Since Eden Went Wrong
Paradise, Expulsion, and the High Stakes of Post-War American Narrative
If you’ve never seen Terrence Malick’s 1978 masterpiece, don’t be fooled by the title: Days of Heaven is an unequivocally tragic film about a love triangle gone bad, ending with the death of its two male protagonists and the abandonment of its young narrator in an orphanage. The story, which takes place in 1916, follows a Chicago laborer, Bill, his girlfriend Abby, and his little sister Linda, after an altercation at an iron foundry sends them looking for seasonal work harvesting wheat in the Texas Panhandle. To keep people from asking questions, Abby pretends to be Bill’s other sister. The rich farmer who hires them (played by a young and hunky Sam Shepard) is ill with an unnamed disease—possibly tuberculosis, given his occasional coughing—but falls in love with Abby and asks her to marry him. Bill encourages Abby to say yes: the farmer won’t live long, and they’ll inherit his fortune. After the wedding, Abby develops feelings for the farmer, though she still loves Bill. Eventually the farmer finds out the truth, and chaos ensues, culminating in a conflagration that consumes the new wheat crop and a manhunt that leaves Bill floating face-down in a river, with a bullet hole in his back.
And yet, what sticks with me most after not having watched the movie for some time are those scenes depicting the heavenly days of the title. After Abby marries the farmer, Bill and Linda move into his enormous multi-story Victorian house. “The rich really know how to live,” Linda tells us, as we observe her settling into the comfort of her new life. What follows is an eight-minute stretch of happiness: we view this new family enjoying each other’s company, eating together on the porch, running through fields, and laughing. Malick’s trademark cinematography—which gives equal attention to the natural world as to the human—is on full display as the camera takes in waving wheat, flocks of birds, a striated sky. It’s a brief glimpse of paradise, the perfect life all four characters could lead if only they wouldn’t let competing desires interfere.
What makes these scenes so potent is knowing the characters’ bliss won’t last. Trouble enters soon enough: the bright sunlight cuts to darkness, a strong wind sends a weathervane spinning on the roof, and a bedroom door creaks open as Abby sneaks out to meet Bill for a nighttime tryst. It’s excruciating to watch them risk so much when we’ve just witnessed how good they could have it. But risk they do, and as a result they lose everything. Of course we understand why they do—how can we begrudge them their need for each other?—yet having seen another possibility, we can’t help wishing they would just accept a compromised present in exchange for a perfect future.
This is what Malick recognizes, and what his title suggests: the stakes of a story are highest when they aren’t just a matter of life and death but of the ideal life, a real chance at personal paradise. We care about characters’ actions when we believe they can achieve what they really want, and tragedy matters to us most when we have glimpsed its alternative: Hamlet’s death especially devastates us because, after returning to Denmark, he briefly accepts mortality at Yorick’s gravesite, setting aside the desire for revenge and no longer suffering over his inaction. What we mourn isn’t his death but the life he could have led, the possibility for happiness he’d grasped momentarily but let slide through his hands.
We might see a parallel in our ongoing political nightmare and our impending climate disaster: what makes watching the undermining of our democracy by greed and cynicism and incompetence so demoralizing is that we can recognize, in retrospect, how good we’d once had it—or could have had it, had we stood up sufficiently for the institutions now under attack; we grieve over our ailing environment because we now understand how fragile its beautiful balance has been all along.
In both fictive and lived narratives, we often hear these echoes of the Garden of Eden archetype. The world may be broken now, but it was once whole, or could have been. To me, the real tragedy of human beings as a species is that we are capable of imagining perfection, though we don’t always strive toward it. And, perhaps because of my many years of suffering through Hebrew school as a boy, tragic stories revolving around an expulsion from paradise always move me most. They may reflect the broken world, but they don’t accept it as a given. No matter how terrible circumstances may be, such stories suggest that life could be better, that people are capable of compassion even if they don’t act on it, that systems can help rather than harm. They give us a glimpse of a possible paradise, of the ideal life characters might achieve if they make the right choices or evade the difficulties thrust upon them.
