There is perhaps no writer more faithful to the mythologies of America than Cain, for he writes of its ideals and hatreds without obscuring them in the difficulties of art.
by Joyce Carol Oates
Originally published in Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press: 1968.
A world immense with freedom, women hellish and infantile by turns, money, power, the tantalizing promise of adventure—these are the common elements of James M. Cain’s novels. His reputation is by this time a vague one, grown generalized and perhaps sentimentally overrated (along with the reputations of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler) since he is no longer “read.” We have Camus, we have the films of Jean-Luc Godard, we have any number of cryptic realists who can give us Cain’s pace and excitement without Cain’s flaws—and in the form of art. Though he deals constantly with the Artistic, Cain, it will be said, never manages to become an artist; there is always something sleazy, something eerily vulgar and disappointing in his work. Let us abandon all claims for Cain’s “place in American literature” if it is literature only that is significant, and let us concentrate instead on the relationship between Cain’s work and his hypothetical audience, America of the thirties and forties, and the archetypal rhythms of his works whether the works themselves ultimately satisfy as art.
The freedom of women and money and power, and the promise of adventure—all this is dangled before us in Cain. These are his tricks, his gimmicks, but how cynically he exploits them as “gimmicks” that lead his heroes to their deaths! The trickery, while dramatically heightened, seems somehow to grow out of Cain’s dream-like landscapes; one must not criticize him as unrealistic in his plots, out of a misconception of his being realistic in his settings. Consider how casual everything appears to be in Cain’s world, accidental and contingent and apropos of nothing. The Postman Always Rings Twice opens: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before, down at the border. . . . They saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff, but all I got was a dead pan, so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette, though, and I hiked down the road to find something to eat. That was when I hit this Twin Oaks Tavern.” Double Indemnity opens: “I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. I decided to run over there. That was how I came to this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers.” Serenade opens: “I was in the Tupinamba, having a bizcocho and coffee, when this girl came in.” But beneath this apparently contingent surface is an iron-hard pattern of necessity. Everything is “past,” finished, when the narrator begins; the stories themselves are no more than recountings of events, not intended to represent events themselves.
Cain’s world is by no means “realistic”: coming to him from the great psychological realists, Joyce and Mann, one understands how barren, how stripped and bizarre this Western landscape has become. It is as if the world extends no farther than the radius of one’s desire. Within this small circle (necessarily small because his heroes are usually ignorant), accidental encounters have the force of destiny behind them. It is as if no other accidental encounters are imaginable: when Frank sees Cora in the restaurant their fates are determined; when John Howard Sharp sees his Mexican Indian girl their fates are determined; even the improbable machinations of fate in The Butterfly operate with a relentlessness out of all proportion to the people involved. This casualness is in operation even when Cain apparently doesn’t know what he is doing, as in the beginning of Mildred Pierce: “In the spring of 1931, on a lawn in Glendale, California, a man was bracing trees. It was a tedious job. . . . Yet, though it was a hot afternoon, he took his time about it, and was conscientiously thorough, and whistled. He was a smallish man, in his middle thirties.” But this time the beginning is indeed apropos of nothing, for the novel has little to do with Herbert Pierce and everything to do with his wife Mildred. Cain’s method is to single out an ordinary human being, center in upon him with every acknowledgement of his being still ordinary, and bring him into an encounter with his “fate.” Mildred Pierce (1941), over-long and shapeless, must surely owe its flaws to the third-person omniscient narration, which takes us too far from the victim and allows us more freedom than we want. To be successful, such narrowly-conceived art must blot out what landscape it cannot cover; hence the blurred surrealistic backgrounds of the successful Cain novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) and Serenade (i937).
