Review: The Gioconda Smile

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(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.

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Haven't read the story, but your description makes me think the moral is: "the greatest risk for a psychopath is to meet another psychopath".

And why people like it? I guess reading about successful psychopaths is kinda exciting (makes us imagine that we might achieve great success if only we could get rid of some our fears), on the other hand the protagonist gets punished at the end which prevents an outrage that would have happened otherwise, but the punishment is delivered by another psychopath so it doesn't ruin the atmosphere of the story.

Hm.

What if you read the story as if you were in the 1920s, and less accustomed to short stories peopled by irredeemable spherical bastards than we now are? (Especially in Real Literature, as opposed to, say, sci-fi or MLP fan fiction)

What if you read it using some sort of Christian ethics (souls, redemption) rather than modern consequentialist philosophy (harm to sentient beings)?

What if you read it as if you were a spectacular chauvinist and view the female characters‘ plight as unworthy of consideration?

You could see it as a portrait of a man who's stuck at simulacra level 3 (in the masking the lack of reality sense, not so much the signaling sense, though you can also watch him deciding which signals to send and which he's just going to ignore even though he knows he should send them).  He not only lacks the epistemic tools to see reality except in glimpses before retreating to his fortress of banality, but is scared of reality and so doesn't want to, despite his near-constant boredom and misery.  And so he dies in confusion, a banal, narcissistic void in the center of the story.

(Although if you consider that this was published in 1921, i.e. just a little after WWI, you may consider that the main character may have participated in WWI and have a little more sympathy for him.  Or maybe not.)

I don't think the existence of multiple movies is good evidence that what appeals about the story as a written story is not at least partially the writing style.  Yes, it is impossible to film the story as written.  Moviemakers may rise to the challenge of creating something with the same feel and basic plot, and take the existence of previous versions as evidence that it's a project that's worth doing and also that it hasn't been done right yet, so there's still room for their version.  (Though apparently Huxley did one of the adaptations to film, so presumably he got it right if there is a right.  Still, updating classics is always popular.)

I do think this was probably a more successful story at the time it was written, and now it's more classic.  To some degree, I think the story depends on the gender roles and expectations of the time (1921), which can to some extent be derived from the text, but maybe not completely, and probably it was more meaningful when this was something the reader would be living with directly.  The Sleepwalkers is describing the period just before WWI, and WWI had an effect (shell shock, society trying to deal with the reality of shell shock), but:

Historians of gender have suggested that around the last decades of the nineteenth and the first of the twentieth century, a relatively expansive form of patriarchal identity centered on the satisfaction of the appetites (food, sex, commodities) made way for something slimmer, harder and more abstinent. ... Yet these increasingly hypertrophic forms of masculinity existed in tension with ideals of obedience, courtesy, cultural refinement and charity that were still view as markers of the 'gentleman'.  Perhaps we can ascribe the signs of role strain and exhaustion we observe ... to an accentuation of gender roles that had begun to impose intolerable burdens on some men. ... The nervousness that many saw as the signature of this era manifested itself in triumph over the 'weakness' of one's own will