The Eighth Day, by Thornton Wilder

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From the first, Lansing admired John Ashley and imitated him, stumbingly. He went so far as to pretend that he, too, was a happily married man. Society would have got nowhere without those imitations of order and decorum that pass under the names of sonbbery and hypocrisy. Ashley converted his Rainy Day House into a laboratory for experiment and invention. Lansing built a Rainy Day House behind “St. Kitts” and revived his interest in “snake oils.” Perhaps it was the influence of the Debevoises, perhaps the example of the Ashleys, that enabled Eustacia to bear a child that lived, and then another, then a third. The Lansings were older the the Ashleys, but their children were closely of an age: Felicite Marjolaine Dupuy Lansing (she was born on St. Felix’s Day; the Iowa Lansing names had been carried to Heaven by the dead infants) and Lily Scolastica Ashley; George Sims Lansing and Roger Berwyn Ashley; then Sophia alone; then Anne Lansing and Constance Ashley. Eustacia Lansing carried well her torch of hypocrisy or whatever it was. In public–at the Mayor’s picnic, on the front bench at the Memorial Day exercises–she played the proud and devoted wife. Creole beauty is short lived. By the time the Ashleys arrived in Coaltown Eustacia’s tea-colored complexion had turned a less delicate hue. her features had lost much of their doelike softness; she was decidedly plump. Nevertheless, everyone in Coaltown, from Dr. Gillies to the boy who shined shoes at the Tavern, knew that the town could boast to handsome and unusual women. Mrs. Ashley was tall and fair; Mrs. Mansing was short and dark. Mrs. Ashley–child of the ear as a German–had no talent for dress, but a magical speaking voice, and she moved like a queen; Mrs. Lansing–child of the eye as a Latin–was mistress of color and design, though her voice cut like a parrot’s and her gait lacked grace. Mrs. Ashley was serene and slow to speak; Mrs. Lansing was abrupt and voluble. Mrs. Ashley had little humor and less wit; Mrs. Lansing ransacked two languages and a dialect for brilliant and pungent mots and was a devastating mimic. For almost twenty years these ladies were in and out of one another’s house, as were their children. They got on well together without one vibration of sympathy. Beata Ashley lacked the imagination or freedom of attention to penetrate the older woman’s misery. (John Ashley was well aware of it but did not speak.) One art they shared in common: both were incomparable cooks; one condition: both were far removed from the environment that had shaped their early lives.

For these two families the first ten years went by without remarkable event: pregnancies, diapers, and croup; measles and falling out of trees; birthday parties, dolls, stamp collections, and whooping cough. George was caught stealing Roger’s three-sen stamp; Roger had his mouth washed out with soap and water for saying “hell.” Felicite, who aspired to be a nun, was discovered sleeping on the floor in emulation of some saint; Constance refused to speak to her best friend Anne for a week. You know all that.

Editor’s Comments

Is it fair to include a failure as a neglected book? Not that The Eighth Day was a failure in a commercial sense: it sold over 70,000 copies in hardback, was picked up by the Book of the Month Club as a featured title, and stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for half a year. Nor was it a complete critical failure. Edmund Wilson called it Wilder’s best work ever, and it received the National Book Award for fiction.

Other reviewers were far less enthusiastic. Stanley Kauffmann, writing for The New Republic, called it “a book that means nothing.” Josh Greenfield in Newsweek assessed Wilder’s message in the novel “a worthless bauble.” In The New Yorker, Edith Oliver judged that “none of the characters, major or minor, rings credible to the reader.”

A large paperback run was issued by the Popular Library to follow the hardback’s success. In the UK, Penguin issued it as part of its “Modern Classics” series within a year of its publication. But, other than a paperback reissue by Avon in the mid-1970s, for most of the last forty years, it’s been out of print. It became one of those books you often saw in thrift stores, and then it largely disappeared. It was forgotten by readers and ignored by critics.

If these were its just desserts, we’d be right to let The Eighth Day pass into obscurity. But if it’s fair to call The Eighth Day a failure, that’s not the same thing as calling it worthless. If The Eighth Day fails, it’s in part due the scale of Wilder’s perspective, which could easily be mistaken for his ambition.

“Is it possible that there will someday be a ‘spiritualization’ of the human animal?” asks the narrator early in The Eighth Day. As a group of the main characters celebrate the start of the 20th century near the start of the book, the town’s doctor is asked to predict what the new century will be like. It would be easy to read the answer to the narrator’s question in his reply:

Nature never sleeps. The process of life never stands still. The creation has not come to an end. The Bible says that God created man on the sixth day and rested, but each of those days was many millions of years long. That day of rest must have been a short one. Man is not an end but a beginning. We are at the beginning of the second week. We are the children of the eighth day.

Wilder certainly offers us suggestions that a new spiritual man may be emerging. The book centers upon John Ashley, an engineer working in the near-exhausted mines of Coaltown, who’s tried and convicted of killing the mines’ superintendent, Breckenridge Lansing. On his way to the peninentiary, Ashley is freed by a group of men wearing disguises. Ashley’s flight, which eventually leads him to the copper mines of Chile, and the fate of his wife and children, as well as those of Lansing, forms one parenthesis around the murder. The other is formed by the histories of Ashley and Lansing and their wives up to that moment. In six parts of unequal length, Wilder takes us forward and back in time, attempting to explore the meaning of their stories, and the life of the spirit remains a constant subject throughout.