The fable of the man under sentence of death, writing to us from his prison cell or from the cell of his isolated self, is in one of the great literary traditions. Stendhal’s Julien Sorel does not write a journal, but he speaks most passionately and eloquently of the education that his imprisonment makes clear. Far superior to any of Cain’s heroes, Julien makes extravagant leaps from level to level, person to person, exploiting all resources (especially himself) to gain some kind of transcendence, or a place at least for his talents—only to wind up, of course, in a prison cell, from which he contemplates a world governed by the middle class that will execute him and sees it as both beneath and beyond comprehension, absurdly simple and complex at once: man is an ant accidentally crushed beneath a hunter’s boot. The Red and the Black stands at the beginning of so much of modern literature that its influence can no longer be isolated. The essential loneliness of the hero, his deracination from society and from individuals, his tragic split of self between egoism and love mark him off from the picaresque hero, and by now these elements are commonplace and inevitable; we have passed beyond them. Julien’s late cousin, Meursault, will make the same trip to prison cell and nonrepentance, a negative of Julien, almost a parody of his egoism, though able finally to state with Camus’ peculiar eloquence the basis upon which life must be lived: the consciousness of its being absurd.
Cain’s heroes have an aura of doom about them, suggested to us by the flatness of their narration, their evident hurry to get it said. They follow the same archetypal route, obeying without consciousness the urges that lead them (and their tragic ancestors) to disaster. But the European works are concerned obsessively with the “why” behind such accidents; in the sub-literary world of American popular writing, it is the “how” that is important— “what happens next,” “what happens finally.” And what happens finally is always repentance, for the Cain hero is no more metaphysically inclined than he is morally substantial. Though we deny Cain’s landscapes the technical realism others credit to him, let us admit that between Frank Chambers and Meursault one believes ultimately in Frank: he is as probable as the roadside sandwich joint we have all seen. Aggressor but really victim, a man’s man but susceptible to tears, Cora’s passionate lover but her nervous betrayer—all that is painful, embarrassing, and much more credible than the transformation of the clerk Meursault into a man of prodigious imagination. But The Stranger is “art” and Postman is “entertainment.”
It is the fact that such pessimistic works are entertainment that fascinates. No happy endings, no promise of religious salvation, not even the supposition that society has been purged of evil—society is always worse than Cain’s victims! Nothing is handed out to the reader; no obvious wish is fulfilled. A course of action is begun with terrifying abruptness, once begun it cannot be stopped, and it comes to its inevitable conclusion with the same efficiency criminals are usually brought to “justice,” with their photographs appearing at once in the tabloid press. Edmund Wilson, in his famous essay “The Boys in the Back Room,” talks of Cain as a poet “of the tabloid murder.” He uses the word “poet” loosely enough, so loosely indeed that it has no meaning, and one would not want to call Cain an “observer” either, or a “philosopher”; in the end one can call him simply an “entertainer.” But he is an entertainer with an uncanny knowledge of the perversities of his audience, the great range of their vulgarity and their demand for social “justice,” the eradication of the impulsive heroes whose exploits have been enjoyed vicariously. Yes, they are bold and masculine, but after all, the memoir comes to us from a prison cell; and it is irrelevant to question this technique. The sense of confinement and doom is what makes Cain’s work palatable to a popular audience, just as a more literate, conservative audience of readers can delight in the crudities of Dostoevsky’s violence, and the yet more incredible crudities of his resurrections of the spirit.
Cain’s heroes fight a losing battle with the forces of the unconscious (which they may describe in a number of ways). But, since they go beyond the point of self-control, a vigorous and all-powerful social unit awaits them and will protect us from them. The social instruments by which justice is granted may be no more moral than the victims who are punished, but if so, this is one more element of the tabloid poetry that pleases a popular audience: the sadism of Cain’s heroes will always be turned against them, and the phenomenon of an audience both identifying with and rejecting a victim is not surprising. It is the very ordinariness of Cain’s heroes that make them fit victims for “justice.” If they were wiser, more clever, more audacious or evil they might escape, but then they would be monsters and valueless to a reading public, which demands characters with whom one can identify. But the fact that they are non-heroic heroes, animalistic or even mechanical in their responses, even (in the case of John Howard Sharp) masculine only by effort and luck, and somehow losers in the economic struggle of America, will necessitate their total failure.
