From Thornton Wilder’s vigorously perceptive student of faces, Theophilus North, a 20-something with his hands in every corner of the “Nine Cities” of 1920s Newport, Rhode Island–from the house of “Nine Gables” to Navy watering holes to immigrant shop owners–without intending to do so! He finds ways into the homes and hearts of the people of Newport, not through an omniscient understanding of people, but with an imaginative knack for seeing a situation and playing with it. He talks about hope and despair in a way that connects directly to the imagination:
I have said before that both despair and hope invoke the imagination. In response to hope the imagination is aroused to picture every possible issue, to try every door, to fit together even the most heterogeneous pieces of the puzzle. After the solution has been found it is difficult to recall the steps taken–so many of them are just below the level of consciousness.
If one has trouble linking the imagination to either of the two, he uses an illustration in the subsequent pages that melds the two beautifully. In the wealthiest homes of Newport, the masters and servants coexist, both living in a sense of despair that is justly caused, but then further imagined to the point of near ‘hysteria.’ In contrast, grace enters through Edweena, a classless shape-shifter, much like Theophilus, who enters the home of despair and imagines, through sheer grace, but also downright ‘kite-flying’ and ‘soap-bubbles’, a hope that reconciles the two and makes them one:
…Servants live in terror of being unjustly dismissed from a situation without a letter of recommendation. This usually takes the form of being charged with having stolen objects of value. As the reader knows I shrink from making generalization, but when I do it’s a bold one: persons endowed with enormous inherited wealth tend to be more than a little unbalanced. So would you or I. They know they are marginal citizens–a very small portion of the inhabitants of this industrious or idle, mostly starving, often much-enduring, often rebellious world. They are haunted by the dread that what destiny, chance, or God has given them, destiny, chance, or God may as mysteriously withdraw. They are burdened by the problem of their merits. They assume (often with reason, often with none) that they are the object of envy (one of the uglier sins), of hatred, or of ridicule. They herd together for company. They know that something is wrong, but who began it? Where will it end? Hysteria lurks under the surface.
Masters and servants live under one roof in a close symbiosis, a forced intimacy. A woman’s jewels (precious stones) are the outward and visible symbol that someone loves her, even if it’s only God. A number of the ladies on Bellevue Avenue no longer trusted the safes in their own bedrooms. They had what Edweena called “the squirrel complex.” When they returned from a ball they hid their emeralds and their diamonds in old stockings or behind picture frames or in electric light sconces and then forgot where they’d hidden them. (There’s something in one of Professor Freud’s books about that.) The next morning they’d be frantic. They’d give orders that every servant in the house be present in the dining room at ten o’clock. “A thing I value very much for association’s sake has disappeared. You are to remain in this room while the housekeeper and I search through your rooms. If it is not found by us or restored by one of you–by noon today–every one of you except Watson, Wilson, Bates, Miles, and the kitchen staff will be dismissed without a letter of recommendation. While I am gone now you may sit down.” In some cases the lady called up the police, but most of the ladies regarded the polic as bumbling yokels. One of the suspected criminals would creep out of the dining room and call up the police. But the police could do no more than ring the doorbell and ask permission to enter. Chief Diefendorf then telephone “Miss Edweena” who was permitted to enter and who, with transcendental tact, was permitted to join the searching party. Four times out of five she found the missing object very soon, but pretended for a whole half hour–to save the poor woman’s face–that the case was hopeless. In many ways the Chief was deeply indebted to Edweena and treated her with an old-world admiring deference, and he did Mrs. Cranston.
Edweena lowered her voice to tell me that this expected visit of the Chief did not have to do with a supposed theft but with another problem that appears from time to time in this Seventh City. “It concerns a housemaid Bridget Trehan who is being persecuted by the master of the house where she is employed. She has resigned from her position, but the Chief and I have ways of extorting from her former mistress–who is furious–an excellent letter of recommendation.”