Ashley is the most obviously saintly character. Devoid of ego or concern for social successful, his life before and after the killing is punctuated by acts of selflessness, whether it’s lobbying for a rise in the miners’ pay or building a church for the Indian copper miners. He is not alone, however. His son Roger becomes a reporter whose occasional pieces celebrate the minorities, underdogs, and lost causes of a booming Chicago. His wife and Lansing’s both demonstrate almost superhuman strength of character in their respective sufferings. His daughter Sophia outdoes Horatio Alger’s heroes in rescuing her family from removal to the poor farm.

But Wilder is no Ayn Rand. For all the efforts of these saints, he also recognizes that human progress is more often illusion than ideal. As the doctor speaks of the possibility of a new man emerging, Wilder lets us in on a secret:

Dr. Gillies was lying for all he was worth. He had no doubt that the coming century would be too direful to contemplate–that is to say, like all the other centuries.

Wilder’s view of man’s spirituality is more devious than mere Christianity. “The Bible is the story of a Messiah-bearing family, but it is only one Bible. There are many such families whose Bibles have not been written.” Elsewhere, a fellow orderly in the hospital where Roger works soon after running away to Chicago tells him, “We must wait until all the men on all the stars have purified themselves. No man can wish to be happy until everyone else in the universe is happy.”

But Roger just stares at him, “uncomprehendingly. His family had been happy at ‘The Elms’ [the Ashley home in Coaltown].” A few rise out of the muck of human existence. Perhaps they are elected, in the Puritan’s sense. Perhaps it is their own effort. Wilder leaves us to decide for ourselves:

There is much talk of a design in the arras [tapestry]. Some are certain they see it. Some see what they have been told to see. Some remember that they saw it once but have lost it. Some are strengthened by seeing a pattern wherein the oppressed and exploited of the earth are gradually emerging from their bondage. Some find strength in the conviction that there is nothing to see. Some

And so ends the book.

I think this may be why The Eighth Day has failed to keep the attention of a large reading audience or a solid critical reputation. That there is more to life than “birth, feeding, excreting, propagation, and death” is clearly Wilder’s message here. That it clearly makes a difference in the end, however, is not. Nevertheless, we do have to decide for ourselves if it does, or else we are no better than “a fly that lives and lays its eggs and dies–all in one day–and is gone forever.”

By not offering a simple answer, Wilder forfeited many of his potential readers after the first wave of best-sellerdom ebbed. By suggesting at the same time that there might be something to those staid old-fashioned notions of charity and piety, he also ran counter to prevailing prejudices among the academics and critics who might otherwise have kept his name in circulation.

Though out of print, The Eighth Day has moved at least a dozen readers to leave their own comments on “A Must-Read”; “An undiscovered treasure”; “a great and sadly neglected book”; and, “one of the books that has moved me more than any.”

What’s particularly interesting is what one of the National Book Award judges, John Updike, had to say upon reading the book again after thirty-five years. In his essay, “Chasing After Providence,” describes Wilder’s struggles to resist his own tendency to allow drink, socializing, and endless intellectual distractions to pull his attention away from the novel.

For the original National Book Award citation, Updike wrote:

Through the lens of a turn-of-the-century murder mystery, Mr. Wilder surveys a world that is both vanished and coming to birth; in a clean gay prose sharp with aphoristic wit and the sense and scent of Midwestern America and Andean Chile, he takes us on a chase of Providence and delivers us, exhilarated and edified, into the care of an ambiguous conclusion.

From the perspective of thirty-five years, Updike moderates some of these judgments. Still, he remains in awe of Wilder’s easy handling of countless small and specific details of time, place, and custom that manages to coexist with a conception of “globe-spanning nimbleness and cosmic lift-off….”:

The Eighth Day-—his one real novel, he more than once said, and much his longest—-opens itself to the digression, the sermonette, the stray inspiration that might capture the simultaneous largeness and smallness of the human adventure. Untidily, self-delightingly, it brims with wonder and wisdom, and aspires to prophecy. We marvel at a novel of such spiritual ambition and benign flamboyance.

Ironically, this is much the same conclusion Denis Donoghue reached when reviewing the novel in the NYRB in 1967:

The Eighth Day is one of those old-fashioned things called novels, stories with truth in them…. A big novel, then, impressive in its scale, The Eighth Day is touching in its regard for truth, that great lost cause. It is grand to know that there are still writers who believe that the world is a real garden with real toads in it.


Time Magazine, 31 March 1967

By leaving that last word adangle, Wilder presses home his conviction that man’s story is unending and that come what may, man will prevail. The thought is unarguable, but its demonstration leaves the reader with characters who are merely symbols and a story that is an abstraction. After visiting Coaltown, readers may want to hop a fast freight to Grover’s Corners, the setting of Our Town, whose scale was smaller but whose philosophy seemed almost as tangible as its strawberry sodas.

“Thornton Wilder: The Eighth Day,” from “20th-Century American Bestsellers”, a research course at Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

In all of this, the readers are reminded, by Wilder’s
style of historical review from a timeless position as God would have, through these
families that the characters’ lives are only “a hand’s-breadth” of the tapestry, which is
important on a much grander scale. To appreciate Wilder’s novel for the way it
characteristically points out these particulars in representative lives implies by his last
words that the reader must live its meaning and aim to fulfill his/her part of the design.
Wilder’s fans came back to his novel for his style, seen in his earlier best-selling
novels and plays. They got what they asked for and more.

“The Eighth Day as a Christian Work”, By Paul Simon, Student

Indeed, Christianity is not only part of the novel, it is essential to the novel. It adds a sense of vastness to novel that could not be done by solely secular means. To think that Jesus was only one messiah, only “a hand’s-breadth” of the tapestry of history, adds an immensity to the work that mere geographical allusions such as “range upon range”, could not.

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The Eighth Day, by Thornton Wilder
New York: Harper & Row, 1967

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