[(essay date summer-fall 1989) In the following essay, Hadella focuses on point of view in Steinbeck's O. Henry Prize-winning story "The Murder" to try to address questions about the violence and confusion in the tale.]
John Steinbeck's story, "The Murder," disturbs many readers because it seems to condone violence as a solution to marital discord. Since its selection as an O. Henry Prize story in 1934, "The Murder" has received critical attention intermittently for five decades: critics, carefully examining the setting, imagery, characterization, and themes of this story, have attempted to explain its violence and confusion through such varying perspectives as allegory, gothicism, and realism.1 As Louis Owens asserts in John Steinbeck's Re-Vision of America, "The Murder" is "undoubtedly the most difficult and perplexing of the stories collected in The Long Valley."2 Yet, in spite of the story's difficulties, Owens presents a convincing discussion of Jim Moore's illusion of chivalry as a central theme of "The Murder" and reaches the conclusion that Jim must discard his chivalric mores in order to achieve a successful marriage.
I agree that Jim's perception of his marriage definitely influences the central action of the story. Owens's argument, however, relies heavily upon two troubling elements: a flaw in Steinbeck's characterization of Jim's wife, Jelka, and a conclusion which insists that Jim transcends his illusions of chivalry by murdering his wife's lover. As important as these points are to an interpretation of the story, Owens's presentation of them is tenuous. He concludes that "The Murder," in spite of "its obvious power," ends on a "disturbingly confused note."3 I propose that a careful examination of Steinbeck's narrative technique in "The Murder" dispels the disturbing confusion of its ending. In analyzing this perplexing tale, critics have neglected the one element of storytelling that often clarifies all the other parts of a story--point of view.
"The Murder" is told by a third-person narrator who, though omniscient, generally limits his scope to the actions of and observations perceived by one character, Jim Moore. This selective omniscience allows Steinbeck to use setting and imagery for maximum effect. Point of view in "The Murder" also influences the reader's understanding of the characters. Though the story begins in an omniscient voice with several paragraphs of details about setting, the description is not purely objective. The narrator, referring to the Cañon del Castillo, remarks that "only a close visit to the castle shows it to be a strange accident of time and water and erosion working on soft, stratified sandstone."4 As the story unfolds, the point of view narrows and focuses on Jim, but the elements of the opening paragraphs, images that the narrator instructs us to examine closely, become the controlling images for the most significant action of the story--an action triggered by an "accident of time" and motivated by Jim's impression of his role as husband.
The pattern of narration clearly establishes Jim as the point-of-view character for "The Murder." The first two paragraphs establish setting...