“One of the sweetest, most delicately-written stories I’ve read in a long time. One man’s walk along the length of England to save the life of a dying woman. Philosophical, intriguing, and profoundly moving.”
CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS!
This is a profound book belied by its simplicity. In previous reviews, it has been described as ‘sentimental’, ‘quaint’, ‘twee’ and even reference to story ‘abstractions’ has been made. These words have drawn a line below which, I think, lies the story’s essence which is bound up in psychological and religious themes.
The primary situational and psychodynamic elements of Harold Fry’s transformational journey story, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”, are to be found on the first page: his life boundaried by a consciousness limited to a clipped lawn with its telescopic washing line, estrangement from his wife, the arrival of ‘that letter that would change everything on a Tuesday’ and, most essentially, to the eventual symbol of transformation, if not, personal resurrection, Harold’s laugh.
It is not just a ‘good read’, as in a holiday book, but a seriously relevant metaphor. It has the potential, in its small contributing way, to assist a contemporary man to expand and deepen his consciousness – especially older men – through personal growth and adjustment and to live with some semblance of peace – ‘a peace that the world cannot give?’ so Jesus is reported to have said – if not preparation of personal completion in readiness for death.
The story line is not new; just a creative repeat of a motif in the conduct of an ordinary individual in daily life.
The real story, the meta-story, of the book resides in Harold’s unconscious with the afore-mentioned psychological and religious implications. It is my view – and, at least, I find Jung’s psychological model useful – that his unconscious is the main player of Harold in his life at this time. It is probing and poking at him, along with accompanying synchronistic opportunities presented, to work through a personal transformational process.
Harold Fry seems to fit the common image of many a Western man who, after an unremarkable professional life of working for ‘the company’ and without advancing, retires to his house in the suburbs to await death. His is the typical and rational cultural pathway for a man of his vintage.
He has been married to Maureen for forty-five years and their relationship had slipped into the doldrums to the extent, at least, they sleep in separate rooms. A past colleague, Queenie Hennessey, some twenty years ago, used to accompany Harold on his sales travels. It is psychologically interesting to note the inclusion of ‘queen’ in her name. Is she the royal element in this story to assist making Harold king of himself?
Queenie was sacked for taking the rap for Harold regarding an incident that offended their boss. On recent receipt of a short letter from Queenie disclosing she was in a care home dying of cancer, Harold is taken with an idea that, instead of posting his short and inadequate reply, he would walk the six hundred plus miles to Berwick-on-Tweed from his home, in Kingsbridge, Devon, and deliver it in person and with the view that he will save her from dying of cancer. He feels morally bound to do so, given her kind remembrance of him, together with her current abysmal situation. However, he becomes assailed with uncertainty probably due to his lack of any developed belief in personal efficacy. Often, we feel an initial excitement at creative and spontaneous ideas but it fails to follow through. Christ’s ‘Parable of the Sower’ comes to mind. Harold’s soil has been pretty shallow. However, the ‘young garage girl’ changes that.
Whether she intended it or not, I think Joyce creates a numinous experience in Harold that imbues him with intention and energy for his impending journey when he meets with the ‘young garage girl’ following his struggle not to release his grip on his letter to Queenie at no less than three post boxes. Harold discloses his walk intention and ‘young garage girl’ responds that he must have ‘faith’ in order to do anything. Intensely, he reports his observation of her at that moment where ‘she seemed to be standing in a pool of light, as if the sun had moved, and her hair and skin shone with luminous clarity’; that the impact of the word ‘faith’ ‘rang in his head with an insistence that bewildered him’; to experience ‘this sudden surge of feeling that made his body shake with its sheer energy’. (Italics mine)
Here, we sense Harold moved by some inexplicable and irrational feminine force separate from him yet from within. This is reminiscent of Jung’s anima image present in an individual’s unconscious (more pronounced in a man?) breaking through in an autonomous fashion to infuse energy to incite action (‘the walk’). Further, it could be argued that the selection of the circumstances of Queenie is a further anima image whose similar role is to attract Harold onward.
It is from the experience of these inspiring images, not to mention the meaningful role Maureen plays throughout Harold’s walk, that spurs him to undertake the torturous personal process towards his, yet, unknown transformation.
The bulk of the book (roughly, chapters three to twenty-seven) is given over to his walk. The walk with its concurrent experiences represent ‘the work’, as is known in therapeutic circles, towards transformation. The position taken in this review is that each journey experience, whether regarding a person, event or incident, is interpreted as a necessary and peculiar psyche element to be courageously confronted and addressed by Harold and pertinent to his potential transformation.
To cite two such experiences.