That Cain as entertainer is entertaining his audience in a highly masterful and intelligent way is indicated by his remarks on his own writing. So far as he can sense the “pattern of his mind,” Cain says in his preface to The Butterfly, he writes of “the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept, at least to my imagination.” At the very basis of neurosis is the terrifying fact of the wish that threatens to come true; Freud recognizes the dynamic struggle of the mind’s levels with what is wished for and what must be tolerated, the kernel of tragedy being the fulfillment of the monstrous wish in one form or another, enacted by the hero or by someone else who works as his agent. Cain’s narratives are not imagined on a particularly subtle or even surprising level. The Freudian insight Cain acknowledges is best suited for a work in which the central consciousness is deep, deeper than the consciousness which the reader brings to the book. In Cain, however, one can always see beyond the central characters, who are involved so passionately with one another that they are, in a sense, blind. The overt wish, then, is an ego-wish and whatever the basis for its power in the id, it remains largely on the conscious, calculating level. Therefore, victims are generally irrelevant to the hero’s relationship with his woman. Frank kills the Greek, Cora’s husband, but not because the man disgusts him; the killing is pragmatic; they need money, they can’t run away and be bums. The insurance salesman of Double Indemnity agrees to murder a man he hardly knows, again for pragmatic reasons. The murder of a victim beyond the killer’s emotional radius characterizes Cain’s works as crime or suspense novels, but it would be a mistake to look no further into them. In Serenade the “forbidden wishes” are dealt with in typically dream-like and unconvincing fashion: to bring the action to the fantastic point at which a man might sing five lines of “Cielito Lindo” and with that kill a woman! This is the wish as pure action, so outlandish as to dissociate itself entirely from ordinary considerations of verisimilitude. If the conscious wish of Serenade is to be a man, free from homosexual weakness, then surely the unconscious wish is to destroy whatever threatens this weakness—obviously, the female who prevents the comfortable illicit relationship with the male lover, artist, musician, man of taste, of wealth, etc. Is it possible that Cain did not understand what he was doing in Serenade?
And Mildred Pierce has at its center a forbidden wish made articulate: that a mother may possess her daughter completely as if the daughter were a lover, that she may control not only this daughter but all people, all men within her orbit, and even achieve a kind of apocalyptic economic success out of the ruins of the Depression — exactly the formula for a popular audience, though all these wishes are ultimately thwarted. Mildred Pierce is the most convincing of Cain’s central works in its plodding, repetitious, unimaginative progress, its depiction of a strong / weak heroine whose profound ignorance is matched perfectly by the characters who surround her. The lure of the unconscious is suggested crudely by means of the daughter, Veda, who is not only extraordinarily beautiful but also a singer, thereby having access to the mystical reservoir Cain associates with music.
The Butterfly (1947) is an incredible Caldwellesque extravaganza concerning a weak victim whose apparent daughter is in love with him. The “forbidden” wish is the father’s incestuous desire for the girl, who does in fact turn out to be someone else’s daughter (Cain is daring but not depraved!), and the realization of this wish leads to his own doom. But the characterizations and motivations of this novel are so strangely inconsistent that critical analysis is probably out of place. Again we have a mysteriously-gifted singer, whose hypnotic effect is not enough to prevent his being brutally murdered by the hero. It is the pretentious interweavings of fates that make The Butterfly fail, for in it Cain is attempting to create a truly predestined disaster, a kind of sub-tragedy whose hero / victim is doomed by his false interpretation of the butterfly birthmark which links father and grandson. With his plot so rigidly determined, Cain’s casual style is thwarted and the result is awkward melodrama.
In general, however, Cain’s craftsmanship has been admired even by critics who disapprove of him. In The Novel of Violence in America, W. M. Frohock declares that nothing of Cain’s is “outside the category of trash,” and goes on to discuss Postman in the past tense, as if it no longer existed as a novel to be read. Yet Frohock will say, in his discussion of James T. Farrell in the same book, that Cain, though less deserving of attention than Farrell, can “give him cards and spades” when it comes to writing dialogue—using, even, imagery he must have garnered from Cain’s writing!
