Light, Darkness, and Idolatry in The Damnation of Theron Ware

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Light, Darkness, and Idolatry in The Damnation of Theron Ware

In the first chapter of The Damnation of Theron Ware, Harold Frederic describes in tedious detail every sight, sound, and structure comprising the annual Nedahma Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Using images that evoke Dante's Empyrean or "Tenth Heaven" (Cantos XXX-XXXIII of Paradiso), Frederic remarks upon the hierarchical alignment of the clergy in attendance as well as the tendency of every eye present at the conference to be fixed upon a common objective point. Here Dante's and Frederic's versions of "the saved" diverge. Frederic's Methodists gaze not at an all-encompassing, all-penetrating light, but at a Bishop whose vision fails him as he reads through a list of minister's assignments for the coming year. The difference here, as distinct as the light Dante sees, begins Frederic's meditation on a major and seemingly unanswerable question in the novel. With Theron as his guinea pig, Frederic systematically poses the question of where truth originates. The locus of attention of the entire assembly at Tecumseh proclaims nothing of overwhelming truth or even permanence. "The light," on the other hand, originates "...from numerous tin-lined circles of flaring gas-jets arranged on the ceiling..." (Frederic 1). This light transcends and shines down upon the entire group. Here Frederic sets up the notion that truth comes not from one particular point but from several, some of which we might not be able to see.

Dante, remarking on his final vision of the "Eternal Light," says, "In its profundity I saw--ingathered / and bound by love into one single volume-- / what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered..." (Paradiso XXXIII, 85-87). Setting aside obvious colloquial, linguistic, and stylistic differences which account for the six-hundred years which separate these two authors, the above quotation bears striking resemblance to the words of another seemingly enlightened character, Father Forbes. He states, in his first conversation of length with Theron:

"So the truth remains always the truth, even though you give a charter to ten hundred thousand separate numskulls to examine it by the light of their private judgment, and report that it is as many different varieties of something else" (Frederic 70).

This assertion that the truth exists beyond the realm of earthly understanding is echoed in Father Forbes' final words to Theron, which reverberate like the sound of the door slammed in the minister's face: "The truth is always relative, Mr. Ware..." (Frederic 326).
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