The Simple Truth (1955) can be a deceptively slim novel, one whose stories are structured like a set of Russian matryoshkas, each doll hidden inside one another: by the end of the book, we come to a truth very different from the one we were searching for at the beginning. Yet, somehow, those strange truths are very quietly nested one inside another.
Set in an unnamed Iowa university town, the plot is sparked by the murder trial of a local student, Rudy Peck, accused of having killed his girlfriend, Betty Jane Henderson. Unlike most courtroom dramas, however, you chose to shed light not into the murder nor the murderer themselves, but, more closely, into the lives of two of the local people who were attending the trial.
Joseph Parks, a middle-class student from suburban New York, now in his late twenties, has come to Iowa to study, while harbouring the secret desire to become a writer. Anita Mitchell, on the other hand, is married to a chemistry professor at the same university, and leads a quiet life as housewife, indulging from time to time in solitary intelectual pursuits at the local library.
Those otherwise very different characters are brought together by the murder case, which, in a small rural town where nothing ever happens, receives sensationalized treatment by the local newspapers. Once enticed by the flashy headlines, Joseph and Anita drop for a while their mundane lives and spend their days attending the trial. Until then complete strangers to each other, the two meet by chance in the court’s visitors’ gallery.
The book then progresses to focus not on the facts themselves, but rather on the effects of the case on Anita and Joseph, as they follow the trial and spend almost all of their spare time discussing about it. Furthermore, you explore the reasons why those two characters became so infatuated with the murder case, as to attend the trial, day to day, with such devotional interest.
Sessions of courtroom testimony are placed in paralell to dialogues between Anita and Joseph, between them and their spouses, as well as to internal monologues. Their personal interpretation of the case is placed hand in hand with their revelations about themselves. If we never fully read a confession from the defendant about the case, we certainly undergo a complete confession from Anita and Joseph about their lives, even if they themselves are not aware to be confessing anything.
We soon notice that the case has triggered something in them: as the trial progresses, the murder tale they are trying to piece together becomes the whole of their everyday lives – and, as such, it embeds itself in those characters’ most personal yearnings and disappointments. As the trial progresses, the murder case becomes more and more imperative for both of them.
As imperative, in fact, as the explanations they devise for the murder itself, and the self-satisfaction they feel at trying to think differently than what they imagine would be the majority opinion. Their conclusions about the case are more like wishes about its outcome – which, in turn, mirrors their need to think of themselves as different, as well as their personal failures and dreams. Despite the evidences of the defendant’s guilt, Parks and Anita believe – albeit for different reasons – that Rudy is innocent. The truth of the case shatters itself in different individual interpretations of the facts, and reflects each character’s personal aspirations and insecurities, unconscious feelings of inferiority, past failures, and ultimately their inability to fulfill their ambitions in life.
Parks is a middle-class student faced with the economic impossibility to devote himself completely to a writing career – a career that, for this same reason, he regarded as somewhat aristocratic. Accordingly, he thought of the murder as a case of social injustice, a conflict between a poor boy and the parents of his rich girlfriend. Anita, on the other hand, herself overcome by the boredom of unfulfilled intelectual ambitions, thinks of the murder as a psychoanalytical puzzle, one she thinks she is the only one in town intelligent enough to solve. Moreover, she projects her own feelings about her marriage into the relationship between Rudy and his girlfriend (“of course the loved and hated each other, they were together and apart, bound and free… “; “Love! the emotion the deepest persons believed to be nonexistent except by the side of a certain measure of hatred…”). She saw Rudy “as a sacrificial animal, the fresh young lamb to be affered up for society’s well-being…”; as well as she saw herself as a gifted woman whose talents were sacrificed in the name of marriage.
Joseph and Anita seem to be competing for the title of who better understands the case. Moreover, both of them strongly express their shared indignation at the possible injustice the jury’s simpletons may be about to do to the defendant. Joseph and Anita imagine they are united by a secret they think only the two of them share: moved by the boiling desire to rise above the common men, they are convinced that they alone know Rudy to be innocent. “It is really unnerving to live in a world where everyone, just anybody, takes as complicated a view as the most clever people!”
Once reached, the verdict leads up to an ironic outcome: the protagonist’s snobbism and presumption proved to be commonplace in the end, traits they shared with the local community they so despised. The verdict feels as anticlimactic as those character’s failed ambitions, like the shared delusion of common people wanting something outstanding to come from their everyday lives. The novel’s outcome seems as much as a verdict on Joseph and Anita, as it was on Rudy. Maybe they were right and wrong at the same time, no one knows. We may never arrive at the truth of the case, but we certainly arrived at some very compelling truths about Joseph and Anita.
These questions circled about like a hungry bird, beating the air, hovering, flapping furiously, on and on in a dizzy flight without destination. What Anita wanted said was quite the opposite. She felt the jury ought to be instructed that each day for almost everyone in the world was a capitulation at some point, a sore compromise – that was the best of it, the best one could hope.
– Elizabeth Hardwick, The Simple Truth
Before this there had always been a unity in her character, but now when she unexpectedly saw her face in a mirror, noted how fresh and lively it appeared, she was puzzled by this same old face which remained even when one was breaking into pieces.
– Elizabeth Hardwick, The Simple Truth