Classics Club #9: Ellen Wood’s East Lynne
This 700-page novel published in 1861 is enormously enjoyable. East Lynne has everything to grab a reader’s attention and never let it go: a murder investigation, a love triangle, adultery, mystery, creepy but irresistible seducers and seductresses, and the kind of plot where something exciting happens on every single page. Of course, I can’t address every aspect of this great novel in a short review, so I will concentrate on the theme that interested me the most and that, I believe, is central to the novel: emotional stupidity.
Archibald Carlyle, the novel’s protagonist, is a good man. He is hard-working, sincere, loyal, honest, and kind. However, he possesses one tragic flaw that makes all of these admirable qualities completely useless. Mr. Carlyle has the emotional intelligence of a door knob. He is completely incapable of noticing that other human beings have feelings. His indifference to the emotional experiences of others rises to the level of sociopathy. As a result, Mr. Carlyle, who never willingly commits a bad or unkind act, ends up destroying people who are the closest to him. He loves his wife Isabel but it never crosses his mind to take her feelings seriously. Her husband’s utter emotional stupidity eventually drives Isabel to abandon her family. She is willing to do anything but continue living by the side of an emotionally dead man.
Whenever Mr. Carlyle is forced to confront the unexpected reality that human beings have feelings of their own and don’t move through life as smiling machines, he becomes very perplexed and dismisses this unwelcome realization. He walks through life leaving pain, suffering, and death in his wake. I think we have all met a few people who have the same flaw as Mr. Carlyle. Such folks might be very well-meaning and nice, yet their emotional stupidity makes them fatal. I don;t fear a nasty evil-doer half as much as I do somebody who is emotionally stupid.