign to any semblance of military or post life, there can be no particular reason for feeling other than an amused irritation and genuine amazement at the whole fantastic thing.
It’s to be wondered if, in this troubled world, when things look dark indeed, the younger writers might not find real inspiration and discover a deeper talent by exploring what is normal for a change!
Surely, such words as beauty, honor, loyalty, kindliness, and humor have not become too banal or unsophisticated to be written into the modern story. We shall come to the point where Pollyanna and all five of the Little Peppers will seem a welcome escape from the fruits of this neurotic school that seems to delve into volumes of medical research of schizophrenia and the like horrors for its inspiration.
Mrs. McCullers is young, with an untold amount of perseverance. She decided to write, and write she did. She has developed a style of her own that will gain in strength and power as she progresses in her career, and it would be a pleasant thing if her next book were to concern itself with pleasant people — for these are some, somewhere.
But let the joys be understandable and the sorrows those with which we can sympathize and share, and not those which thrive in the tortured minds of near depravity.
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Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967 film)
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More about Reflections in a Golden Eye
- A “Hothouse” Tale of Desire and Simmering Violence
- Review on The Hungry Reader
- Reader discussion on Goodreads