|A Reader's Guide
to William Gaddis's The Recognitions
Pages 3-62; ca. 1919-ca. 1935.
Shortly after the end of the First World War, the Reverend Gwyon and his young wife Camilla set sail from Boston for Spain on vacation. "On All Saints' Day, seven days out and half the journey completed, God boarded the Purdue Victory and acted: Camilla was stricken with acute appendicitis" (4). Posing as ship's surgeon is Frank Sinisterra, escaping counterfeiting charges in America. At his incompetent hands, Camilla dies that evening, the eve of All Souls'. (It is later suggested that the young Wyatt sees an apparition of his mother at the time of her death.) Rev. Gwyon arranges to have his wife buried in the cemetery at San Zwingli (near Madrid), borne to her resting place in a "white funeral carriage [...] ordained for infants and maidens" (14) and placed next to "a little cross-eyed girl in long white stockings" (7), a rape victim entombed twelve years earlier.
Disconsolate, Rev. Gwyon enters the Franciscan Real Monasterio de Nuestra Señora de la Otra Vez in western Spain to console himself. Shortly after Christmas he develops a delirium, during which moonlight on his shoulder reminds him of his departed wife, and the next day the apprehensive brothers pack him off on a mule for Madrid, where he finally recovers.
He returns to New England the following spring, arriving not with Camilla's corpse but - to the scandal of the Calvinist community - with a Barbary ape and an assortment of Catholic icons, with which he redecorates the gloomy parsonage. (Though unnamed, the town is based on Berlin, Connecticut, where Gaddis went to school.) His son Wyatt is four at this time, and deprived of his mother he now falls unwillingly under the tutelage of the dour Aunt May, Rev. Gwyon's father's sister. As Wyatt grows older, developing a fine talent for drawing, his education is modified by the fervid devotional books of Aunt May, the arcane studies in comparative religion and alchemy of his father, and tales of adventure from the Town Carpenter, his colorful maternal grandfather.
Aunt May condemns Wyatt's artistic talents and instead looks after his reluctant preparation for the ministry; and even though she dies when Wyatt is only twelve, her influence - and the absence of any maternal love - leaves him "warped" (26). Guilt accompanies his artistic creations - which he buries in the kitchen midden - and even though he has a thorough distaste for Christianity by this time, he does leave for divinity school when of age, though not before suffering from a grave illness from which he finally recovers not as a result of medical science but, it is implied, owing to an ancient rite of demonic expulsion, performed by Rev. Gwyon and necessitating the sacrifice of the Barbary ape.
Wyatt had "passed the months of convalescence painting" (53), and two works from this period will be referred to during the course of the novel. The first is a copy of Bosch's tabletop painting The Seven Deadly Sins, which Rev. Gwyon had brought back from Europe; the second is an incomplete portrait of his mother from "a photograph made before Camilla was married" (19). Both are still unfinished a few years later when Wyatt returns from his first year of divinity school. Receiving little encouragement toward the ministry from his father, Wyatt decides to abandon it and go to Europe to study art instead. To finance his trip, he completes the Bosch copy and exchanges it with his father's original, which he sells (as he explains later) "in secret for . . . for just about nothing" (246) to Recktall Brown, his future employer. Rev. Gwyon does not learn of his son's defection until he receives a letter from Munich; " - Because of guilt, my son cannot study for the ministry," he realizes, which only increases his contempt for guilt-ridden Christianity and its "welter of fear, this chaos of blood and mutilation, these terrors of weak minds" (61). Alone now, with only the retarded servant Janet in the parsonage, he buries himself in his pagan studies, especially Mithraism, "which was to serve him so well in his later years" (8).