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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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Dante is constantly at a loss for words in Paradise. He refuses to describe a vision reserved for the dead and emphasizes that the products of his figurative genius are "meaningless" (Paradiso XXXIII, 121) in the face of such a blinding vision. He gazes at that which exists only in the realm of belief, (what Derrida might call "The Transcendental Signifier,") and he dares not reproduce it on paper. In fact, neither Dante, nor Theron, nor Father Forbes, as three living, mortal humans, can see this single and pervading light of truth.
Theron's damnation/illumination, which Frederic begins to set up on the first page of his novel, occurs because he mistakes earthly belief structures for the previously mentioned eternal light. His upbringing, undeniably linked to his religion and the worship of one eternal truth, coupled with his egocentrism, damn him to pedestrian and self-centered modes of understanding. Theron needs icons, single images he can link to the truth--Abraham, Father Forbes, Chopin, Celia's hair, "the kiss," Seattle, and ultimately, himself. Because he possesses only one pedestal on which to place these icons, what he believes to be a continuous path to enlightenment is interpreted by others as a lack of integrity; he becomes the "bore" Celia accuses him of being. Images of light and darkness, which often accompany his idolatry, either blind the minister with radiance or inhibit his vision with shadows but never allow him to see clearly.
Though Frederic's adventures in chiaroscuro accompany images of Celia throughout the novel, nowhere are they more telling than in Theron's visit to her boudoir. Celia's entrance in this section exemplifies a trend in Frederic's depiction of characters who affect Theron's views of the world: they tend to emerge from the shadows. At the outset of the chapter, Celia emerges "...from the total darkness into the dim starlight of the open corner" (Frederic 186). It is important to remember about this rendezvous and many others that we get only hints of Celia's take on the situation. For the most part, we are forced to misinterpret this lop-sided romance through the minister's eyes. His visions of clarity, like his moments of blindness, are inseparable from his idolatry, and to interpret an image like the one in the above quotation is to consider the dramatic irony in Theron's situation. While a figure moving from darkness to light from Theron's point of view indicates a step toward his understanding, to the reader it can be seen as another milestone toward his downfall. This initial image of Theron and Celia's date in the boudoir sets up a polarity that renders a once likable Theron pathetic and beliefless by the end of the novel.
Once inside the Madden estate, Frederic toys with the idea of Theron's blurred figurative vision by accentuating the fact that he literally can't see. Until Celia lights a candle and guides him up the stairs, the minister stands in "...complete darkness..." (Frederic 188). Theron's view, even with the help of the candle held by his beloved, is still obscured enough so that he fails to distinguish between colors and is unable to tell whether a certain piece of furniture is a writing-table or a drawing table (Frederic 189). Here Frederic constructs an objective reality that Theron has trouble seeing, and the minister's failed vision in the hallway becomes a miniature version of his view of the world on a larger scale. Celia controls what he sees, literally because she holds the candle and figuratively because she represents an untapped, endlessly exciting, new-found clarity to Theron. Her belief in classical notions captivates him; her music entices him. Celia's radiance blinds Theron of anything else; the newfound truth she seems to represent leaves no room on the minister's idolatrous pedestal for anything else. Unable to look objectively at her views of the world, Theron chooses to adopt them as his own. Later on, listening to Celia play Chopin, Theron sees charged and emotional visions in the music, "...as if he gazed at them through her eyes" (Frederic 199). Ultimately, Theron's need to connect the truth to other people's views strips him of any beliefs of his own.
Light imagery pervades Theron's final meeting with Celia, as the minister momentarily realizes the illusory nature of his newly adopted concepts of truth and then sinks again into darkness. His first vision of Celia in the hotel room involves her emerging from the shadows again. This time, however, her face is not illuminated by possibly deceptive starlight but by natural sunlight, which is cast upon her through a window: "The light from the windows was on her countenance now, and its revelations vaguely troubled him. It was a Celia he had never seen before who confronted him" (Frederic 317). Aside from equating the notion of light to ideas of false revelation again, Frederic alludes to the fact that Theron is seeing Celia in her true form for the first time. That is, his vision is neither a cut-out version of her own perspective nor a rose-lined lover's gaze, but a more objective view of a separate individual. While romantic delusions still plague Theron's thoughts, Frederic at least sets up the reverend's final epiphany here by displaying Celia in a light that Theron does not recognize. Earlier in the novel, when Theron first sees Celia in sunlight, he notes that, "It was as if Celia had brought the sun with her" (Frederic 210). This time, however, we are given no similes meant to deify Miss Madden nor references to a refreshing or glorious new truth. We simply get the impression that Theron is beginning to realize complexities in the world around him. In a sense, Theron begins to understand that he is not the center of the universe, that his views do not necessarily represent objective truth, and ultimately that he himself might be objectified in the minds of others.
Though the notion of Celia's face in the sun does not necessarily imply such notions, her image in the direct sunlight sets in motion the idea of Theron himself as an object. In his final confrontation with Celia, it is Theron who is illuminated and who realizes himself to be an element of other people's visions. The idea of Theron being watched and interpreted as he watches and interprets others is a consistent theme in the novel, most notably in the characters of Gorringe and Sister Soulsby, whose watchful, knowing eyes are given emphasis. But not until the scene in the hotel room does Theron realize he is being watched. Knowing he has been classified, especially as nothing more than "a bore," leaves Theron first in a murderous rage and then with a feeling of emptiness. The light he sees at his moment of illumination is given color and therefore more complexity. This flash then fades away to black. After seeing an "...unearthly light -- red and abnormally evil..." (Frederic 323), the world is "...all black again" (Frederic 323). He has placed his entire existence on an illusion; when the illusion is gone, he is left with nothing but an empty space between himself and a universe that holds him "...at arm's length as a nuisance" (Frederic 324).
Indeed this void that develops between Theron and structures or realities he cannot make his own contributes to his downfall. His path, which systematically leads him further and further away from a collective notion of truth, also creates a void between protagonist and reader that accentuates the vacuous nature of the space he inadvertently creates. As Theron envisions his new life in Seattle in the final chapter, he realizes that, stripped of his beliefs, what he has left are words. Reflecting on his possible future as a politician, Theron says, "I can speak, you know, if I can't do anything else. Talk is what tells, these days" (Frederic 344). The vacuum Theron has created must be filled, if not with ideals true to his heart then with rhetoric. This is essentially what Dante admits in the final Cantos of Paradiso. Although Dante ends his work with his beliefs still intact, that is he still believes in the light he can't describe and in his eternal love for Beatrice, he realizes that words are his most powerful weapon. To simplify things a great deal, he is unable to describe the blinding light of heaven because he knows he can't really see it. Theron's loss of boyhood idealism gives way to a new understanding of an amorphous universe full of arbitrary and entirely subjective structures. If he can have faith in nothing he can at least use what he still has to fill the void his former beliefs have left behind.
Illumination, of the two titles the one Frederic preferred (Donaldson, Introduction, xi), hints that the minister's "damnation" might be attributed to faulty vision and echoes notions of light and darkness in the novel. It also illustrates this tiny ray of hope that exists in the last few sentences of the book. Although we are left with with the notion that Theron may never understand the existence of all the subjective viewpoints around him, particularly in regard to his wife, we at least know that he is aware of some.