You may say to mock the loggers, but what was his thought behind this bizzare act ?
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In Kesey's own words;
"The image of the amputated arm came to me before I knew whose arm it was. Writing the book was the way to figure out who belonged to the arm and why. In writing the book I figured out what the symbol meant. First, I thought that Stamper was the hero, fighting the union’s attempt to control the family. But in retrospect, the river is the controlling force the family is battling. The Stamper brothers, Hank and Lee, are matching wills and egos over Vivian. When Vivian leaves at the end, she leaves the people she loves for a dark future, but one in which she isn’t controlled. Mother Nature throws off the forces that try to control her. Old feminism, women’s lib, had something to do with that, but I didn’t know it at the time."
There is a theme of human nature divided through out the book. Individualism versus intellectualism, fidelity versus independence, family versus other, and family versus family are the obvious conflicts. There is also the theme of history versus progress in which the forces of the family slogan, "never give an inch", are played out. The story is told by Vivian to the union organizer Drager, who has a storied history himself. In this act the story becomes hers though it is largely occupied by others.
The other major theme is nature as a controlling and abiding force. The Stampers depend on trees to log and the river to take the logs to the mill. Without either they are lost. It provides sustenance to the conflict between the family and the workers and drives the Stamper spirit to resist defeat at all costs.
It is fitting that Lee (Leland) is last seen in the river certain to be swallowed by it and taken to be slaughtered by the mill. In much of the story he is fighting for his value in the family in the proxy fight with his father over the treatment of the mother and in his competition with his brother Hank. Lee still competes with Hank when he enters the river heading for certain doom.
Lee went to school back east and developed his taste for jazz and intellect. It brought him a need for acceptance and a return to family forces. Here human values are at the mercy of the forces of nature within us and in our environment and they dominate opaquely but powerfully.
The symbol of the arm unites both major themes of human nature and the abiding force of the environment. At one time it is an arm, at another it could be a log. It is held up in the spirit of victory even when it represents a moment of human defeat. American individualism, that set of notions that has been called Rugged Individualism, declares the moral value of sucess of the individual despite and at times ignoring defeat. Here the severed arm is the perfect symbol handled in the perfect way.
Individualism, it says rather defiantly, has our nature as separate when intellectualism could suggest there might be a "we". Lee rides to his death after creating chaos seeking a "we". These two symbols comment strongly on American discourse at the time the novel was published and to some good extent today.
Vivian is unattached at the end of the book. She has the opportunity for freedom as we do with individualism and as we may find with intellectualism. We don't know what will happen to her or the business or the workers or Drager. This is the unsettling nature of the story as it does not neatly end but, like the river, rolls on when we close the book for the last time. Is she a symbol of Mother Nature, perhaps. Maybe, I thought, she is the next chapter of history revolving around these conflicts.
I agree the book is a bit dated, but it still strikes at the core of American debate over values. It is a powerful statement about our determination to do it on our own and our equation of inclusiveness with passivity and weakness. It remains one of my favorite books and I recommend it any time I get a chance.
Ken Kesey wrote too few books in a life that was too short. I am very grateful for having the opportunity to read "Sometimes a Great Notion". It remains the great American novel of the last third of the twentieth century.
Simply my opinion. I did read about Rugged Individualism when I went to college in the middle 1960's and have a copy of the related text, "Democracy and the Gospel of Wealth" published by D.C. Heath and Company in Boston in 1949 which I haven't read in years.
It is perhaps a modern day interpretation that Hank raised Henry's arm to mock the loggers. I think closer to the story line he was defiantly declaring the power of Henry as representative of the individual in opposition to the power of the union as representative of the power of the group. He may be mocking their courage, but he needs their work and can't insult them too deeply. To me he is challenging them to exert themselves individually.
A union not only stood for higher pay, it stood for better conditions. The individualistic Stampers saw the conditions as a part of the work, part of their life, and part of what made them strong. Here Hank is raising the arm to the workers defying their want of better conditions by saying essentially, "My father gave his arm for this work. What will you give for it?"
At this point in the novel the author is showing us the extremes of Individualism as a philosophy. In another novel Hank would see his father's arm cut off and soon begin to see there may be another way. In this novel he is not capable of self reflection and change. These last elements are elements of Intellectualism which Hank cannot accept.
Again this is my opinion. In "Democracy and the Gospel of Wealth" the Right Reverend William Lawrence, then the Bishop of the Epscopal Diocese of Massachusetts (1893-1927), makes the case capitalism can have a positive effect on character in his article "The Relation of Wealth to Morals" (above, pps. 68-76. Originally written in 1901.). Here he says "...first is that man, when he is strong, will conqueor Nature, open up her resources, and harness them to his service" a remarkable comment in these days of global warming. Then he goes on to say "This is his play, his exercise, his divine mission". When workers are not willing to sacrifice their arms for the logging work, that then meant at some point they were refusing their divine mission. This last remark, of course, is within the concept of Individualism. It is not contained in the novel, but is interesting background. In fairness to Lawrence he then made the case for self-respect and self-mastery which he described in terms we may now call upward mobility. He uses notions of self-reliance developed by Ralph Waldo Emerson to develop these character building aspects of the accumulation of wealth. Absent was any comment on the conditions of the work we do today in effort toward and in anticipation of better paying work we may do tomorrow. Here he, like Hank Stamper, does not ask the question "At what price?".