(Spoiler alert: discusses entire plot of The Gioconda Smile by Aldous Huxley)
I’ve been reading short stories lately, which are often confusing to me, and I frequently wish that the author resolved the actual tension and relieved my actual curiosity more, by including some sort of short note at the end on what they were even trying to do.
With that said, I read Aldous Huxley’s The Gioconda Smile, and was somewhat confused by it. I mean, it was a story. But since I got it from ‘50 Great Short Stories…a comprehensive selection from the world’s finest short fiction’, I’m expecting it to be somehow surpassingly great.
The protagonist is a relatively uncaring womanizer, who we first meet making a friendly visit to one woman while another waits in his car, to be dropped off before he gets home to his wife, who he finds disgusting in her aged ill-health. He seems to be largely driven by avoiding boredom and upholding an image of himself as a sophisticated and charming stud. He knows that his tendency to feel loathing in the place of pity toward the unfortunate in general is not ‘comely’, but has abandoned feeling shame about this unfortunate fact of his nature. When his wife dies, he immediately marries his young mistress, on an apparently humor-fueled whim and with little regard for her. He is ever detached, lightheartedly throwing back strategic retorts to questions sent his way, never actually with another person in spirit. He seems intelligent and reasonable aside from being callous to the point of ridiculous imprudence. For instance, if you marry a woman as a ‘practical joke’, this might predictably cause inconvenience to your own life at some point, even if you are dedicatedly indifferent to her welfare.
In fact the biggest thing that goes wrong is that the intriguing woman he visits but doesn’t dally with—she with the mysterious Gioconda (Mona Lisa) smile—falls in love with him, surreptitiously murders his wife, attempts too late to claim him, then frames him for the murder.
So why is this good to read? What would one come to this for?
It is probably a memorable story, but why is it worth remembering? Has it added anything rich to my life?
Is it perhaps a moralizing story? The protagonist is gratuitously awful, which is some hint. One way it could be this is as a tale of his errors coming back to get him, where by emptily seducing every woman around, he was carelessly pitching powerful passions against one another, and somebody was bound to be crazy enough to do something terrible (his second wife also tries to kill herself, upon realizing that her husband doesn’t love her). But why write that? For people who would feel no moral compunctions about the guy’s behavior in general but may not have considered the pragmatic consequences?
Another way it might be a moral story is that his own joyful amusements are cut short by another’s incredible selfish callousness, which serves him right for his own years of incredible selfish callousness? I don’t know, this doesn’t seem like a very interesting moral saga.
Maybe it is meant as an interesting, amoral, portrait of a callous but smiling man, coldly charming women as he goes on with his empty existence, until the wake of his own heartlessness flips his boat? I didn’t come away with a vivid sense of his character, but perhaps I wasn’t paying enough attention.
The title suggests that it is actually a portrait of the enigmatically smiling woman in the background, though she is an infrequent character. The protagonist imagines her as having mysterious depths to her personality in a way that his straightforward wife and lover do not, but again I didn’t end up with a well-formed sense of them.
Maybe it’s for the murder mystery plot? The real murderer wasn’t revealed until the end, but as soon as it became clear that the wife was murdered, it seemed pretty obvious who had done it. For instance, if you assume that it wasn’t the husband (since that would conflict with the narration of his confused perspective) then the other visitor at the time of the poisoning was ol’ Gioconda smile. I guess it could have been an unnamed servant. The protagonist still seems confused about who the murderer could be at this point though, which is a bit strange if the author agrees that it is obvious.
Maybe the point is to try to guess the murderer before it comes out that it was a murder? There were clues. For instance, Gioconda was like ‘your wife seems very sick, she could die any time’ and then the wife dies a few hours later. Then when the husband later goes to see Gioconda, she is like, ‘I’m impressed by how you put up with your wife for so long, but I saw that you weren’t really into it, and actually you needed a soul mate; also I love you’. But it seems like you would only guess that this is a murder mystery at that point if your mind happened upon the thought that this is all suspicious, at which point you have also solved it.
It has some insightful observation of psychology. For instance, the protagonist reflecting on Gioconda’s decorations while waiting for her, illuminating both her psychology and his own:
Photographs of Greek statuary, photographs of the Roman Forum, coloured prints of Italian masterpieces, all very safe and well known. Poor, dear Janet, what a prig—what an intellectual snob! Her real taste was illustrated in that water-colour by the pavement artist, the one she had paid half a crown for (and thirty-five shillings for the frame). How often his had heard her tell the story, how often expatiate on the beauties of that skilful imitation of an oleograph! “A real Artist in the streets,” and you could hear the capital A in Artist as she spoke the words. She made you feel that part of his glory had entered into Janet Spence when she tendered him that half-crown for the copy of the oleograph. She was implying a compliment to her own taste and penetration. A genuine Old Master for half a crown. Poor, dear Janet!
This seems richer to me. The Gioconda Smile was made into multiple films, which seems surprising if the value is in the unspoken thoughts of characters or manner of description, since these are hard to translate into action.
It seems likely that I’m missing something.