The Alienist by Caleb Carr – Part Three

View Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of The Alienist book blog series.

The AlienistHere we are again at the close of another year. New Year’s Eve in 2014, however, is a particularly noteworthy date for 17th Street. Not only does it mark the conclusion of the 20th anniversary year of The Alienist‘s publication, it also marks the 9th anniversary of the website. In consequence, I’m pleased to be presenting the final part of the special three part blog series overviewing The Alienist‘s central themes in honor of both milestones.

In the preceding two parts of the blog series, we have explored several of the novel’s central themes, ranging from corruption and hypocrisy to domestic violence and childhood trauma. As we conclude the series in Part Three, we will continue the discussion begun in Part Two that the role of the mother was one of the key differences between the early childhoods of Dr. Kreizler and John Beecham, leading us to explore themes in the novel relating to the role of women in society, the role that mothers can play in domestic violence and childhood trauma, trust and betrayal, regaining control, psychological determinism, and changing the way we think about mental health.

The Role of Women in Society

Although it may seem as though The Alienist‘s sequel, The Angel of Darkness, is the stronger of the two novels in terms of themes tied to the feminine—that is, in its examination of what drives women to kill—it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that the role of women in society, and the role that mothers can play in domestic violence and childhood trauma more specifically, are themes that are as prominently placed in the original novel as in its successor. As early as Chapter 5 in The Alienist when we are introduced to Sara Howard, a close childhood friend of John Moore and one of the first female police secretaries, the unique experiences—and frustrations—of women in New York society of 1896 are brought to our attention.

The Alienist, Chapter 5:

“Sara—with all the professions open to women these days, why do you insist on this one? Smart as you are, you could be a scientist, a doctor, even—”

“So could you, John,” she answered sharply. “Except that you don’t happen to want to. And, by way of coincidence, neither do I.”

Sara HowardSara’s inclusion in the novel as an intelligent, fiery, competent, and determinedly single-minded woman with the goal of becoming New York’s first female police officer is no accident. While her employment in the novel as police secretary is a clear nod to Theodore Roosevelt’s controversial decision to hire a female secretary upon becoming Police Commissioner (his real secretary, Minnie G. Kelly, was “young, small and comely, with raven black hair”; see 17th Street’s Island of Vice book blog for more information), she is also representative on a more general level of those women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who had begun to push back against the prevailing view that the only proper role for women in society was as a doting wife and mother in the home; an ideology that had dominated American culture from the late eighteenth century onwards (see 17th Street’s Education of Sara Howard history blog series for more information). However, it is important to note that Sara’s purpose in the novel in terms of social commentary is not strictly historical, as Caleb Carr pointed out in an interview with Salon in 1997:

I wanted to write a book with a female character whose reasons for being in the story did not depend on her falling in love with somebody. Women are still being brought up to believe that they have to build their bodies and their minds toward relationships and not toward independent existences of their own choosing. And I wanted to show that women can do that.

I, for one, appreciate Mr. Carr’s stance on this topic. Only last month The New York Times ran a piece pointing out that despite the bleak statistics on marriage, a large number of young women still see the “fairy-tale wedding” as their crowning moment in life, with the wedding gown continuing to be viewed by many as “the most important dress in the life of a woman,” as Oscar de la Renta stated in a recent Vogue magazine spread. As the author of the NYT piece pointed out, “He probably wasn’t considering what a woman would wear, say, as she accepted a Nobel Peace Prize, or was being sworn in as the president of the United States.” Clinical psychologist Sue Johnson went on to explain this mentality in the NYT piece using language strongly reminiscent of the woman’s sphere ideology of the nineteenth century, “Hillary Clinton might be the first female president, but a woman still wants this badge of legitimacy that she is wanted and desired by a man.” Accordingly, the inclusion of an independent female who remains single by choice in a bestseller such as The Alienist is a breath of fresh air, even if, as Dr. Kreizler observes to John,

The Alienist, Chapter 9:

“Women of such temperament,” he said as we moved to the carriage, “do not seem fated for happiness in our society. But her capabilities are obvious.”

“There is more than one type of violence, Doctor.”

Taking the role of women in society one step further, one of the less well-recognized themes in The Alienist is the role that women, specifically mothers, are capable of playing in domestic violence and childhood trauma. Although most readers would recognize this theme from The Angel of Darkness where the murderer was a woman who, lacking Sara’s financial freedom and family support, had been expected to fulfill the role of wife and mother—a role to which she was wholly unsuited, and was unable to come to terms with—the theme is, in fact, just as important in The Alienist. | Continue reading →

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The Alienist by Caleb Carr – Part Two

View Part One, Part Two, and Part Three of The Alienist book blog series.