The archetype is especially prevalent in post-war American narratives, perhaps because so many writers of the time, even those who lived largely secular lives, grew up hearing the Genesis story so often. More likely, it’s because in the second half of the twentieth-century so many writers recognized that the story of America is often one of compromised ideals, false promises, and broken dreams. In either case, the shadow of Eden provides high stakes and gives these stories lasting power. We care about the people in them because we understand they have something to lose that they may never regain. We read not just to find out what happens to the characters but to discover if they will they be forever banished from paradise—their own version of it—as a result of their choices or the choices of those around them; while we read, we root for them to regain their ideals or construct new ones they might one day achieve.
Here’s an example. Early in Frank Conroy’s classic 1967 memoir, Stop-Time, the narrator describes a period of his 1940s childhood spent in rural Florida with his sister, his mother, and her boyfriend Jean. We learn right away about Jean’s financial trouble and its impact on the family: he lives off child support checks from the narrator’s father, which wounds his pride and sparks resentment. “Some anger came out,” the narrator tells us, “but most of it went inside himself. He built a maze inside to keep the anger moving, to keep it bouncing in his head, its destructive energy trapped in a cycle of movement. He became a sort of emotional pinball machine.”
But then, before going on to describe this emotional turmoil in detail, Conroy makes an interesting choice. He pauses, backs up. “That comes later,” he tells us. For now, “in Florida, Jean was relatively cheerful. He enjoyed telling us stories, particularly dialect stories, and always made my mother laugh. He swam a mile a day, read Erskine Caldwell and James M. Cain.”
We know that trouble is coming, but first Conroy shows us an alternative to Jean’s anger, a contentment that might continue if only Jean wouldn’t let pride get in the way. The narrator further sets the stakes by telling us, “The first year in Florida was my last good year until I became a man.” We know before seeing any specific consequences of conflict what the narrator has to lose—the remainder of his childhood. And then he makes the stakes concrete by giving us an image of his Eden:
The woods … bikes, running, nakedness, freedom—those were the important things… At night we’d ride our bikes down a long, flat, empty road through the woods to the drive-in movie at the edge of town. Kids were allowed in free. We’d sit on a long bench just under the screen, or lie on the sandy ground and stare up at the immense figures moving against the sky. Going home, the movie would stay with us for a while… Nervous, filled with passion, we stood up on the bikes for more speed and pedaled deeper and deeper into the woods… We’d ride easily through the balmy air, gliding, listening to the faint hiss of the tires on the asphalt. The road was always empty. There were no houses, no lights—only the stars.
Like the peaceful eight minutes of family bliss in Days of Heaven, this passage sticks with me more than any other in the book. It becomes the lens through which we view all the trouble the young Conroy encounters afterward. He shows us the innocence and freedom of childhood, which he should be able to hang onto for longer than this one year. We want to preserve it for him, as we would for ourselves, but soon enough his mentally unstable father dies, Jean’s anger begins to manifest, teachers reveal their cruelty, and life is never the same. His struggles don’t lead to just surface consequences; they carry the weight of all that could have been.
Reading this passage, we learn not only what the narrator will lose when he’s eventually cast out of paradise but also what he’ll strive toward as he struggles through adolescence into adulthood: not the innocence of childhood, which can never be reclaimed, but the freedom and self-assurance that came with it, along with a reverence for art and the natural world. We read the rest of the memoir not just to suffer along with Conroy’s travails but to understand how he comes through them, to know what it means for him to have another “good year” once he “became a man.”
