Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

10 Jun 2011

(Short Story) The Miraculous Revenge by: George Bernard Shaw

(Reaction) Hell Hath No Fury Like a Prodigal Scorned by: Antonio Conejos

The Miraculous Revenge is ostensibly about a dead man so vile that decent folk wouldn't be caught dead (literally) beside him. It is in actuality about a character, very much alive in the short story, who is so vile that no one living can stand him.

Wolfe Tone Fitzgerald's reputation was unsullied by good praises, he was a dirty, drunken, blasphemous blackguard. He carried these distinctions to the grave; so much so that when he was buried in the town's cemetery, the next day it was discovered that everyone else's graves had moved, leaving Fitzgerald's grave lying alone. It would appear that even the dead shun those of ill repute.

It is this miracle of prejudice, of graves moving by themselves because they care not for the qualities of their neighbor, that Zeno Legge is sent to investigate. Zeno has much in common with the late Wolfe Fitzgerald and this leads him to feel sympathy for the man, I looked down a the grave with a pang of compassion for the unfortunate Wolfe Tone Fitzgerald, with whom the blessed would not rest. It is telling to note that among all the characters in the short story, Zeno only identifies with Fitzgerald.

Zeno is a man of great energy and passions. It is readily apparent that he is a man of quick wit (early in his conversation with his uncle he alludes to Poe), as knowledgeable in the arts as he is with stirring up controversy. Yet, as is common with those whose spirits flare so brightly, he is of a melancholy disposition, consumed by something he knows not what, my eternal search - I know not for what: it drives me to and fro like another Cain.

It is this tempestuous nature of Zeno which leads him to disdain anyone who does not appreciate his intelligence or his ways. Moreover, he does not bend to anyones view of what is proper and what he can and cannot do. As such, he is up at all hours of the night, and he demands that people conform to his schedule. This attitude is readily apparent when he forces his way into his uncle's home at an ungodly hour I therefore plied the knocker with my right hand, and kept the bell ringing with my left until I heard the door chain rattle within.

Even before meeting his uncle, Zeno had already exhibited this trait of being callous to the needs of others. In his hotel late at night he played his piano so loud that an aggravated group came to rough him up for disturbing their rest, 'Confound you, sir'... One of them had a bootjack, which he held like a truncheon. Another, the foremost, had a pistol.

This elevated sense of worth coupled with disregard for others is readily apparent in Zeno's opening description of the story. He describes his uncle as like most of my family, deficient in feeling, and consequently cold to me personally. This brilliant opening line (it is the second sentence of the short story) lays bare Zeno's character. First, his thoughts are always about himself. Second, if people do not appreciate him then it is their failing, ie. that his uncle dislikes him is a fault on his uncle's part, a lack of emotion. In Zeno's eyes the fault can't possibly in his own personality.

It is this deviant personality, and his attempt to explain himself to Kate Hickey, that sets the stage for the miraculous revenge. He insists to Kate that he is not mad. This is a recurring action in the story as Zeno is constantly trying to prove to others that he can be trusted. Yet in assuring her that he is not a madman he lets slip that he is on town on (somewhat) false pretences. Zeno's protestations of sanity lead to a physical altercation and his displacement of poor Fitzgerald's grave.

Zeno is incensed that these small country folk have risen against him, he of such intellect and charm. Thus in rage does he hit upon his (admittedly) brilliant plan to get back at them. Instantly I became murderous... Fortunately the impulse to kill vanished before a sudden perception of how I might miraculously humble the mad vanity in which these foolish people had turned upon me.

Ultimately the short story is not about whether the miracle is real, Zeno assures his uncle without any fanfare that it is. Indeed, the principal characters of the story all assume that the miracle is genuine. What the Miraculous Revenge rather centers on is Zeno's vanity; that amidst an authentic revelation of the divine all Zeno can concentrate on is his ego and petty jealousies. Zeno takes a miracle without batting an eyelash and uses it to hurt those who have hurt him. Amidst wonder, Zeno focuses on banal revenge against a cleric and woman who have slighted him.

The story also subtly suggests that we loss sight of the magnificent because we are consumed by the less edifying aspects of our natures - a dogged insistence on self over others and the rectifying of small hurts. To the last Zeno remains steadfast in his egoistic belief that he is the wronged party in this whole affair, Father Hickey had suffered the meed of his inhospitable conduct.

Shaw uses the supernatural to illustrate the character of an amiable, yet at the same time disagreeable, chap who burns with fervent energy that he cannot share with anyone. In the end there are two revenge plots in Shaw's short story, Zeno's revenge but also the revenge of Wolfe Fitzgerald. Even in death Brimstone Billy (as Fitzgerald was known in the community) has the last laugh on the Church and polite society.

Review:

This is an amusing short story which is carried by its irascible main character. The dialogue especially between uncle and nephew is good for a few chuckles. Zeno reminds me of how Bertie Wooster would have turned out without Jeeves - if poor old Bertie had half a brain to realize that he was ultimately lonely. The reader can almost see Shaw writing this story with relish, artists love a gifted but misunderstood character.

It is not true though that no one understands Zeno. They understand him all too well and consequently reject him. It is Zeno who cannot understand the people around him. So much so that the question lingering throughout his head throughout the story, but never voiced, is why don't people like him?

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