The Alienist 2006 EditionAs we fast approach the conclusion of the 20th anniversary year of The Alienist‘s publication, I am honoring the milestone for the second last time on 17th Street with Part Two of a special three part blog series examining the novel’s central themes. In addition to presenting The Alienist as a superb piece of historical fiction, Part One in the blog series explored two of the novel’s central themes—corruption and hypocrisy—to help to explain why the investigative team attracted so many “powerful enemies” as they pursued their killer. Specifically, it was their enemies’ fear of exposure of “all the hidden crimes that we commit when we close ranks to live among each other,” as Dr. Kreizler put it at the conclusion of The Alienist, that was so very dangerous to the city’s power brokers at the time. As we continue our discussion in Part Two, we will be examining these “hidden crimes” more directly as we explore some of the themes in the novel that relate to the hidden world of the family behind closed doors.

Society’s Secret Sins

One of the more surprising twists in the final chapters of The Alienist was the assistance provided by Paul Kelly’s right-hand man, eat-’em-up Jack McManus, during John Moore and Dr. Kreizler’s final confrontation with the killer. Puzzled about why Kelly, a notorious gangster, might have decided to help the doctor in such an essential way given his efforts to cause mayhem and disruption earlier in the investigation (see Part One), one of the final scenes in the novel involves John visiting Kelly at the latter’s New Brighton Dance Hall. Although Kelly feigns ignorance about the part his henchman played in the crucial battle, he does provide John with one tantalizing hint regarding his motives.

The Alienist, Chapter 46:

“I’m not saying I know anything about it, of course. But ask yourself this when you get a free minute—of all the people who were up there tonight, who do you think is really the most dangerous to the boys uptown?”

Anthony ComstockThis view is reflected in the outrage we see the censor of the United States Post Office, Anthony Comstock, express during a meeting he and other prominent New York figures, including the famed financier J. P. Morgan, have with John and Dr. Kreizler early in Part III of the novel. Comstock claims during this meeting that he believes it is Dr. Kreizler’s intent to “spread unrest by discrediting the values of the American family and society” through the pursuit of an investigation that relies heavily on a theory founded in psychological determinism being found to have merit; specifically, Dr. Kreizler’s theory of “context” in which it is proposed that an individual’s personality and behavior in adulthood is determined by his or her experiences during infancy and childhood. Comstock is not alone in his concerns, with J. P. Morgan joining Comstock in expressing his misgivings about the implications of Dr. Kreizler’s theory as well.

The Alienist, Chapter 30:

“Mr. Comstock has the energy and brusqueness of the righteous, Dr. Kreizler. Yet I fear that your work does unsettle the spiritual repose of many of our city’s citizens, and undermines the strength of our societal fabric. After all, the sanctity and integrity of the family, along with each individual’s responsibility before God and the law for his own behaviour, are twin pillars of our civilization.”

Although Dr. Kreizler successfully contends during the meeting that he has never “argued against the idea that every man is responsible before the law for his actions, save in cases involving the truly mentally diseased,” this is not the first time Dr. Kreizler has faced open opposition to his work or theories. Indeed, early in the novel we see John express his disbelief that Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt would so much as countenance the Doctor taking part in any police investigation given the general public’s opinion of his friend’s work. | Continue reading →

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Japheth Dury Character Profile

Eight years after opening 17th Street, I am pleased to report that I have finally added a character profile for Japheth Dury (also known as John Beecham) to the supporting characters page of the full character list. As Japheth’s profile necessarily requires the inclusion of spoilers for the primary storyline of The Alienist, I have hidden the majority of the profile through a new spoiler warning feature. To read Japheth’s full profile on the supporting characters page or via the copy included below, please click on the spoiler warning which will reveal the complete profile. I will be adding the spoiler warning feature to other pages of the site as well as expanding the supporting characters page further over the coming months.

Dury, Mr. Japheth (also known as John Beecham)

Appears in The Alienist

Midway through The Alienist, the investigative team send enquiries to a number of hospitals looking for former patients who may fit the profile they have developed for the killer they have been hunting. A promising response from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C. about a discharged soldier with a facial tick prompts Dr. Kreizler and John Moore to visit the city in search of further information. While there, John also visits the Bureau of Indian Affairs to search for cases of disputes between natives and white settlers that may relate to the investigation.

While John is searching the records at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, he comes across an interesting case relating to the violent killing of a minister named Victor Dury and his wife at their New Paltz, New York home sixteen years earlier; a murder that had been attributed to embittered Indians at the time. The only survivor of the attack was their youngest son, Japheth Dury, who was said to have been kidnapped by his parents’ killers.

Click here to read more. Warning: Contains major spoilers for The Alienist

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