The Cost of Courage and the Price of Justice: Harold O. Wilson’s “A Kiss for Gertrude”
By Margot Miller, http://margotmiller.co/
In 1958 at Price College, a fictional institution, a student whose name, Thurmond Roydal, means loosely “prince,” or “god/king-son-of-the-god/king” is in despair and obsessed with a photograph of dead film star, Gertrude Lawrence, whom he thinks of as his mother. He is doing his best to flunk out of school. Between the name of the character and the name of the mother-figure, a perhaps coincidental reference to Hamlet’s mother, the close reader is already watching for something more than the story of a late adolescent packing in his studies in defiance of a powerful, distant and patriarchal father or because of some confusion about Gertrude Lawrence.
The literary references in Wilson’s “A Kiss for Gertrude” are many. We see immediately the reference to Hamlet and the predicament of the young man in a struggle for justice in a world he does not truly inhabit. Equally important are the inter-texts with Heinrich Böll’s “The Balek Scales,” Shirley Jackson’s, “The Lottery,” and a number of biblical references as well as the setting and time of the emerging civil rights struggle in the American South. Roydal’s professor (Dr. Ballack), whose name of course recalls Balek, is, however, not simply a deceptively benevolent father figure in this story. Rather, because he does eventually try to challenge the status quo, he also earns our sympathy in a way comparable to Jackson’s Mrs. Hutchinson.
It is always useful to remember that it is sometimes possible to think of each character in a story as a part of a single self. The kiss for Gertrude is a smudge on the glass of a framed publicity shot and is explained when Ballack finds the image inscribed as the “Mother of us all,” clearing the way for a symbolic understanding of the mother/feminine side of the prince/self. Thus, Gertrude Lawrence with her distant expression can be seen as the male-handled and oppressed Feminine, revealing both anger and refusal within the self of Thurmond, whose efforts to stand up for justice are thwarted by the father figure faculty members as well as his own father, a “father” who is not only external but equally possible within the self, a “father” capable of rejecting the Feminine part of the self. Ballack, more importantly, is the individualized father figure who comes to understand his own complicity in the social, academic, and racial tensions of the times.
Because the literary and cultural references are both many and transparent, they provide clues to what the author might be hoping to say in a dialogue with the earlier texts, but for the reader who does not have these references at hand, the story still works. Even without them, we understand that Gertrude’s photograph is symbolic, and because Thurmond Roydal does his homework perfectly before throwing it in the trash, we know that his academic failure is a symbolic refusal as well.
It is Roydal’s rebellion, and the subsequent rebellion of his professor, foreshadowed by the remark that Thurmond will be unable to help Ballack any more than the latter can help Thurmond before the disciplinary committee, that form the axis of the story. Thurmond’s choice is the deliberate mark of courage, a principled and modeled refusal by the princely part of the self, but the story then turns its focus to Ballack. Perhaps the latter’s rebellion is an impulse but it is nevertheless an important and necessary expression of truth. The final act of Ballack’s career is his alliance with Thurmond and the guilty solicitation of the inevitable condemnation of his colleagues. The faculty and Dr. Ballack with them have long defended the status quo of segregation and sorrow in the American South in general and in the arena of Price College in particular; the time has come for these institutions to change. There is a price to be paid, however, and Ballack must be the first to pay it.
Wilson’s narrative centers around the notion of fairness, the struggle each of us faces at some time in our lives to speak out about shortcomings in our socially constructed systems and institutions or in ourselves. Every one of them, from individual personal relationships to social customs, to government programs, to institutions both concrete and abstract, weighs in at some point “fifty-five grams short of justice,” and the one who refuses to go along or who speaks out, the whistle-blower, the voice that tells is always condemned, ostracized, metaphorically crucified, or, as in the comparison to Jackson’s character in ”The Lottery,” lapidated. Here the stones are only chalk, but the effect is social death.
Ultimately, what matters in “A Kiss for Gertrude” is not so much the particular cultural references, although they are delicately chosen and exquisitely exploited, but the fact that Wilson calls them up to challenge the reader’s views on the social constructs of justice and courage, self-sacrifice, condemnation of the one who tells a truth, and ultimately, love. Wilson shows us that, as with any modeled idea, the macro construct of institutional tradition can easily be turned inside out to reveal the individual or micro construct of the self, and vice-versa. Each holds the other within its borders.
As Wilson so often does in his fiction, “A Kiss for Gertrude,” gives us a new look at the eternal question of what it means to be human. There is no answer, of course, but there are new questions leading to interesting discussions for his readers about a shared struggle for justice and courage in a world we have to work hard to inhabit authentically. Wilson reminds us that the cost of courage and the price of justice are incalculable, except in terms of the time we give to their consideration and to their exercise. Time is, after all, the ultimate commodity and the only thing we have to give, whether to others or to ourselves, as we face our own shortcomings in the measure of being.
1 Thurmond is derived from Thor, Norwegian for god/king, and Roydal is transparently ‘royal.’
2 Böll, Heinrich, “The Balek Scales,” IN Heinrich Böll: 18 Stories, New York, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1966, pp 25-35.
3 Jackson, Shirley, “The Lottery,” IN The Lottery and Other Stories, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1948, pp 291-302.
Margot Miller has a PhD in French literature and holds an advanced degree in counseling. She has published scholarly articles as well as a number of short stories. Her latest collection of short stories and flash fiction can be found in Blackbird Calling and in Walking Accidently in the Dark. Miller was the Fiction Editor for The Delmarva Review from 2008 to 2013.