Descent Into Hell, Chapters II-IV

The second chapter introduces us to an archetypal loser, a working class incompetent who cannot hold a job,  Discharged from a building project--a housing estate, that is, public housing--on the Hill, he returns at night and enters the house oof Lawrence Wentworth, an historian who specializes in old battles, and hangs himself from a rope.  The suicide is vividly, indeed brilliantly, described.  He hesitates. realizing he does not really want to die, though all his life is one long unending despair:

"All he knew of the comfort of the world meant only more pain. He got awkwardly to his feet; he must be quick.

"He was not very quick. Something that was he dragged at him, and as he crawled to the edge dragged more frantically at something still in him. He had supposed he had wanted to die, and only at the last even he discovered that he wanted also not to die. Unreasonably and implacably, he wanted not to die. But also he wanted not to live, and the two rejections blurred his brain and shook his body. He half struggled to his feet in his agony; he twisted round and hung half over, his back to the abyss; he clutched at the rope, meaning to hold it and release it as he fell, to such an extreme of indecision pretending decision did his distress drive him, and then as the circling movement of his body ended, twining the rope once more round his neck, he swayed and yelped and knew that he was lost, and fell.

"He fell, and as he fell he thought for a moment he saw below him a stir as of an infinite crowd, or perhaps, so sudden and universal was it, the swift rush of a million insects toward shelter, away from the shock that was he. The movement, in the crowd, in the insects, in the earth itself, passed outward towards the unfinished houses, the gaps and holes in half-built walls, and escaped. When at last he knew in his dazed mind that he was standing securely on the ground, he knew also, under the pale light which feebly shone over the unfashioned town, that he was still alone.

In most novels, this would be the end of an uninteresting and unnamed character, but here it is just the beginning, as he continues to wander about, more lost than ever before.

This is a suitable subject for comments and questions.

In Chapter III we meet Wentworth who seems to have fallen a bit for the somewhat flighty young woman, Ádela Hunt, whom we met in the first chapter.  While she and a few others have a custom of visiting Wentworth on Thursday evening, Hugh persuades her, with promise of avant-garde artistic experiences, to blow him off.  As it happens, only the obsessed Pauline shows up, and the evening is not a success.  Wentworth has his own mental problem.  Not only has he begun to feel old and worn-out (in his 50s!) but he has a dream of a rope going endlessly downward.   Pauline asks him about Doppelgänger, and he wonders first, perhaps thinking of himself as he is too wont to do, if it is a dream and then asks if she is referring to a Rosetti painting.

Of course Pauline pretends she is inquiring for a friend, and Wentworth wonders if the friend might be somewhat self-centered.  A lucky, though palpable hit!  Wentworth, stricken with jealousy over Adela, goes for a walk and finds himself disturbed by a shadow on the moon and the sight of a young woman.  Obviously, the disturbances in his visual field are really spiritual disturbances.

Chapter IV completes what we might consider as the introduction.  We meet perhaps the most important character, the wise old grandmother of Pauline, Mrs. Anstruther.  She is the soul of Christian patience, treating everyone, the maid, her awkward granddaughter, the strangee and somewhat irritating Mrs. Sammle with great kindness and courtesy.  Of course, Pauline thinks she is long-suffering for putting up with this patient and undemanding old lady who has given her shelter:

"The girl was in fact so patient with the old lady that she had not yet noticed that she was never given an opportunity to be patient. She endured her own nature and supposed it to be the burden of another's."

Mrs. Anstruther very much admires the poetry of Peter Stanhope and talks about Pauline's role, as head of the chorus, and the need to read the poetry properly.  This might be misconstrued as  silly artsy talk, but it is actually quite important.  Mrs. A talks about the director and observes:

"My dear, I used to know Catherine Parry very well. No one has destroyed more plays by successful production. I sometimes wonder—it's wrong—whether she has done the same thing with her life."

Mrs. A. says perhaps she ought to be more kind,  "but  I feel she relies too much on elocution and not enough on poetry."  She goes on to observe that Pauline has the same defect.  Let me just suggest that elocution, rhetoric, eloquence in this story are the aesthetic equivalent of affectation and even hypocrisy.  Stanhope's poetry, like Mrs. A's kindness, is the real thing.


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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Jacob Johnson says:

    The man had enough of failure and took the easy way out. The fact that he was without “all the nourishment that comes from friendship and common pain” is implied to be the determining factor for this decision. This seems to be implied that this is because he is without faith. “No dichotomy of flesh and spirit distressed or delighted him nor did he know anything of the denial of that dichotomy by the creed of Christendom. The unity of that creed has proclaimed, against experience, against intelligence, that for the achievement of man’s unity the body of his knowledge is to be raised; no other fairer stuff, no alien matter, but this to be impregnated with holiness and transmuted by lovely passion perhaps, but still this. Scars and prints may disseminate splendour, but the body is to be the same, the very body of the very soul that are both names of the single man. ” I cannot say that I know, exactly, what this means, but it stands out as significant. Wandering in his sort of Purgatory state, he finds contentment in the absence of other people and, therefore, as he sees it, evil.

  2. Michael Strenk says:

    The population of the Hill generally seems to be contrived and atomized, like most of the “communities” in which we now live. Margaret Anstruther and Peter Stanhope are the only characters that seem to be truly rooted in the place, which also appears to be some portal between the past and future/death. I suppose that all places are meant to be such, but most people only relate to place as a the locus of the events of their mundane lives.

    There is much talk of the terrible in the good. Pauline sees her double as an ominous, dark presence, but her grandmother dreams of it as something like Pauline’s better self, from which she flees in fear. I am reminded of conversations with a friend, who is an Orthodox cleric and monk. He once related a story to me about a great holy man that was visited by an angel of the Lord, an experience that left him sick and disoriented for days, adding that angels are no joke. They are not the chubby cherubs of popular art, but serious purposeful and even terrifying creatures. Our guardian angels are said to resemble us in some mystical way.

    I don’t really know what to make of the suicide. We had one such event (quite similar in fact) in the family a few years ago that left my wife and myself quite upset. We consulted a friend who is an Orthodox priest. The Western Church ritualistically rejects suicides and their families from the consolation of Christian burial. Our friend told us that this is not the case in the Orthodox Church because only God knows the last thoughts of a person, which could be of sincere repentance too late to save mortal life in the ordinary course of things. The suicide in the book seems to have tended toward a reconsideration of the act, but, by some accident or disorientation, it was carried out regardless. This is not repentance, but, in the world in which we live, almost devoid of all reference to the divine, maybe it is as close as most can get. The Lord is merciful.