While both Days of Heaven and Stop-Time explicitly show us a character’s paradise, sometimes all we need is the suggestion of such high stakes to make us feel the consequences of their loss. In Stanley Kunitz’s poem “Robin Redbreast,” from his 1971 collection The Testing Tree, the speaker finds “the dingiest bird / you ever saw, all the color / washed from him, as if / he had been standing in the rain, / friendless and stiff and cold, / since Eden went wrong.” Here, the direct allusion to Eden tells us that the speaker can imagine a better time, a time when the bird’s circumstances were different, though all we see now is the aftermath of its expulsion. And in the following lines, we discover that the speaker, too, has been expelled: he hears the bird while “In the house marked For Sale / where nobody made a sound / in the room where I lived / with an empty page.”
We don’t see his Eden, but we can imagine it: a time when the house wasn’t for sale, when the sound of people echoed through, when words filled the page. We feel him longing for what he has lost even if we haven’t witnessed him losing it, and we know what the stakes are as he scoops up the bird “in league with that ounce of heart / pounding in my palm.” He wants to return the bird “back into his element,” he says, to help him “stop running in desperate circles.” We know, of course, that he’s talking about himself, that those desperate circles are his, and by returning the bird to freedom, to contentment, perhaps he can return himself as well.
But when the speaker “held him high,” he finds that it is too late to restore the bird to any kind of Eden, that it has been expelled permanently; what he discovers is “an old dried wound / between his eyes / where the hunter’s brand / had tunneled out his wits.” It turns out that the “ounce of heart” in his palm was only his own, that he is alone in his misery. Through the hole in the bird’s head he “caught the cold flash of the blue / unappeasable sky,” which dashes any hopes he has for finding an easy way back into paradise. The universe isn’t so accommodating to the desires of “poor foolish life.” But that the speaker can imagine such a return, can believe in such an illusion and yearn for it, makes its dissolution all the more agonizing.
The great Southern writer Elizabeth Spencer, too, makes use of a character’s imagination to set the stakes in her gorgeous 1960 novella, The Light in the Piazza. In this case, however, it isn’t an imagined return to a lost paradise that makes us care about the drama, but rather a projection of a paradise never yet achieved. The story follows an American woman, Margaret Johnson, and her twenty-year-old daughter, Clara, on vacation in 1950s Florence, where Clara sparks the attention of a young Italian, Fabrizio. At first Margaret tries to fend off the burgeoning romance between the two, because, while Clara “could be remarkably lovely when pleased,” and attractive men often approach her, “due to an accident years ago, she had the mental age of a child of ten.”
By the time she arrives in Italy, Margaret has all but accepted that her disabled daughter will remain with her forever, that Clara would never lead a “normal” life. But Fabrizio’s pursuit of Clara, and the language barrier that prevents him from recognizing her intellectual and emotional limitations, shakes Margaret’s certainty. “Nobody with a dream should come to Italy,” the narrator tells us, for “no matter how dead and buried the dream is thought to be, in Italy it will rise and walk again.” Margaret’s dream is a simple one: “that Clara would one day be perfectly well.” And though she believes “reality had long ago destroyed it,” in Florence it re-emerges.
Despite knowing she can’t actually achieve the vision of a perfect life she craves—one in which the effects of Clara’s accident are completely erased—Margaret still clings to it, even as she tells herself “that the person who undertakes to believe in a dream pursues a course that is dangerous and lonely.” The truth is, this is not the first time Margaret has allowed her vision to take root, nor the first time she has allowed herself to act on it. We soon find out that “when Clara was fourteen … Mrs. Johnson had decided to believe that there was not anything the matter with her.” In fact, while her husband is away on a business trip, Margaret finds “a school in an entirely new section of town; she told a charming pack of lies and got Clara enrolled there under most favorable conditions.”
And for a short time, it seems she might really find her way to paradise after all:
The next two weeks were the happiest of her life. With other mothers, she sat waiting in her car at the curb until the bright crowd came breasting across the campus: Clara’s new red tam was the sign to watch for. At night the two of them got supper in the kitchen while Clara told all her stories. Later they did homework, sitting on the sofa under the lamp.
All seems perfect, and we want it to stay that way. But here Eden is simply an illusion, for at the same time Margaret is enjoying this new life, “trivial, painful things were happening to Clara” in and out of the classroom. Soon the principal calls Margaret into his office, shaming her for her “experiment,” which has not succeeded.
