Light as Extended Metaphor: Richard Russo’s “Monhegan Light”

Light as Extended Metaphor:
Richard Russo’s
“Monhegan Light”

Richard Russo does many things right in “Monhegan Light.” One thing he did especially well was to weave the image of light throughout this short story so that the cumulative effect was to make the story very powerful in depicting basic human truths. The light metaphor, as sunlight, film, colors, lighthouses, paintings, storms and flashlights, among other examples, wove throughout this story by Russo to unify and support setting, plot, characters and universal themes.
“Monhegan Light” opens by foreshadowing the central conflict and the central theme: (p. 25)

Well, he’d been wrong, Martin had to admit as Monhegan began to take shape on the horizon. Wrong about the island, the ferry. Maybe even wrong to make this journey in the first place. Joyce, Laura’s sister, had implied as much, not that he’d paid much attention to her, cunt that she was. Imagine, still trying to make him feel guilty so long after the fact of Laura’s death, as if he was the one who’d been living a lie for twenty-five years. He could still see her smirking at him. “Poor Martin,” she’d said after telling him, with surprisingly little reluctance, where Robert Trevor was to be found. Almost as if she wanted Martin to meet the man. “You just don’t get it, do you?”

Our main character, Martin, is on a journey. He is about to be initiated into an unknown truth, a truth about himself. The opening sentence is both a condemnation and realization that Martin was wrong about several things but is about to discover a truth he has not been able to see until now. This is an even more powerful statement when we discover that Martin is a Director of Photography in California (land of sunshine) “in the industry,” and is indeed a lighting man, one that sheds light on and/or uses light to hide truths or imagined truths (“flaws”) for the elite actors and actresses of the movie business. Film itself, of course, is a beautiful entity for Russo to use, because film is a play of light, of chemical contrasts developed on light-sensitive plastic projected by light onto a screen (although I’m not sure how this applies to today’s digital imaging?). Film is also a story of some sort, a “telling” of a truth, usually another reality, someone else’s reality. So we see immediately how Russo uses light and the concept of contrasts to integrate the physical concept of light into his story to support his theme.
Of course, the title, “Monhegan Light,” also lets the story use setting to support the light metaphor. Monhegan is, among other things, a lobster fishing port and an artists’ colony, a special place for the creative arts. Robert Trevor, with Joyce one of the main antagonist of the story, is the guide on Martin’s journey, is part of the remote island’s population, and. as a painter, a special user/benefactor of the island’s light: (p. 26)
He’d imagined Monhegan as harboring some sort of retreat or commune inhabited by starving, self-deluded, talentless fringe painters like Joyce. Wannabees. (Not that Robert Trevor, alas, was one of those.) But a quick scan of the brochure had shown him that he was wrong. This was no commune. The artists who summered here were not hoping to “arrive” some day; they already had.

In this early paragraph we learn that Martin is wrong yet again, this time about Robert Trevor and the island of Monhegan itself. We learn too that Robert Trevor (and Joyce, not coincidentally) are painters, an art that relies heavily on the understanding and manipulation of light and shadow and color and contrast. Robert is the accomplished artist, while Joyce is the amateur.
The story itself is set in September, i.e., the fall of the year, reflecting Martin’s late age of realization late in his life. Setting the story in September also suggests that Robert Trevor, while still on the island of “summering” artists, is indeed very accomplished and one of the few permanent residents of the island (despite his mention of a farm in Indiana, which as Martin says “might or might not exist”). In other words, he is a professional in the use of light and by extension truth, and in the context of the story is one capable of guiding Martin to his needed realizations. Significant too is that we know so much about Robert Trevor already, and Russo hasn’t actually had us meet him yet in the story — a great tension-building device.
In another application of setting and place adding to the light metaphor, Russo’s describes Martin seeing the island’s lighthouse for the first time: (p. 31)

When he looked up from his brochure, Martin saw that the island’s lighthouse had come into view above the dark line of trees, so he got up and went over to the rail for a better look. A few minutes later, the ferry rounded the southernmost tip of the island, and chugged into the tiny harbor with its scattering of small buildings built into the hillside. High above and blindingly white, the lighthouse was straight out of a Hopper painting, presiding over a village starkly brilliant in its detail. Martin could feel his eyes welling up in the stiff breeze, and when he felt Beth at his elbow, he tried to wipe the tear out of the corner of his left eye with the heel of his hand, a gesture he hoped looked natural. She must have noticed, though, because she said, “Don’t be jealous, babe. God lit this one.”