David Madden argues in “James Cain and the ‘Pure’ Novel” (University Review, Winter, 1963) that Cain’s main interest is technique—and certainly the deliberately sordid stories are triumphs of a kind of technique, faltering only when a more traditional narrative is attempted (as in Mildred Pierce and Love’s Lovely Counterfeit). Double Indemnity is a continuous assault upon the reader’s imagination, for Cain is determined to end every short chapter with a twist or a new development. It is only when we are asked to believe in the hero’s sudden integrity that the craftsmanship fails—it can perform dazzling tricks but it cannot quite make us believe in them. However, Cain’s novels are paced so fast that one usually does not have time to question the authenticity of the deepening or waning passions, and this is deliberate. Madden quotes Simenon, that extraordinary popular writer, in relationship to the kind of pure novel Cain attempts: “And the beginning will always be the same; it is almost a geometrical question: I have such a man, such a woman, in such surroundings. What can happen to them to oblige them to go to their limits? That’s the question. It will be sometimes a very simple incident, anything which will change their lives” (in Writers at Work, 1959).
Simenon sometimes deals with the relationship between members of a family—the literal working-out of unconscious feelings of guilt and hostility, as in The Brothers Rico. And it must be admitted that his psychology and his writing are superior to Cain’s. Cain is determinedly and flat-footedly American, while Simenon probes into his victims with so morbid a curiosity as to make the reader recoil with frustration, as if forced to participate in a sadistic act. Simenon’s people are doomed but their doom is more obviously self-willed; Cain, catering to and certainly a part of the American desire for simplicity, will allow certain initial choices that lead (indirectly) to doom, but will occasionally force his characters to suicide only when there is no other alternative, as in Double Indemnity. Murder is one thing, but suicide is clearly another—it involves an entirely different kind of temperament, an introverted one in which the fatal wish is never quite brought up into consciousness and never exorcized. That is why Simenon, perhaps, has never caught on in America and is probably regarded as a little depraved; murder for money and a woman is a fairly healthy act, but suicide is somehow . . . unlawful beyond murder, since society cannot deal with it.
Let us consider Postman as an example of Cain’s craftsmanship at its finest. In this novel everything is slick and professional; even the unintentional comedy (“I kissed her. . . . It was like being in church.”) is somehow just right, perfect. This is precisely what Frank Chambers would think and he would express it in just that way, knowing none of the uses of rhetoric or the ways by which conceits of passionate and spiritual love are devised. Chambers comes out of nowhere, is thrown off a hay truck and wanders to the roadside sandwich joint that is “like a million others in California.” The novel’s beginning is far superior to the beginning contrived for the famous movie made from it, since it says nearly nothing, promises little, and emphasizes the accidental nature of everything in Frank Chambers’ world. The movie contrives to make the hero a recognizable citizen, definitely not a bum, well-dressed and actually in search of work—while Cain’s Chambers responds not at all to the offer of work, though he needs money, but only to Cora. That he is a bum, “no good,” worthless, is insisted upon and accepted by Chambers himself.
The colloquial, compressed style, the common man’s halfway cynical objectivity, make the reader feel that this is a man whose opinion can be trusted. He is no pretentious intellectual; he doesn’t waste time describing nature or even people. He doesn’t bother with a psychological background. Food is important to such a person, so we get a catalogue of the seven items Frank will have for breakfast. The woman appears as a mirage, less detailed than the breakfast, a blurred picture of Woman: “Then I saw her. . . . Except for the shape, she really wasn’t any raving beauty, but she had a sulky look to her, and her lips stuck out in a way that made me want to mash them in for her.” Later on, uncharacteristically talkative, Frank assures Cora that she doesn’t look “Mex”: “You’re small, and got nice white skin, and your hair is soft and curly, even if it is black.” Cain structures the scene around Frank’s obvious interest in Cora and Cora’s defensive attitude about being married to a Greek, which is the crack in her sulky demeanor that lets Frank and the reader know that she will be vulnerable. At dinner Frank can “smell her” and her presence excites him so that he vomits up everything he has eaten: about the most concise way of letting the reader know that this is serious business, since food itself is serious enough. This running-together of sexual desire and nausea is factually preposterous, but as a sensational device it works so well that few readers would ever pause to criticize it. (Nor would they criticize the love-making at the scene of the murder, which is just as unlikely for two normal people.) There is nothing tentative about Frank’s assessment of the initial situation, and Cain manipulates his audience into accepting whatever Frank says as the truth.
