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Analysis and Portent in "The Pope's End," The Emperor's Children

Chapter eighteen in Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children turns out to be one of the most symbolically significant chapters of her novel by the end of the book. It is significant not only in the events that unfold, but it also is significant in that the chapter also offers some insight into one way the reader can approach the novel.

Though it may be difficult to classify The Emperor’s Children (Is it a satire? A comedy of manners? Are we meant to read it sincerely?), chapter eighteen offers the reader some instruction on how to read the novel, which may then lead the reader to make her own judgment about the novel’s classification. Through the Messud’s descriptions and the way she constructs certain scenes, Messud invites readers to engage with the novel in a way that many of the characters themselves do. That is, Messud encourages the readers to approach the text in a literary way, encouraging readers to search for deeper levels of meaning.

The theme of literariness pervades The Emperor’s Children; not only is Marina’s father a well-regarded author, Marina herself and all of her friends were English majors in college. As such, Messud constructs certain scenes in which characters analyze their own lives in a way that is almost literary. The effect of these scenes is to invite the readers themselves to analyze the events of the novel.

One such scene is the entirety of chapter eighteen, which is entitled “The Pope’s End.” “The Pope’s End” opens with Marina, the daughter of celebrated author Murray Thwaite, attempting to work on the book she has postponed completing for years. In her book, Marina desires to make connections, create a new perspective, and offer an insightful cultural analysis by juxtaposing seemingly unrelated ideas. She is, in effect, conducting an analysis not unlike one that might be done in a literary setting. The narrator informs the reader that Marina

     was writing, in this chapter, about the long-standing Western habit of dressing a child like someone else: like an older child, or like a      parent, or like someone else entirely; and she was comparing this to those ventriloquists whose dummies were attired to match them,      among other things, and making, or attempting to, a broader point about how children have been seen as emanations of their parents      (139).

Through her cultural analysis, Marina hopes to provide insight to her potential readers, to make a “broader point,” one that will teach her own readers how to “read”—or analyze—their society.

Although Marina’s incomplete work on her novel has not yet been able to produce a successful cultural analysis, the groundwork for her analysis is there, “right in front of [her],” as her father would likely tell her (141). Though Marina is not yet capable of making the analysis for her book work, she does prove to be capable of analyzing events that unfold around her. By creating a character like Marina who so perceptive in constructing analyses of her and her friends’ lives, Messud invites the reader to engage in analysis as well, and to read for deeper meanings in the text.

Chapter eighteen is such a rich example of a moment where a character’s and reader’s analysis overlaps. As Marina procrastinates, putting off working on her book, she elects to have a glass of milk instead. Returning to her bedroom, “she was aware of being quite as a cat; aware, too, suddenly, of the possibility of cat vomit somewhere on the carpet,” for Marina’s aging cat, named the Pope, has recently been ill (142). At this point in the novel, Marina is anticipating the arrival of her cousin, Frederick “Bootie” Tubb, who is on a quest to study from Marina’s father and thereby elevate himself. As Marina walks past the room in which Bootie will stay, she notices that the Pope, of whom Marina has just thought, is curled up on the guest bed, seemingly asleep. Reaching out to pet the Pope, Marina discovers that the Pope is dead. Marina cries out, which brings her father to the guest bedroom. During their conversation, Marina asks, “It doesn’t seem a very good omen, does it?... Having the Pope die on his bed” (144). Here, Marina looks to conduct an analysis. Instead of feeling the emotional resonance of the death of a long-time pet, Marina instead seeks to interpret the cat’s death symbolically. Since Marina does this, she encourages the reader to consider the novel’s events on a symbolic level as well. Although Murray replies that he does not believe in omens, that “No self-respecting atheist should believe in omens… Certainly not a pope’s death,” the seed has been planted, and the reader cannot help but to consider the death of the Pope in a symbolic, analytical way (145).

By providing conflicting perspectives—is the Pope’s death an omen? Is it not?—Messud avoids giving the reader easy answers, which encourages a reader to return to the scene of the Pope’s death after completing the novel. Initially, the cat’s name is the first indicator that the scene may be potentially significant. At the most basic level, the real Pope is a divine earthly presence and leader of a religious institution, one which has cultivated many devoted followers. From this simple assessment alone, Murray appears to naturally correlate to the Pope, both religious and feline. A great number of people look to Murray for his journalistic input, and Murray considers himself able to “ensure that the voice of the people is heard” (53). Murray claims, in a way, to be able to speak for the masses. As a prominent journalist, Murray is in a powerful position analogous to that of a Pope’s. Therefore, the feline Pope’s passing seems as though it may be emblematic of Murray’s twilight hours.

It ultimately turns out to be portentous that the cat passes away on the bed that will be Bootie’s. Much as an observer of Catholicism may look to and respect the Pope, Bootie Tubb is initially one of Murray’s most devoted followers. When Bootie first arrives at the Thwaites’ home, he decides that “he would do his best quietly to observe, to see how his uncle worked, to try to glean, at the dinner table, the procedure of his thought…he would be Murray Thwaite’s finest and most discreet pupil” (202). At first, Bootie idolizes Murray as a “kindly but formidable giant scooping up a mere boy in his enormous palm and teaching him, little by little, to grow” (239). However, Bootie’s idolization soon wears off. After discovering Murray’s rather trite memoirs (along with suspecting that Murray is having an affair), Bootie takes it upon himself to write an exposé of his uncle’s memoir and ultimately empty character.

The death of the Pope on Bootie’s bed then becomes significant as it is Bootie who becomes disenchanted with what Bootie perceives to be his uncle’s self-aggrandizement and deception. It is Bootie who is no longer able to respect the elevated character of his uncle, and Bootie who wishes to assassinate Murray’s character with the exposé. To Bootie, all feelings of his uncle’s importance and value have been destroyed. The death of the cat on Bootie’s bed signifies not only the passing of Murray’s importance to Bootie, but it also represents Bootie’s attempt to destroy Murray’s reputation and character with the exposé. Additionally, when a Pope passes away, a new Pope must be elected. In some ways, Bootie wishes to usurp Murray: he wishes to become the morally just and fair figure that his uncle is not. Bootie decides he will “write a thorough and thoughtful analysis” of Murray’s secret manuscript so as to not “betray the very standards to which he wished to hold his uncle” (243). The fact that Marina’s cat passes away on Bootie’s bed, then, seems to be indicative not only of Bootie’s disenchantment with his uncle (the “death” of Bootie’s affections), but also seems to indicate Bootie’s desire to usurp his uncle by “killing” or defaming Murray’s character.

In chapter eighteen, Marina, with her literary bent, has encouraged the reader to believe that the death of her cat, the Pope, is a sign of the downfall of the most publicly powerful figure in the story: Murray Thwaite. By suggesting the possibility that the cat’s death is an omen, Marina encourages the reader to search for deeper meaning, engaging with the story on a symbolic and analytical level. Though engaging with the story in an analytical way does not resolve the issue of the novel’s classification, it does provide an alternative way to read the novel. By giving her characters literary interests, Messud has given her readers an idea of how to access The Emperor’s Children. Readers can approach the text as Marina does her writing, searching for meaning and drawing together correlative pieces of information. Readers can also draw inspiration from Marina’s analysis of the Pope’s death. Readers are able to retrospectively analyze the scene, appreciating it as an element of symbolic foreshadowing. Throughout chapter eighteen, Messud instructs her reader to look for signs; Marina’s analytical mind simply helps to guide the reader in the right direction.

Works Cited

Messud, Claire. The Emperor’s Children. New York: Vintage Books, 2006. Print.