Everyone knows of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby but fewer know of his contemporary, author of Double Indemnity, James M. Cain.
Interested to explore other 1920s-30s novels that depict the American dream and further my knowledge in the roots of noir fiction, I picked up one of Cain’s most famous works The Postman Always Rings Twice.
The story centres on Frank, a “bum” who can’t stay in one place, or with one woman, for very long. When he meets Nick’s wife Cora his passion for her perhaps has the ability to change him, yet when they pursue an affair it is sadomasochistic and, frankly, quite disgusting.
From a psychological point of view The Postman Always Rings Twice is vastly interesting due to its depth. From the emotional relationship between Frank and Cora to Nick’s seemingly blind trust of his wife, there is so much potential for what could be going on in their minds. The novel leaves the reader with no final answer, even in the final chapter Frank is considering the unlikely possibility that he has schizophrenia.
I also enjoyed the experience of reading a story which included so few characters, three main ones and a few extras with basic identities, in some cases just a description, not even a name. Admittedly, The Postman Always Rings Twice is reasonably short – a little over one hundred pages depending on the edition – yet you could really connect with each character thanks to the close perspective of them.
All of the characters, Nick, Cora and Frank are dislikeable. Frank in particular. From his encouragement of the sadomasochistic nature in the affair, to his trip with Madge while Cora tended to her dying mother, he was essentially the worst version of a man imaginable. Yet, Cora, like the worst version of a woman, accepted that of him without question for the most part. While both of these characters infuriated me for their obvious and repeated faults, I found myself rooting for them a little bit with the hope that they could change and they could be happy together. Needless to say, that isn’t the point of the novel.
For me, the story highlighted the desire of change, the desire to be better, live more and find happiness. No matter how dark and twisted the plot became, there was always that glimmer of hope that everything could be resolved. In spite of attempted murder, actual murder, violence, threats, manipulation and more, I still found myself willing for a resolution when the characters did not deserve one in the slightest. Was this me, as the reader, looking for what is seemingly “essential” to a story? If so, does this mean that near enough ninety years ago Cain created a story that concluded atypically and is still unique today? This has left me contemplating that there’s a lot to be learnt from classic writers and just because they are considered classic does not mean their works have been exhausted quite yet.