The undercurrent of gratuitous violence in this novel has more to do with the sex-obsession than with the actual murder. And, as I remarked earlier, there seems to be no necessary relationship between this violence and the pragmatic, calculated violence that ends in the Greek’s death. One does not lead into the other, as it would in a superior work—Light in August, for instance. Cain’s lovers respond to each other at once in the most animalistic of ways: “I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers. . . . ‘Bite me! Bite me!’ I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth.” A few days later he sees Cora by herself and “swung my fist up against her leg so hard it nearly knocked her over.” This is without provocation indeed; nothing comes before it or after it; it is a kind of act of love in itself. Cora, understanding perfectly, snarls “like a cougar. I liked her like that.” But the infantile quality of their relationship can have its tender side as well, equally simple-minded: ” ‘You like blueberry pie?’ ‘I don’t know. Yeah. I guess so.’ ‘I’ll make you some.'” Women are associated with food, whether they bake pies like Cora and Mildred Pierce or offer their own bodies, like Juana, to whom Sharp says, “I know now, my whole life comes from there.”
Frank and Cora are representative of a competitive society that has bypassed them, but they are not informed of its spiritual values. There is no question of their being “immoral” since, within the confines of their world, no morality exists. When they are dragged out of their particular world and confronted with superior, intelligent people—their lawyer, for instance—they recognize without surprise the same lust for power and indifference toward human life. (Their lawyer even makes a present of the $10,000 insurance money to the murderers, and never flinches or shows the slightest sign of disapproval toward what they have done.) All this is in line with popular sentiment: the sense of universal corruption, the sly, knowing low-brow familiarity with the evil in all men, which is the precise corollary (and, indeed, sustained by the same audience) of the idea that everyone is really good. Brutality and sentimentality are closely related; the vulgar degrade all notable qualities, especially that of subtlety. What is not exaggerated will be passed by.
Amoral though the lovers are, they do develop a sense of responsibility for their crime and for each other which arouses in them unexpected feelings of guilt. “That’s all it takes,” Huff says in Double Indemnity, “one drop of fear, to curdle love into hate.” Genuine moral responsibilities are developed in Cain, particularly in Serenade and The Butterfly. But the moral commitments are always temporary, varying with the emotions of the characters, and by no means can they be depended upon. (Kady of The Butterfly is warm and loving on one page, depraved on another, sympathetic on another, and finally murderous.) Only within a certain emotional radius do relationships exist; Cain’s people have one set of values for each individual occasion, each person with whom they are involved. Out of the murder plot of Double Indemnity arises a legitimate, selfless love in Huff that is unusual in Cain. More often, as in Postman, an initial love-relationship is intensified and expressed in violence of one kind or another.
Cain’s fast-moving narrative is sometimes so economical, so oblique and knowing, that one feels the reader must participate as a kind of writer himself. He must, at least, be reading between the lines; because there is such barrenness everywhere, he is forced into the position of imagining what is not given. For instance, the beginning of chapter 6 deals with Frank’s attempt at poolhall hustling: “I made shots that Hoppe couldn’t make. . . . He never made a shot that Blind Tom . . . couldn’t have made. He miscued, he got himself all tangled up on position . . . he never even called a bank shot. And when I walked out of there, he had my $250 and a $3 watch. . . . Oh, I was good all right. The only trouble was I wasn’t quite good enough.” Here, Cain is relying upon his audience to anticipate the outcome of the hustling, so that the narration itself is only a kind of summary, almost an allusion.