Immediately her dream implodes. Clara, removed from school once again, is devastated, “crumpled like a bundle of clothes.” Margaret calls her husband back from his trip, confesses, and sees that he thought “she had gone out of her mind.” She tells herself that is the end of it, she will live without the dream from now on. And yet, here in Florence she feels it rising in her again, along with a new determination, as she experiences “her whole being straighten and poise to the fine alertness of a drawn bow.” She allows the romance between Clara and Fabrizio to blossom, even begins to encourage it, and decides to let things take their course. She also decides not to tell Fabrizio and his family about the accident and its effects on Clara, at least not explicitly. They will figure it out for themselves and make their own decision, she thinks; or else they won’t.
In either case, she steps aside and watches quietly “while a dream unfolded before her.” Fabrizio and Clara decide to marry. Fabrizio’s parents give their blessing. It soon becomes clear that Fabrizio’s father knows more than he at first lets on but is willing to keep quiet in exchange for a sizable dowry. Margaret makes sure that her husband will not arrive in time to stop the wedding. Unlike the first time she acted on her dream, however, now she knows trouble is going to follow. She will have to “weather the storm” of her husband’s anger, recognizing she may have sacrificed her own marriage for the sake of Clara’s.
She knows, too, that Fabrizio and Clara will have to face their own complicated and uncertain future. This time she accepts the fragility of her paradise, knowing how fleeting and imperfect it is, but still reveling in it as she watches “Clara emerge like a fresh flower out of the antique smell of candle smoke” on her wedding day. She tells herself, “I did the right thing,” and immediately wonders: “‘The right thing’: what was it?” But now that she has acted definitively on her dream, she is willing to see Eden as messy and challenging, worth any trouble it might bring. “Whatever it was,” she thinks, “it was a comfort,” and lets the dream she has enacted play out on its own terms.
A particularly excruciating sort of tragedy arises when characters spy a possible paradise, recognize how they could actually achieve it, but reject it out of fear or shame. Such is the case in Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin’s brilliant and heartbreaking 1956 novel about a young American in Paris, bisexual but closeted, whose girlfriend has gone to Spain to consider whether or not to marry him. While she’s away, the young man, David, begins an affair with an Italian waiter at a gay bar. He falls hard for Giovanni but wrestles with his sexuality, denying his desires even as he fulfills them. Eventually he abandons his lover, who, grief-stricken and desperate, loses his job and then kills a man and is executed for murder. David, meanwhile, outs himself to his fiancée Hella, who leaves him alone with his guilt and sorrow.
As in Days of Heaven, rather than refer to the novel’s central tragedy, the book’s title calls our attention to what the tragedy erases, the space of fleeting perfection David and Giovanni share. Imagine how different our experience of the novel would be if Baldwin had titled in Giovanni’s End or Giovanni’s Goodbye. Even before we begin reading, the title situates us in the room where “time flowed past indifferently” and the lovers’ “life together held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day.” Halfway through the novel we arrive in a place where bliss is possible, if only David could be honest with himself about his desires and his identity.
This is the real tragedy of the book: not that Giovanni will die, but that his death is the indirect result of David’s self-deception and internalized homophobia. The novel opens with David drinking alone on “the night which is leading to the most terrible morning of my life,” but before he tells the story of his affair with Giovanni and its aftermath, he first must reckon with “one lie among the many lies I’ve told, told, lived, and believed… the lie which I had told Giovanni but never succeeded in making him believe, that I had never slept with a boy before.” Within the first dozen pages of the book, we learn that David once allowed himself to act on his desire. As teenagers, he and his best friend Joey find themselves together on a steamy Brooklyn night, kissing “as it were, by accident,” and then giving themselves over to a “great thirsty heat, and trembling, and tenderness so painful I thought my heart would burst.” And in that abandonment to passion “came joy,” one David could imagine staying in forever.
