Cormac McCarthy’s The Gardener’s Son is a poignant and eloquent story that explores the schizophrenic breakdown of the American psyche caused by a legislated diet of capitalism. In it, McCarthy examines the privileged class, contrasting the values of those born into wealth with those who have earned it. He also documents the compartmentalization of Christian doctrines, which are rejected or adopted depending on which is more convenient for the captains of industry at a given time. In the process, he challenges the authority of the written word. Particularly astute is McCarthy’s examination of these theological contradictions, as he draws on eco-critical elements that challenge both capitalism and religion. Whilst highlighting the class struggle through his narrative, McCarthy weaves in issues pertaining to perceived race, underscoring how the struggles carried by the working class are magnified tenfold for racialized groups. With a succinct eloquence equalled by few writers, McCarthy provides a diagnosis of the American psyche, highlighting the causes and symptoms of this societal mental illness. He refuses to prescribe a treatment, leaving that up to the reader.
THE PRIVILEGED CLASS
McCarthy’s narrative offers a criticism of the privileged class by contrasting the spirit of capitalism, as defined by the likes of Adam Smith, with the attitude of those who inherit a position of wealth. Smith argued that “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable”. McCarthy exemplifies this idea through the capitalist patriarch of the screenplay, William Gregg, noting that he helped to forge a community with “neat homes… churches and schools… gardens… lovely grounds and… [a] massive factory” (18). In this way William Gregg ensured the prosperity of the community in which he lived in terms of living standards, spirituality, education, the enrichment of the environment, and by providing economic prosperity. Thus, as one character notes, “When a man works as [William Gregg] did for the common good the results of his labor will not be found in hoarded wealth, but in that increased prosperity and usefulness of those among whom he lived” (18). Though Smith claims to “have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good”, he also notes that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. Thus, William Gregg, knowing that the health of his own community is in his own best interest, works to ensure his empire by bestowing its bounty on the community in which he lives.
William Gregg works from poverty and created wealth, whilst his son, James Gregg, inherits it without having to earn it. As a result, James Gregg is more interested in exploiting those around him, either by making sexual advances toward working-class women dependent on him for their livelihood, or by causing the accident that leaves the titular character without a leg, than he is in working. In this manner, James Gregg shows an utter disregard for the community in which he lives and serves his own immediate goals, consequently showing an utter lack of foresight. The result is predictable. His father’s empire turns into disarray as there are “dead weeds across” the town (40), while the once fertile greenhouse has nothing growing in it (41), and the gardens that had enhanced the factory grounds are now gone. Eventually, the contempt James Gregg shows toward those he has exploited serves to be his own undoing. In the climactic scene, James Gregg displays a complete failure to recognize that his fate is intertwined with that of those around him, and that is his most fatal sin. In this way, McCarthy demonstrates how the greed of the privileged class, particularly of those who are born into money without earning it, undercuts the true spirit of capitalism, which is meant to consider the economic wellbeing of the community at large.
CAPITALISM + CHRISTIANITY
James Gregg’s corrupted version of capitalism is best displayed through the ways in which he manipulates Christian theology to validate his apathy, mirroring the theological approach adopted by many Republicans. In one passage, Robert McEvoy, the protagonist, sums up the notion that the Bible has been corrupted as “The good book says all men are brothers but it don’t seem to cut no ice” (40) in the town where his family resides. This is the result of the way in which James Gregg has manipulated scripture. For example, he relies on the charity of the church when migrant workers arrive in his town looking for work, as he instructs McEvoy to send them “up to the church and see if they can find them some dinner” (23.) However, he concludes the instruction by telling McEvoy to “get them out of here on the afternoon train”, going on to apathetically dismiss them by stating that “some of God’s seed has fallen on barren ground” (23). This indifferent view runs contrary to Christian ideals. For example, Hebrews 13:15 instructs Christians to not “neglect to do good and to share what [one has], for such sacrifices are pleasing to God”, while Philippians 2:4 instructs Christians to “look not only to [their] own interests, but also to the interests of others”. First John 3:17 even questions how God’s love would abide one who “has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need”. It is clear that James Gregg’s affluent lifestyle and lack of empathy stand in contrast with Christian values. As Gragg turns away from people in need, his attitude echoes America’s current political climate. His stance calls to mind the Republican response to the Syrian refugee crisis, whereby Republicans would deny refugees access to America. This, despite the Republicans’ Christian values, which dictate one should not “mistreat or oppress a foreigner” (Exodus 22:21), and that God says he will welcome those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and invite strangers in need into their home (Matthew 25:35). In this way, James Gregg, like so many Republicans, takes some Biblical passages out of context and outright ignores others to fit his own personal views. He undercuts the true spirit of capitalism, justifying it through the manipulation of scripture.