Edmund Wilson and others have remarked upon the contrived quality of the murder scene, where the dead man’s high note (the Greek has been singing) is echoed back from the mountains after his death. But the line between Hollywood gimmick and surrealistic touch is fairly thin—note the skillful use of the cat motif in the novel, a cinematic technique as well, but one that seems to work. Cora is described as a “cougar” and defines herself, a little hesitantly, as a “hellcat” (that is, a woman prepared to murder for love); the first murder attempt is endangered by the presence of a policeman who notices a cat climbing up the ladder to the window of the bathroom, and it is this cat’s stepping on a fuse box that thwarts the murder attempt and saves the murderers, this time. Frank and the policeman later find the cat “laying on its back with all four feet in the air”—a Hollywood cat, surely, perhaps even a cartoon cat.
After the murder is successfully committed, the lovers fall into the inevitable period of accusations and misery. Just as they were attracted to each other through a kind of sexual tropism, so at the first sign of trouble they are willing to betray each other, and the memory of their traitorous behavior haunts them. There is no tenderness in their love, but only a kind of preposterous violence: Cora is imaged as the “great grandmother of every whore in the world,” an incredibly foolish metaphor until one remembers who has said it. Gradually, Cora emerges as the stronger figure. It is she, like Mildred Pierce of the later novel, who wants to do something substantial, to go into business by adding a beer garden to the restaurant. Cain’s men usually want a kind of infantile freedom, but the women seem to gravitate toward permanent and conventional patterns of behavior. The cat motif comes in again in the peculiar episode in which Frank goes with a girl puma-trainer down to Mexico. There is a brief cryptic conversation about big cats.
“What’s an outlaw?”
“He’d kill you.”
“Wouldn’t they all?”
“They might, but an outlaw does anyway. If it was people, he would be a crazy person. It comes from being bred in captivity. These cats you see, they look like cats, but they’re really cat lunatics.”
If the cat lunatics are symbols for the lunatic people, it is not really Cora who is cat-like so much as it is Frank, whose recklessness finally results in her death. The colloquial style keeps leading one to think that Frank is a kind of American innocent, an older Huckleberry Finn whose very stupidity prevents him from being evil. When he thinks, at the Greek’s funeral, “I got to blubbering while they were letting him down. Singing those hymns will do it every time, and specially when it’s about a guy you like as well as I liked the Greek,” it is possible that Cain is being ironic, but that’s doubtful; Frank is so simple that he becomes ambiguous! Cain intends a kind of ritualistic cleansing when Frank and Cora, now married, go swimming. Frank says, “and with my ears ringing and that weight on my back and chest, it seemed to me that all the devilment, and meanness, and shiftlessness, and no-account stuff in my life had been pressed out and washed off, and I was all ready to start out with her again clean, and do like she said, have a new life.” But his good intentions are thwarted when he passes a truck and has an accident which is fatal to Cora—but apparently doesn’t injure Frank.
The plot is a reversal of The Stranger, in which a man is found guilty of a crime because of his prior unnatural behavior toward his mother. In Postman Frank is found guilty and declared a mad dog not for the original murder, which he did commit, but for the alleged murder of Cora, which was an accident. For some bizarre reason the puma kitten given to Cora by Frank’s temporary girl friend is brought into court, and Frank comments, “It was an awful looking thing, and it didn’t do me any good, believe me.” Thus the hellcat motif is sounded a final time, in connection with Frank now, not Cora.