For the first time, Martin experiences Monhegan light in its (and his) “natural” as well as man-made state. The lighthouse is “high above and blindingly white,” literally a beckon of truth even without being lit. He is physically overcome, by the breeze or the light or his own emotions (nice ambiguity), which his younger and voluptuous companion Beth mistakes for jealousy, although she is pretty close with her recognition of “divine intervention,” perhaps. This is, indeed, “the place” for Martin’s potential character change, for his revelation of truth. And in a heavy-handed final play, just in case we weren’t paying attention so far, Russo tells us the name of the ferry that carried Martin to Monhegan: Laura, the name of Martin’s dead wife.
Interesting, too, is the conflict between Martin and his wife’s sister, Joyce. It was Joyce that sent Martin the naked picture of Laura painted (and signed) by Robert Trevor, and she that gave him the directions to Trevor’s studio on Monhegan Island “…Almost as if she wanted Martin to meet the man.” Besides her role thematically, as a contrasting presence to Laura and Beth, and as a catalyst for Martin’s trip and subsequent discovery, Joyce is important as a writing technique, a rich multi-dimensional character with purpose, because she gives us a solid believable reason why Martin’s wife Laura could be gone for extended periods each summer for 20 years: (p. 45)
“So, Robert. How long were you and my wife lovers?”
Trevor paused, deciding how best , or perhaps whether, to answer. “Why would you want to know that, Martin? How will knowing make anything better?”
“How long?”
After a beat, the painter said, “We had roughly twenty years’ worth of summers.”
Right, Martin thought. The worst, then. Odd that he couldn’t remember whether Laura had ever directly deceived him, or whether she’d simply allowed him to deceive himself. He’d assumed that she needed this time with her sister each summer. That she never asked him to come along, given his opinion of Joyce, he’d considered a kindness.

The central conflict of the story is the twenty-some-year love affair between Laura, Martin’s deceased wife, and Robert Trevor, the Monhegan painter. This is the central conflict, despite the richness of the relationship between Joyce and Martin, competing with the central theme of Laura, because it is knit into the story using the central metaphor, light. Their first meeting, not surprisingly, is accompanied by a reference to light: (p. 36)
It took him a minute to sense Martin’s presence at the foot of his deck, and even then he didn’t react with as much surprise as Martin himself would have displayed had their situations been reversed. The painter nodded at Martin as if he’d been expecting him, and he did not get up. “You,” he said, running his fingers through his hair, “would be Laura’s husband.”
“Martin.”
“Right, Martin.”
“Joyce called you?”
Trevor snorted. “I don’t have a phone. That’s one of the many beauties of this place.” He paused to let this vaguely political observation sink in. “No, the sun went behind a cloud and I looked over and there you were. I made the connection.”

Martin’s encounter with Trevor is filled with references to light, from the initial meeting to the building lightning storm as he leaves to the borrowing of his flashlight to literally “find their way in the dark.” Trevor also painted Laura nude one summer, and this was the painting that Joyce sent to Martin, which was his catalyst to head to Monhegan and discover the “truth,” which he thought was a simple 20-year love affair by his cheating wife and this man. Russo’s description of Trevor’s painting, too, is bathed with references to light, sight, and shadows: (p. 40)
Whatever instinct prevented Martin from opening the painting in front of Beth, he was grateful for it as soon as he tore the outer covering off the skeleton of protective latticework. Seeing Laura there, just behind the cross-hatched slats, he had to suppress a powerful urge to lock the front door and pull the curtains shut against the brilliant California sunlight. After she was uncrated and leaning against the wall, he’d remained transfixed for a long time — he couldn’t afterward be sure how long — and for almost as long by Robert Trevor’s signature in the lower right of the canvas… It wasn’t just his wife’s nakedness, or even her pose, just inside an open doorway, light streaming in on her, all other objects disappearing into shadow. It was something else. The painting’s detail was minutely photographic where the light allowed, yet it was very much “painted,” interpreted, Martin supposed, an effect no camera eye could achieve.