THE WRITTEN WORD
In demonstrating how ‘the Word’ is so easily undermined, McCarthy illustrates how actions supersede words and signifiers, a key theme within the work. This is linked specifically within a Biblical context as Martha, Robert’s sister, questions the Word by asking “if God has names for people”, before going on to reflect that God has “never give em none”, but rather that “People done that” (94). In this way, Martha suggests that the Word is inherently corrupted and not a representation of God’s message. This is an overt challenge to John 1:1, a celebrated piece of scripture: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Rather than the Word being God, Martha suggests that the Word was created by man. Even were the Bible the legitimate word of God, it fails to translate into actions, as Robert notes that even though “The good book says all men are brothers” (40), this message is not manifest in the Grantieville, where the narrative takes place. The impotence of words is laid out early in the work as the Timekeeper forewarns the reader that when “You copy somethin down [it] dont mean you have it. You just have the record” (3). This adds what can be seen as an element of metafiction to the text, encouraging the reader to proceed with caution as the work they are about to read is not the signified, but merely a signifier. Whipper, a peripheral character, offers perhaps the harshest attack on the written word when he states that the “Law’s more vagrant than sickness or sin” (68), suggesting that words do more harm than action and are contrary to virtue. In this way, McCarthy leaves a trail of semiotic bread crumbs throughout the narrative, leading the reader to question the legitimacy of signifiers.
ECOCRITICISM, CHRISTIANITY, AND CAPITALISM
This theological questioning of signifiers is supported through an ecocritical reading of the work, which likewise highlights the ways in which McCarthy challenges capitalism as it is applied by James Gregg. For example, when Mrs. Gregg is speaking about Robert McEvoy’s injured leg and the prospect of it being amputated, she seeks to comfort the McEvoy family by stating that “God does not ask that all the flowers in his garden be perfect” (14). This could be read as another instance of the privileged class employing a religious rhetoric to dismiss their own apathy, as Mrs. Gregg seems to suggest the injury was an act of God rather than a direct result of James Gregg’s carelessness. However, there is also a suggestion here that God speaks not through words but through nature. Mrs. Gregg employs an ecological metaphor, framing God’s language as one that exists within the space of nature, and not within the space of an antiquated text. Once this link between the garden and the word of God is made, it becomes clear that the broader implication of the work speaks to the ways in which capitalism corrupts Christian virtues. Before James Gregg assumed control over his father’s empire, a healthy garden grew on the property, and so rich was the plant life that “You could smell stuff growin” (42). However, after James Gregg’s ascent to captain of industry, the greenhouse falls into disarray, and the garden goes to weed. Thus, while God is linked with nature, capitalism is linked with the corruption of nature, which serves a dual purpose in that it alludes to both the ways in which humanity’s current rate of consumption will overtax nature, and how breach between humanity and nature has led to a breach between humanity’s corporal and spiritual world.
Though working-class and ecocritical issues seem to take center stage in The Gardener’s Son, McCarthy is also sure to highlight how the systems of oppression are intensified for racialized groups like Americans with African heritage. The prejudices and discriminatory behaviour rooted in perceived race appear early in the work. When Dr. Perceval, for example, arrives at a home visit with his Black servant, he is asked if he came by himself. He responds by saying “Yes”, and then adding that his “man is with” him (6), as if the Black servant didn’t constitute a person. Mrs. Gregg, who is hosting Perceval, tells her servant to “take the doctor’s man to the kitchen” (6). Perceval’s and Mrs. Gregg’s use of the possessive highlights how Americans with African heritage were viewed as property. In addition, placing the servant in the kitchen highlights the social custom that kept Black people relegated to the servant quarters, thus framing them as less than equal. Such discriminatory practices have a more overt presence in matters of law. Though a trial, for instance, has “nine black and three white jurors”, and “two black lawyers and one white lawyer”, optimistic numbers given that the trial took place in South Carolina during the 1800’s, the “Sheriff and judge are white” (60). This discrepancy demonstrates that even when the jurors and lawyers are representative of the diversity within a community, this kind of representation does not carry over into positions of authority: it is still an exclusively white realm that decides who gets arrested, and how they get tried. While this seems stark, McCarthy demonstrates that social/mob justice would be even harsher. Though Patrick McEvoy, Robert’s father, notes that if his “boy were a Gregg he’d not even be tried”, Whipper, a Black man from the community, notes that if Patrick McEvoy’s “son were black he’d not be tried” (67), implying that a Black man who’d behaved in a similar fashion would have been lynched without a trial. These are passing comments in the narrative, but they effectively highlight that the struggles endured by the narrative’s working-class figures are even more pressing for racialized groups in the community.
Providing a case study that is emblematic of the psychosis of an entire nation would be a daunting task for any writer, but given that McCarthy’s writing is eloquent, succinct, and precise, The Gardener’s Son is up to the task. Though written nearly forty years ago, and though set in an era more than a century old, McCarthy’s narrative has implications which remain tragically relevant in America’s current political climate. McCarthy offers a sharp criticism of the privileged class, particularly those born into wealth, while highlighting how conservative capitalists manipulate Christian doctrines to serve their purposes, thus challenging the legitimacy of the written word. The ecocritical elements of the work are arguably the most compelling, as they manage to pull together attacks on capitalism and the manipulation of scripture. In addition, McCarthy’s discussion of the treatment of racialized groups highlights how the struggles perpetually facing marginalized groups often eclipse those being discussed by the dominant culture. Through the work, McCarthy succinctly diagnoses the American psyche, underscoring the all-to-obvious causes and symptoms, but leaving the reader to grapple with the treatment.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Gardener’s Son. New York: ECCO. 1996. Print.