The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

by Robert A. Parker

One senses on the very first page of this 2013 novel that Gilbert is a master of the novel’s craft. After introducing the birth of her heroine, Alma Whittaker, she says: let’s give her time to grow up. And so, instead, she tells the story of Alma’s rich Philadelphia father, Henry Whittaker, who was raised in poverty in England.

And one thinks: Oh, no. But immediately, we begin a fascinating tale of this poor lad whose father teaches him all he can about plant life. And then a rich patron sends the boy abroad, first, with the last expedition of Captain Cook to the Pacific, and, second, on an exploration of Peru. There, Henry encounters the cinchona bark that contains a cure for yellow fever. It is the bark that will be the source of quinine, and it will make Henry rich.

Even as Alma is introduced at age five, the novel continues more as narration than as drama. This was understandable when offering a summary of Henry’s life, but it also seems reasonable when Alma is young and less able to think and act on her own. But we do wonder if this narrative approach will continue.

But it does not. As Alma grows older, she develops her own instincts, and her scenes amid Philadelphia society are dramatized. Thank goodness! Interest comes from two young friends, Prudence and Retta, each taken into the Whittaker household under different circumstances—and both eventually marrying, somewhat to Alma’s distress. Meanwhile, she grows at 21 or so into a respected scientist, focusing on the study of moss.

And then, suddenly, the book jumps ahead 25 years. Alma is 48 and still unmarried, and we are less than half-way into this novel. So, we wonder, what interest we will find in this tall, large, plain-looking, middle-aged woman? Answer: romance. It enters in the form of Ambrose Pike—and culminates in the most unusual sex scene in literary history. It seems Ambrose is a genius at drawing flowers; and Alma, seeing a colleague as interested in botany as herself, is happy with him like with no other person. Although, when she suggests marriage, he is a different kind of cat—or should we say a different kind of angel? And, inevitably, they part.

The final portion of the novel begins as Alma, disillusioned with her marriage, takes a Boston whaler around Cape Horn and across the Pacific to Tahiti, where her husband had earlier been banished. He had gone there to use his skills to portray more of nature. It is a marvelously created sea voyage for Alma, this middle-aged woman, as she survives both the male world of sailors and the ferocious power of nature. While this represents a remarkable transition to a vastly different world, the early Tahiti scenes lack the solidity of the Philadelphia setting, because Alma does not understand the language, the customs, or the culture of these natives.

Finally, however, she has a mission. It is to find the Boy whose figure her husband drew and who appeared to inspire his final days. But when she finds the Boy, he seems too perfect, too self-possessed to be real. He seems also, to the reader, to be a tool Gilbert uses to bring an end and a fulfillment to Alma’s Tahiti experience. Note it also brings a moment of sex that harkens back to her youth, but its symbolic intent does not for me enhance or enlarge her portrait.

Alma leaves Tahiti finally, and decides to settle in Amsterdam with the family of her dead mother. Here, as she lives her final decades, the novel’s meaning comes to the front, and Alma’s human experiences recede into the background. For on her voyage home, she has written an essay in which she draws on her study of mosses to explain her interpretation of nature itself. Her conclusion is that all life evolves and advances as a result of the struggle of living beings to survive, to overcome adversity, and to triumph over their environment.

This belief is, of course, remarkably close to Darwin’s belief in the survival of the fittest, and Gilbert draws on this scientific development to conclude her novel. For there is another scientist, Alfred R. Wallace, a real person, who has developed a theory similar to Darwin’s, and she invites Wallace to Amsterdam to lecture on his theory. It is an arrogant step by Gilbert to finalize the credentials of her heroine, who has held back on publishing her own treatise because she believes her theory has a hole—that evolution cannot explain the altruism of human beings, how people will sacrifice themselves for others, rather than try to survive them.

And now, Gilbert introduces the idea of a supreme being, an idea that even gives this novel its title. That idea is that God has left a signature of his existence in the perfectly designed things of nature, from the world of the smallest flower to that of the largest star. But, Wallace explains to Alma, he does not believe that evolution can account for human consciousness, the creation of the human mind, with its imagination and its search for beauty. He believes, instead, that there is a supreme intelligence “which wishes for communion with us….It draws us close to its mystery, and it grants us these remarkable minds, in order that we try to reach for it. It wants us to find it. It wants union with us.”

Not that Gilbert is directing this novel or her scientific heroine toward God. Far from it. For Wallace declares he is an atheist still, that by his supreme intelligence he does not mean God. And Alma herself carefully explains that “I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me.. I have wondered why it is not large and beautiful enough for others—why they must dream up beautiful and marvelous spheres, or long to live elsewhere….All I ever wanted to know was this world.”

Which leads me to conclude that this is an honest novel, as well as a beautiful, a fascinating one. Its heroine is a scientist, and its purpose is to explore both the world of science and the role of this woman in that science. But it also allows for the possibility of a world beyond science. Indeed, such a world was suggested much earlier, by the presence of Ambrose. His was not a scientific world, and barely a physical world. Not only in his unusual sex with Alma, but also with his admission that he saw himself as an angel.

Gilbert sets up all of this beautifully with the creation of these characters. Alma, as we said, is tall, has a stocky body, and is plain-faced, and we are continually reminded of this. Because this is to be a portrait of her intellectual life, of her scientific life, not of her emotional, romantic life. And her two “sisters” are not blood-sisters, but two young woman who play a certain role: Prudence, who is beautiful, and Retta, now flighty but who will go mad. Each is a contrast to Alma, and each is to play a role in Alma’s spinsterhood. And there is also the Dutch servant Hanneke, who will explain to Alma the events of her youth that led to that spinsterhood. It is so beautifully done, because what seemed so natural from Alma’s viewpoint in her youth now becomes, we see, the author’s strategy to focus the reader on, first, Alma’s true destiny as a scientist, and, then, on the author’s theme of the dichotomy between science and religion.

This novel works not only because Alma is such a complex woman, so intelligent, so confident in her convictions, in an era when women play a family role and are given no professional recognition, but also because her world of botany is made so real and so understandable to the lay reader. It begins in the world of flowers, so beautifully drawn by Ambrose, but ends up with the world of mosses. Alma will draw her scientific conclusions as she studies why some mosses thrive in a damp environment and others in a dry environment, why some will advance on a rock surface and others will withdraw, why some will have a soft texture and others are brittle, while some will advance or retreat quickly and others will do so slowly.

We, the reader, are as convinced of Alma’s professionalism as are, at the end, her fellow scientists. And yet all this information is fed to us naturally, as Alma makes new discoveries and expands her knowledge. What we are really following is Alma’s personal life, and yet part of this life is these scientific discoveries that deepen her intellectual life and deepen our understanding of her. It is only at the end that we realize they also deepen our understanding of this novel.

The New York Times Book Review heads its front-page appraisal with the title, The Botany of Desire. This is so accurate. For sexual desire is on the surface of Alma’s life, from her early self-pleasuring to her desire for her husband Ambrose. But the true desire in her life is her desire to penetrate the world of botany, how plants propagate, how they transform themselves, how they conquer the world about them, and how moss, regarded as one of the lowest forms of plant life, does so. It is a desire that earns Alma, a woman, the highest respect of scientific society. The female species that is regarded as the fountain of desire has transformed itself from the desire for physical pleasure into the desire for intellectual pleasure.

This is truly a remarkable novel, in its scientific scope, its geographic scope, and its philosophic scope. It begins as the story of a family, and ends as the story of mankind. (August, 2015)

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