At the end of the novel, Frank says, “There’s a guy in No. 7 that murdered his brother, and says he didn’t really do it, his subconscious did it. I asked him what that meant, and he says you got two selves, one that you know about and the other that you don’t know about, because it’s subconscious. It shook me up. Did I really do it, and not know it?” It is evident that the inner rhythm of the story deals with the unleashing of unconscious, violent urges, turned not toward the usual targets of the impoverished or marginal—the police, the rich—but toward the person who enters into an emotional unit with the hero. It is the arousal of lust which precipitates violence, and indeed the two are precisely the same thing; the infantile ego always lashes out against any force that threatens an end to selfishness. The promise of maturity, of marriage and fatherhood, necessitates Frank’s final act of violence, whether it is conscious or not. Significantly, Frank ends his confession with a wistful vision of heaven in which he and Cora are together, and he asks the reader to pray for them. Only in literature do men under sentence of death transcend their situations and understand themselves and society—in real life nothing of the sort happens, as Cain tells us so convincingly. We fall deeper and deeper into our old delusions, which we believe fervently, and at the end of life our commitment is still atomistic. In Cain, life is a bungling process and in no way educational. There is one lesson: love turns into hate if fear is introduced. But, significantly, “fear” comes from without, from the threat of a legal system, and not from an internal code or conscience. There is no education, then, in moral terms at all. Mildred Pierce points out the all-too-human predicament in the series of confrontations and exposures of the daughter Veda’s hatefulness and the constant failure of Mildred Pierce to understand. Tedious, intolerable, yes, but totally believable. Frank, begging the reader to pray for him and Cora, is the very voice of mass man. There is no doubt but that brutality brutalizes, and sentimentality is but one form of brutality.
Cain’s most interesting novel is Serenade, a dream-like blend of many elements: the exoticism of the primitive; the “terror” of the archetypal female, the Artist disguised in rags and anonymity; the amazingly simple conquest of the world (via singing); the alter-ego who threatens to obscure one’s identity. Juana is the archetypal female, best seen as an Indian who lives in a timeless time, who functions as a kind of Jungian anima for the hero. John Howard Sharp is the Artist, in disguise when we first meet him, having lost all connections with the world of music; in further disguise, we learn gradually, not only from the world but from himself, and his little lady of terror sees directly into his soul: “When I closed my eyes I’d see her looking at me, seeing something in me, I didn’t know what, and then I’d open them again and look at the fog. After a while it came to me that I was afraid of what she saw in me. There would be something horrible mixed up in it, and I didn’t want to know what it was.” When Juana confronts Sharp with this vision, later, he collapses and admits the truth: that he is victimized by a homosexual attraction he cannot control. Juana is that which must be faced and acknowledged; her terror is her primitive relentlessness, which Cain feels possesses the truth. She is always in control of herself, while Sharp, a typical man, is often not in control of himself. Fleeing Mexico, Sharp looks out over the water and sees a shark’s fin, and the music-loving Captain (a kind of Prospero who saves the couple twice) remarks, “The water, the surf, the colors on the shore. You think they make the beauty of the tropical sea, aye, lad? They do not. ‘Tis the knowledge of what lurks below the surface of it, that awful-looking thing, as you call it, that carries death with every move it makes. So it is, so it is with all beauty. So it is with Mexico. I hope you never forget it.”
While Juana is the primitive, the ageless, the “real,” Winston represents the decadence of civilization. He is intelligent, wealthy, generous, powerful, and depraved. It is only through a compromise and an alliance with this “civilization” that the Artist can express himself—but the paradox is that, in so doing, in demanding a public expression of his art, he falls from the real and is threatened with a loss of self. Sharp’s manhood determines his singing voice. In Cain’s imagination the voice of the singer is an expression of his sexual normality, perhaps psychologically determined. Sharp’s failure as a singer is the result of his unnatural attraction for Winston, who was once so important to him that Sharp “depended on him like a hophead depends on dope.” Through an accidental meeting with Juana, the power of the alter-ego is lessened and nearly conquered. Juana explains the mystique of music and sex: “I know when you sing. . . . these men who love other man, they can do much, very clever. But no can sing. Have no tow in high voice. . . . Sound like old woman, like cow, like priest.” When Sharp admits she has spoken the truth, he collapses and has a vision of the shark’s fin—a phallic symbol that seems somehow connected with death.