On his walk, Harold meets with a lady who lives in a brick house and their interaction is loaded with symbolism. It is an opportunity for him to meet and interact with his largely unconscious feminine. It is not just about the woman but also to do with linked and peripheral aspects surrounding her. To begin with, Harold is unstable in his walking and is in need of a drink of water. He takes the unlikely initiative and does a very Un-English thing by knocking on this woman’s door (his unconscious) asking for help. As he approaches the door, he notices clothing on the washing line – including a bra – but ‘looks away, not wanting to see things he shouldn’t’. The bra appears to retrieve a first teenage memory that ‘the female world held secrets he wanted to know’. The woman, instead of sending him away, invites him for water and something to eat which, apart from bread and butter, includes some apple. The woman played with a piece of apple with curiosity as if ‘she had picked up from the ground’. She said, ‘……..you’d think walking should be the simplest thing…….just a question of putting one foot in front of the other. But it never ceases to amaze me how difficult the things that are supposed to be instinctive really are’. She made equal reference to ‘eating’, ‘talking’, ‘loving’ and ‘children’ as she watched the garden and not Harold. Harold retorted, ‘sleeping’ as he reached for more apple. The mention of children caused Harold to remember his suicided son, David, which further caused him to remember Maureen’s mothering which he awed at, ‘like a spectator from the shadows’. On parting the woman said, ‘I’m glad you stopped……I’m glad you asked for water’.
These couple of pages speak large about Harold’s shallow and masculine self, symbolically exemplified in his retort: ‘sleeping’. His unconscious wants to awaken him to his needs. The ‘speak’ includes his fear or ignorance of the feminine, the lack of his knowledge and experience of Eve and the apple (the tree, of which, represents knowledge of good and evil [that is, knowledge of everything?]), that organic and earthy factor (the opposite of the masculine Spirit, which is decidedly one-sided in Harold) from the ground that could complete his knowledge of and balance in himself. Similarly, the woman is like a priest who symbolically is baptising him into the feminine and, by her parting remark, suggests that he unconsciously knew he needed her water given. It appears that this meeting profoundly affected Harold, even if not consciously understood, as he left crying. Here, he has plenty to think about on his walk for integrating into his expanding consciousness.
Another example of Harold’s walk experiences is to discover that, no matter what a person looks like, each carries secret suffering. This is highlighted to him in his chance meeting with a suavely dressed homosexual ‘Silvered-Haired Gentleman’. Harold’s unconscious makes a request of him (‘….is this seat free?’ says the gentleman), in providing an opportunity to enlighten him of an expression of sexuality that is foreign to his conscious conduct but, nevertheless, resides in the collective human mind of which Harold is a part. The gentleman confesses that he trains it to Exeter every week to meet a ‘young man’ and, ‘we do things’. Harold observes of the gentleman such a depth of pathos, especially as helplessness, as he deepens his story causing Harold’s mind to wander to recognise sensitively of the individuals one passes in the street, even ‘all the people of England’. They are likely shouldered ‘with a unique pain’, of which you would not know. He reflected to himself that his walk was an opportunity to atone the mistakes he had made, to accept the strangeness of others and listen, as he has done with the gentleman, ‘to carry a little of them as he went’.
Though this fellow made Harold very uncomfortable, he found within himself empathy for him and sufficient capacity for intimacy to share some of the gentleman’s tea cake and shake hands on parting. Harold’s awareness into the nature and experience of humanity, as with the woman with the water, is growing.
After many, many miles of physical exertion coupled with broad and deep personal distress as he reflects and introspects, Harold is stumbling to a point of despair. In the town of Wooler, just seventeen miles from his destination, he experiences his greatest existential loneliness, alienation and abandonment. This dreadful experience is dramatically climaxed through him mislaying his treasured compass; ‘he had lost an essential steadying part of himself’ resulting in brief unconsciousness. His last thread of connection outside himself is his wife, who, with no apparent empathy, virtually directs him to pursue the remainder of his walk, refusing his childlike pleas to be rescued. He has to do it himself. The Christian metaphor of the ‘Stations of the Cross’ comes to mind here. Harold has suffered may journey stumbles and is now hanging on his cross. His only alternatives left are death of his ego into personality stagnation or a resurrection of some kind. With his remaining depleted personal resources, he finds the capacity to walk the remaining seventeen miles to Queenie.
On his arrival at Berwick-on-Tweed, Harold’s anima fantasy of Queenie dissolves. The idea that he would walk physically to save her because she once saved him was reviewed for its realism. Instead, two things occur concurrently: Harold’s particular somatically expressed symbolic expression of a resurrection combined with a reconciliation with his flesh-and-blood wife.
The core and evidence of Harold’s resurrection is his renewed capacity to laugh. An explanation of laughter, as may be apt to Harold and his resurrection, is his capacity, as a result of his walk, to become unshackled of his earlier and current burdening life events so as to feel liberation, a personal freedom leading to an inner peace. He sat with Maureen beside the sea where he relayed all his reflections, introspections and experiences of his walk, a little like a confession of himself to her that was accompanied by tears. Additionally, Joyce knits, into one, this personal resurrection with mutuality for laughter between the spouses, blossoming into reconciliation, a confirmation that their relationship is being renewed and deepened.
It is to his credit that Harold Fry responded to his poking and probing unconscious through receiving Queenie’s letter. I suspect Harold’s unconscious created, as a delayed midlife opportunity presented by Queenie, the conditions for him to transform. He did not save Queenie; she saved him as she had done in the past. Jung said that it was unlikely that many individuals will respond to the call and demands of the unconscious; they would rather suffer instead. Perhaps Harold’s ‘agreement’ to undertake and complete his walk is best summed up by Maureen: ‘You got up, and you did something. And if trying to find a way when you don’t even know you can get there isn’t a small miracle, then I don’t know what is’.
Consider that, dear reader, as an invitation!
Added 19th August 2017