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Summary:The Stone Diaries recount the life of Daisy Goodwill (1905-199? [sic]). "[W]ife, mother, citizen of our century," her son closes the benediction of her memorial service. Yet Daisy is also the orphaned daughter of an orphan--her dramatic birth a turning point for her father, the neighbours--and a social outcast. Daisy becomes a happy child, a lifelong friend, a college graduate, a consummate gardener, a cultivator of stories, a pragmatist, a romantic, a widow twice (once scandalously, once more ordinarily) . . . . In short, the diaries of "Day's Eye" bear witness to the extraordinary lives of seemingly ordinary "citizens."
This bittersweet and very funny novel tells the tale of Porter Osborn, Jr. from the time he leaves his home in a small Georgia town to attend Willingham University, until he completes college and is about to begin medical school. Even though he has been "raised right" in the Baptist faith, young Porter confronts his new environment with energy, pride, skepticism, and mischievous delight.
This picaresque novel introduces us to Bob Cater, Michael Jurkiedyk, Vashti Clemmons, Clarence Spangler, and a host of other fascinating characters who populate Sambo's (Osborn's nickname) college years. This is the old story of a young man finding himself. "Full of outrageous pranks and ribald humor," as the endnote proclaims, yet "we sense a quiet constant flow toward maturity."
A hapless country doctor describes with breathless urgency a night-time summons to attend a young patient. Events soon take on a surreal aspect as "unearthly horses" transport him instantaneously to the bedside. The doctor, preoccupied with personal distractions and grievances against those he is employed to care for, fails to find what is revealed to be a vile, fatal wound (symbolizing the Crucifixion?). He is humiliated by the villagers, who are "always expecting the impossible from the doctor," and doomed to an endless return trip, losing everything.
Reade was known for writing "novels with a cause." Here, as in several other of his novels, his cause is the deplorable condition of mental hospitals in the early to mid-nineteenth century. Until late in the century, many considered the mentally ill untreatable. Hospitals were more like prisons than places for treatment. Admission policies were also fairly lax. Reade records a common fear that healthy people would be incarcerated.
In Hard Cash, a father incarcerates his son in order to cover up a crime. The doctors who admit him have a kickback scheme worked out with the hospital--they get money for each patient admitted. Once in the hospital, the hero tries to prove his sanity but finds it impossible to battle against doctors who refuse to look past the diagnosis that caused his admission to his actual mental condition. He also must negotiate with the head of the hospital, a woman who is madly in love with him and refuses to allow him out of her sight.
He cannot prove his sanity and only escapes when there is a fire in the asylum. There is one "good" doctor in the story who refuses to bleed patients, deny them food, or admit the sane to mental hospitals. The other doctors think him a quack, but he saves several lives.
The story begins with a philosophical discussion about how science (especially phrenology) understands human beings. It is the narrator's contention that science develops a priori. One first decides on the basic needs of humankind, then ascribes to certain organs the role of satisfying those needs. The narrator thinks this is backwards: "It would have been wiser, it would have been safer to classify . . . upon the basis of what man usually or occasionally did, and was always occasionally doing, rather than upon the basis of what we took for granted the Diety intended him to do."
One major trait scientists have overlooked is perversity. Men often do things for no better reason than that it will hurt themselves or others. The narrator then tells how he murdered a man and lived contentedly with the knowledge for many years until he was suddenly, perversely compelled to confess.
A young man is traveling through France with a companion. They pass near a well-known "Mad House" and decide to visit. His companion introduces him to the superintendent, Monsieur Maillard, then leaves. The superintendent informs the young man that the hospital has given up the system of management it was famous for. Previously, patients were allowed complete freedom. The practice had finally proved too dangerous and Maillard promises to show the young man the alternative system he installed after dinner. He escorts the young man to a banquet table crowded with guests and laden with food.
To the visitor, the dinner guests seem rather mad as they take turns describing and then demonstrating the delusions of patients. But Maillard assures him that the lunatics are locked up; the guests are keepers. Maillard says the new system was invented by Doctors Tarr and Fether. He describes the dangers of the former system used. In one instance, he says, patients rebelled and imprisoned their keepers while they themselves enjoyed the wines and beauty of the grounds.
Suddenly, there is a crash at the boarded-up windows. The visitor thinks it is the escaped madmen. It turns out, however, to be the keepers who were indeed imprisoned by the madmen, tarred and feathered and kept on a diet of bread and water. Maillard, the former superintendent, had gone mad himself and organized the rebellion.
A former ape presents his report to a meeting of the scientific Academy. Less than five years ago, he was captured in the jungles of West Africa. While on the ship returning to Europe, the ape came to the realization that there was no way out: "I was pinned down." Even if he should escape from his cage, he knew there would be no way to go home.
However, the ape developed a profound inward calm, thanks in part to the kindness of the ship's crew. His close observation of the crew and other humans allowed him to imitate them. In general, they were easy to imitate, although some of the viler human habits like drinking schnapps were more difficult to get used to. Finally, he realized that the only way to stay out of the zoo was to become human enough to perform as an ape-turned-human on the vaudeville stage. That's what he did.
A 'hunger artist' explains the decline of interest in the art of fasting. In the old days people would enthusiastically observe the artist as he fasted, some of them watching carefully for surreptitious snacking. In those times 40 days was the limit of fasting; on the 40th day, the artist's cage was decked in flowers as he emerged to the ministrations of doctors and the crowd's applause.
But the public now has lost interest. The artist left his impresario and hired himself out to a circus where his cage is placed near the cages of animals. He dreads the onslaught of customers, some of whom stop and watch him, but others rush right past him to see the animals.
At the end, the overseer finds the hunger artist among the straw when he enters the cage. Just before he dies, the artist admits that there was no honor in his fasting; he just never found the food that he liked. Had he found it, he would have stopped fasting. He dies and is replaced by a panther.
On her death bed, surrounded by her children, doctor and priest, a memory of 60 years ago, the day she was jilted by her husband-to-be, could no longer be repressed by Granny Weatherall-- "the thought of him was a smoky cloud from hell that moved and crept in her head . . . ." Voices and visions, imagined and real, mingle and merge throughout the story as this hardy woman, one who has weathered so much, lives out her final moments.
Ironically, Granny Weatherall is jilted for a second time when the final sign she's been waiting for from Jesus never appears. "For the second time there was no sign. Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house . . . She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light."
Elizabeth, a coal miner's wife, waits anxiously for her husband to return for dinner, concerned for his safety and at the same time angry at the trouble he has made for her by coming home late, and drunk, so often. She ponders their unsatisfactory relationship and tries to keep up appearances with her two young children.
Then word comes that there has been an accident and that her husband has been killed. His body is brought into the house and laid out (undamaged because he died of suffocation). Washing the body with her mother-in-law, she goes through a complex series of reactions, including curiosity, anger, sympathy, forgiveness, and cool appraisal. She sees that the two of them had long ago rejected something deep within the other, and that they had lived utterly separate lives. At the end she is “grateful to death, which restored the truth.”