The bullfighting scene in which Juana kills Winston may be criticized as sensational, but in the context of the novel’s exoticism and the particular exoticism of the party of perverts in Winston’s apartment, it seems perfect. Here Juana takes on the role that should by nature have been Sharp’s: he should have killed the homosexual in himself. But Juana, with her primeval strength, kills her rival and wins Sharp. The irony is that their fleeing from civilization results in a period of aimlessness and disorder similar to the post-murder sequence in Postman. Sharp gets fat, has to wear glasses; Juana “looked like an old woman. . . . If she had had a donkey beside her, it would have been any hag from Mexicali to Tapachula.” Their love disintegrates without any public outlet for the Artist’s talent, and it is ultimately Sharp’s public exposure of his identity (by way of singing) that leads to Juana’s death.
As a parable of the Artist and his relationship to both society and his inspiration, nature, Serenade is an ambiguous work. It seems doubtful that Cain was conscious of his intention in killing off Juana; he must have had in mind the creation of a kind of tragedy in which the Artist must choose, though either choice will result in disaster. But Sharp’s attraction to Winston is an attraction to a fuller, more powerful version of himself. Like Chambers and other Cain heroes, Sharp is most himself when he is kicking free of demands of tenderness, or when he is pushing people around and browbeating stereotypes of people in power. He learns from Juana what it is like to depend upon a woman, but this education is but a temporary one. Significantly, it is not the Artist who is destroyed (in the typical parable it would have been) but the inspiration for his art, the archetypal female—destroyed by the very masculinity of the force she has created. If the shark’s fin suggests Winston, the ugly and primitive iguana suggests Juana; as she is being lowered into her grave, an iguana appears, bringing to mind the iguana she and Sharp ate in the country church prior to their love-making. The iguana is the “terror,” but the shark’s fin is also the terror—between the two of them the hero is doomed.
Finally, it is not Cain’s writing so much as the success of that writing which is interesting. His works may be discussed as mirrors of the society that gave birth to them and rewarded their creator handsomely for them, but the ambiguities and paradoxes of the works bear analysis. Money is important, but it is important secondarily. Of first importance is the doomed straining toward a permanent relationship—an emotional unit which the male both desires and fears. Whether love or sex, it is certainly dominated by unconscious motives, a complex of impulses which shuttle between violence and tenderness. Thus the innocent victim of The Butterfly becomes a moonshiner and, rather abruptly, a brutal murderer because of his confused feelings toward his “daughter”; and once his power is relinquished to her, his doom is certain. To love and therefore to relinquish one’s power are tantamount to being destroyed. One must remain solitary and invulnerable, yet one cannot—and so the death sentence is earned. Mildred Pierce, masculine in her determination for economic success and possession of her daughter, survives only because in her novel, Cain attempts to write a realistic story, without the structural contrivance of murder and retribution. Mildred is “destroyed” in a thematic sense, but in the suspense-novel genre she would have been killed.
Cain’s parable, which is perhaps America’s parable, may be something like this: the passion that rises in us is both an inescapable part of our lives and an enemy to our lives, to our egoistic control of ourselves. Once unleashed it cannot be quieted. Giving onself to anyone, even temporarily, will result in entrapment and death; the violence lovers do to one another is no more than a reflection of the proposed violence society holds back to keep the individual passions in check. Freud speaks in many of his works of the strange relationship between the impulse of love and the impulse of destruction, how the sadistic impulse (see Civilization and its Discontents) may be an expression of Eros—but an Eros concerned with the self and its survival. The self cannot fulfill its destiny without the alter-ego or anima, but, in relinquishing its power to external agents, it becomes vulnerable to destruction from without. The highest expression of Eros, which is spiritual, is of course beyond Cain’s infantile characters. Just as the soap operas and the American movies not only of the thirties and forties but of the present have played back again and again certain infantile obsessions to the great American public, so Cain’s novels serve up, in the guise of moral tracts, the lesson of the child who dares too much and must be punished. And there is satisfaction in knowing he will be punished—if not for one crime, then for another; if not by the law, then by himself or by an accomplice. In any case the “postman,” whatever symbol of fate or death or order in the form of a uniformed and familiar person, will “ring twice”; there is no escape.
There is perhaps no writer more faithful to the mythologies of America than Cain, for he writes of its ideals and hatreds without obscuring them in the difficulties of art.