Something Lost

By Pat Duffy Hutcheon

358 pp

 

A review by Dr. Jane Wong

Professor and Head of Psychology

Armstrong Atlantic State University

 

 

The message of Pat Duffy Hutcheon’s novel is incredibly simple:  a truly worthwhile life is achieved through respecting the inherent worth of others and having the courage to be honest – honest with oneself, to those with whom we have personal relationships, to those with whom we share only space and time, about history, about the actual reality and consequences of our ideologies and our actions and inactions. 

How to achieve this life?  Perhaps in a world where each person was born wise and shares this value could we be so honest.  Two problems:  we learn about consequences only through living and having the courage to see clearly, and the contingencies of our everyday lives frequently direct us toward a very different path.

Duffy Hutcheon begins the novel in the present, as the main character, Dr. Ashton-Brent, is about to be honored for pioneering the discipline of Women’s Studies “which, but for her steadfast commitment, might not have found its place and prospered in universities throughout the English-speaking world.”  Soon, we are propelled back to the academic year 1976-1977 in the Foundations of Education Department where Dr. Ashton-Brent began her career some seven years ago and is still awaiting tenure.  That year was to be the turning point for Ashton-Brent:  she wins tenure and is to become a force within the women’s movement on campus.  Coincidentally, a student and two faculty colleagues in her department die unexpectedly that year.  The reader knows from page one all is not what it seems for a voice from the past asks “What really happened to Cynthia Montague all those years ago?”

 In the subsequent month-to-month account of that fateful academic year, events unfold amidst the day to day goings on in academia – classes taught, papers graded, conversations in the faculty lounge and faculty offices, occasional department meetings, and off-campus academic conferences.  We learn about the capriciousness of the hiring and tenure and promotion process in academia; the bickering, back-stabbing, and in some cases, frontal assaults, between members of the different philosophical/political camps; subjectivity in the evaluation of students; student disruptions of faculty lives; and the politics and philosophies of the time.  The intellectual discourse unfolds slowly in a mosaic of topics that each alone has filled volumes. 

The mosaic may distract the casual reader who will wonder whether there is any coherence in the conversations of these academics and ask what it has to do with what happened, or will happen, to the three people.  Somewhere halfway into the academic year, we begin to see strands linking the intellectual discourse and begin to feel inherent tension between the philosophies of those who fancy themselves progressing from the modern to the post-modern “politically correct” world and those who steadfastly hold on to notions of the Enlightenment, value tradition, or approach novel ideas with practical skepticism, some of whom “if only the term ‘politically incorrect’ had been invented then … would have been universally recognized as its epitomes.” 

We see Duffy Hutcheon’s Dr. Ashton-Brent at once as the want-to-be champion of cultural relativisim who finds intellectual liberation in her Unitarian Universalism background, professed socialistic ideals, and the works of Margaret Mead, Karl Marx, and Carl Jung and as a woman of her times who finds her career stymied for no apparent reason and is ultimately driven not merely for the survival that tenure would symbolize but for world-wide recognition and adulation.  She makes choices … seemingly small and temporary at first, as when she gave in sexually to male professors during her college years, or when she put off speaking to a distraught student, Cynthia Montague, because she had to prepare an important conference presentation.  The author reminds us that these were choices that had unintended consequences, perhaps most significantly for the person who made the choice.  To the main character’s unanswered refrain throughout the novel of “but what more could I have done?” the reader is compelled to answer, “you could have had the courage to be honest or to see what you didn’t want to see!” even though Duffy Hutcheon is herself honest in letting us see that those who have the courage of their convictions also pay a price in this lifetime.  They, too, have their weaknesses, moments of poor judgment, and what seems like a special talent for shooting themselves in the foot.  However, what the latter often has that the former does not is perhaps some degree of peace of mind.  Duffy Hutcheon appropriately concludes the novel in the present time, with a major supporting character facing his imminent death:  “There is the lingering death of the human spirit that can devour all the days of the lives of those who allow the fear of failure to prevent the difficult choices required for a gratifying and productive lifetime.  And there is the death with dignity that is arranged for when one’s major task on earth has been completed, and meaningful life without unbearable suffering is no longer possible.  Think of that when next you hear of me.”  These words uttered by the man who knows he will probably not live to see justice for the events of a quarter of a century ago … unless the main character finds the courage to reveal what she knows.  But almost automatically Ashton-Brent thinks she “…could not … allow herself to be placed in that position.  There was simply no way that she could risk her hard-won reputation by revealing any of this …her entire life’s work could well be rendered meaningless.”  We find it hard to be sympathetic, but recognize this fear that ultimately challenges each of us to be true to personal and historical truth. 

Careful readers may want to re-read the original works of Marx, Jung, or the existential philosophers, among others, after walking through the rich intellectual mosaic.  The mystery fan would enjoy the challenge provided by various “clues” of what is to come but would want a more certain sense of justice that perhaps does not always occur in our imperfect world.  “Something Lost” is a well-crafted philosophical and psychological journey.