An Interpretation of her novel A Dance in the Woods
Janet K. Brennan’s novel A Dance in the Woods describes the Benton’s family psychological adjustment to the sad death of their eldest daughter Beth. The sufferings of innocent Beth and her unfortunate death is not the dying of an ordinary girl, but the vanishing of a beautiful dream as revealed by Brennan in her amazing autobiographical novel, which is not a day-dreaming but based on true events in the author’s own life. The great and unique contribution of Brennan is that she has infused into A Dance in the Woods her emotions with a dramatic intensity. After reading the novel, we feel that Beth has not died, since she lives in the heart of her mother Anna. The immortality of Beth resides in the memory of the living .Brennan has written a highly accomplished novel, conceived in a full blood of creative activity .The inner heart of the author, the deepest secrets of her mind keeping an eye on the external world to find hints and signs of her daughter Beth’s reincarnation after her death, her constant brooding on Beth, her ways, her words, her life and death-all these we find in A Dance in the Woods. Wherever Anna went, she went , through the memory of Beth Anna hears her daughter Beth’s voice forbidding mourning in her mind. The mother cries that she needs to mourn:
I need to do this. You need to let me cry.
You need to let me mourn. Please, Beth, it is important that you understand … (103).
Brennan has created the most remarkable work of art, the wonder-work of a genius. It is a complete revelation of an intensely individual apprehension of death. A Dance in the Woods , in essence, is the author Brennan herself, as she tries to find a way to recover from the trauma of her daughter Beth’s death, and her burning passion searches some sign of her resurrection so that she might be at peace of mind.:
I’m going to ask God for a sign. I don’t know what it will be. I will have to give some thought, but I know that’s what I need. I want a definite sign showing and telling me that Beth is with Him and that she is being well-taken care of. I know this sounds really immature and crazy, but that that’s what I’m going to do. Maybe a white dove. I have never seen one, but I think that would be a good thing to ask for.
Another destabilizing incident occurs in the life of highly dejected Anna. Her husband William Benton with his family will have to leave their home and shift to the small village of northern Italy . Will Anna be able to regain her equipoise against the adverse forces? She tells her husband that she could not have survived if she hadn’t come to Italy . She tries to gather manna in the wilderness of the village. Doctor Paolo had advised her to dance through the woods:
On an impulse and a quick burst of adrenaline, I leapt from my tree stump and began twirling and dancing up the path in front of me. For a brief moment, I thought I might look very foolish. But it felt wonderful. I felt that my soul might actually slip away and soar high above the tree tops.
Her imagination lends a sense of joy as she sees white and beautiful Doves flying over her and William. At least fifty white doves were around William and Anna:
“All but one had flown away. I almost missed seeing it. A single dove remained, hopping about in the tall grass, content in the journey. I lunged for it and landed on my belly.”
The fundamental feature of Anna’s character is a passionate quest to find some sign of Beth even after her tragic death, and she strives for it at any cost. She attains peace and joy “at our cabin in the woods, dancing with my two beautiful children”. Her dancing in the woods becomes a ‘priestlike task of pure ablution’ round the world of nature, and this helps her to get rid of her pain for ever. After her daughter Beth’s death, Anna seems to have lost faith in every thing. All that remained was Nature with its dark woods, and she therefore would worship it kicking her feet “in a mock Tarantella”, with deepest reverence, as the only solace for her. This is Anna’s new vision of herself. She now experiences Nature’s healing power like Wordsworth in his Tintern Abbey
that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until the breath of this corporeal frame
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep in body, and become a living soul
Anna’s act of dancing in the woods is ‘the ancient rapture’ lost by the postmodern sensibility fond of surrealism, Freudism and Kafka’s novels where the characters live alone in “no-man’s-land”. Anna fuses her mind with nature to create a living paradise where she would transmute her energies to leave sad memories behind. Brennan’s method is that of a poet not a novelist. The doves and the dark woods become the source of aesthetic experience for her. She loves the sound of the leaves of ‘the aging trees’ rustling gently:
On an impulse and a quick burst of adrenaline, I leapt from my tree stump and began twirling and dancing up the path in front of me. For a brief moment, I thought I might look very foolish. But it felt wonderful. I felt that my soul might actually slip away and soar high above the tree tops (374).
Anna has experienced the rhythm of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony, and recovered from the intense pain of her adorable daughter’s death, ‘the heavy and weary weight’ of the tyranny of intellect by absorbing it in the larger world of Nature. She asks her husband:
“Come dance with me, William. Come on.” And I ran back to where he was sitting, and pulled him up off his gnarled stump. He obviously had no choice but to accompany me in my insane dance (374).
By dancing in the woods, Anna has attained the truth. This poetic experience makes Brennan’s novel A Dance in the Woods her greatest achievement. Pater points out that tragic crises in Feuillet’s novels, inherent in the general conditions of human nature itself, become subordinate, as it is their tendency to do in real life, to the characters they help to form (Pater:228-29). This is true about Anna’s tragic crisis subordinated by her dance in the woods.
What Brennan seems to be doing in discovering the dove as a sign of her daughter’s resurrection is ‘cheering’ herself up at moments of tragic intensity. There is a clear evidence in Shakespeare’s tragedies of the characters trying to find solace against tragic reality. T. S. Eliot aptly comments in his “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca” that stoicism is the refuge for Othello and Hamlet in a hostile world; “it is the permanent substratum of a number of versions of cheering oneself up” (ELIOT: 215). Brennan in most admirable last pages of her novel by becoming one with nature has conquered the world like Shakespeare.
Eliot, T.S. “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca”. Shakespeare Criticism 1919-35, Ed.
Anne Ridler. London : Oxford University press, 1956. 209-225.
Pater, Walter. “Feuillet’s La morte”. Appreciations. Edinburgh : R & R Clark, 1931, 228-252.