But of course this is 1950s America, and given the cultural pressures of the time, it isn’t easy to embrace queer identity, not even secretly. Though upon waking the next morning David sees Joey’s naked body as “the most beautiful creation I had ever seen till then,” fear keeps him from trusting his perception of such a perfect vision: instead, “that body suddenly seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured till madness came, in which I would lose my manhood.” In order to protect the image of who and what he believes he should be, he runs from his newfound passion, distancing himself from Joey and treating him badly until he “never saw him again.”
But because David is actually running from himself, he can’t get very far. Despite his efforts to establish what he perceives as an acceptable version of manhood, his desires follow him as he grows up. He sleeps with more men during his time in the army; he asks Hella to marry him but knows he doesn’t love her, and almost as soon as she leaves to consider his proposal, he takes up with Giovanni. He hasn’t outrun desire, but neither has he outrun his fear or shame. Every time he glimpses possible happiness in his affair with a man, he immediately undermines it. In Giovanni’s tiny room, life “seemed to be occurring beneath the sea,” and Giovanni “smiled his humble, grateful smile and told me in as many ways as he could find how wonderful it was to have me there, how I stood, with my love and my ingenuity, between him and the dark.” David spends time studying Giovanni’s face, which he “had memorized,” but then it “began to give in secret places, began to crack… It became a stranger’s face—or it made me so guilty to look on him that I wished it were a stranger’s face.” Whenever he tells himself to stop fighting his resistance, to accept the love and safety he experiences in Giovanni’s presence, he immediately pushes the thought away, deciding instead, “I will never let him touch me again.”
The paradise Giovanni shows David isn’t simply their pleasure in each other, however. It’s the freedom to be who he is. When David tells him about Hella, Giovanni shrugs off concerns about how she might react were she to find out about the affair; he suggests David find another mistress, one whom he can more easily control. He then acknowledges that he, too, has had mistresses, but that “I don’t seem to be very interested in women right now—I don’t know why. I used to be. Perhaps I will be again.” He says this casually, with a shrug, accepting the fluidity of his own attractions in a way David could never imagine doing.
Later, when he and Giovanni walk the streets together, playfully, happy in each other’s presence the way David has been before only with Joey, “a boy, a stranger,” passes between them. To David’s surprise, he finds himself “invest[ing] him at once with Giovanni’s beauty, and what I felt for Giovanni I also felt for him.” Once more, David’s shame arises, this time not for desiring one man, but for desiring men generally, as if his body and mind have betrayed him. Giovanni sees the glance David gives the boy and laughs at it, acknowledging David’s desires, but even more his right to those desires, to the freedom to be himself.
Here it is before him, the Eden David didn’t even know was possible: to feel what he feels openly, without fearing judgment. But in its presence, David experiences only “sorrow and shame and panic and great bitterness.” He believes that Giovanni has corrupted him, awakened a “beast” inside him that “would never go to sleep again.” And rather than give himself over to what he really wants, he forces it away. The fear then “opened… a hatred for Giovanni,” which eventually leads him to run once more, triggering Giovanni’s desperation and the disaster that follows.
Like Malick and Conroy, Baldwin shows us bliss before snatching it away. And because we are capable of imagining our ideal lives even if we’ve never realized them—even if, like Baldwin’s narrator, we’ve sabotaged our own attempts to achieve them—we experience the pain of such loss as if it were our own. We mourn for our perfect circumstances even if we’ve only glimpsed them in our minds, and because our minds have the capacity to make us believe in what we’ve never actually seen, those circumstances linger in contrast to our tarnished realities. But great stories also show us the mistake we make in failing to pursue our ideals or to hang onto them when we’ve got them in our grasp. As a result we leave such stories with new conviction that those ideals are still worth striving toward, even if we can never reach them.♦
Scott Nadelson is the author of seven books, most recently the story collection One of Us, winner of G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, and his work has recently appeared in Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, New England Review, and the Best American Short Stories 2020. He teaches at Willamette University and in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.