In writing, the little things, working in conjunction with the big things, count. Paintings are made up of colors. Colors themselves are light, because different colors reflect/absorb different light. The painting itself “became” Laura reincarnate, not just a painting of Laura. Russo literally makes Laura the subject of the sentences in his descriptions of the painting, seemingly creating ambiguity but in many ways literally changing the subject and perhaps making a statement on aesthetics: ”seeing Laura there…,” “After she was uncrated and leaning against the wall…” The truth was so hard for Martin to accept he had to “suppress a powerful urge to lock the front door and pull the curtains shut against the brilliant California sunlight.” Time stood still for him at this moment; “he couldn’t afterward be sure how long.” He was “transfixed,” Russo could have said “caught staring,” but Martin was even more overwhelmed than just staring. He could have said “camera lens,” but he didn’t; he said “an effect no camera eye could achieve,” a double entendre for a DP.

The shadows and large signature of Robert Trevor suggest that there were areas of Laura where Trevor couldn’t reach, either, didn’t know or have that he wanted to know and have, that were a part of Laura that he couldn’t see clearly enough to possess, even in art, no matter how much he wanted to, how skilled an artist he was. He depicted this in his painting, and he poignantly states this truth to Martin: (p. 49)
“I’d love to have it back, if you don’t want it.”
“It’ll be even harder to look at now,” he’d admitted, though he knew he’d never return the painting to Trevor. “That look of longing on her face. The way she was standing. I’m always going to know it was you she wanted to come through that door.”
“Wrong again, Martin.” Trevor was leaning heavily with both hands on the gate now, letting Martin know that a handshake wasn’t any more necessary now than it had been earlier. It suddenly dawned on Martin that the man had to be in his seventies. “I was the one that did come through that door. You were the one she was waiting for.”

Even this final revelation gives a nod to light: it “dawned” on Martin, as finally he realized some truth outside of yet about himself. Laura loved him, truly loved him; but he didn’t love her until he saw Robert Trevor’s painting of her: (pp. 51-52)
For a long time Martin lay in the dark thinking about Robert Trevor’s farm in Indiana, if there was such a place, and the countless versions of Laura he claimed to have stored there…This trip wasn’t so much about saying good-bye to his wife as saying hello. He’d fallen in love with her, truly in love, the moment he’d uncrated the painting back in L.A. and seen his wife through another man’s eyes. Just as Joyce had known, somehow, that he would.
What folly, Martin couldn’t help concluding, bitterly, as he contemplated the lovely young woman sleeping at his side; it was his destiny, no doubt, to sell her short as well. What absolute folly love was.

The subject of “Monhegan Light” is not light itself. Russo skillfully used many other writing techniques and approaches, not the least of which were full, complex characters and humor, to tell his story. But he used light as an element to develop setting, plot, characters, action and themes. He used light as a unifying and illuminating metaphor throughout, extending the symbolic significance of light and all its aspects and elements to enrich the story’s larger, universal themes of morals, human nature (man versus women), aesthetics, beauty, truth and perception, magic, and love.
Would “Monhegan Light” be a good story without such an extended use of light? Perhaps. But it would be nowhere near as rich a story, and nowhere near as good an example of a mature writer’s depth and skill.

Russo, Richard. The Whore’s Child and Other Stories. First Vintage Contemporaries Edition, July 2003. New York: Random House, 2002.

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