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Review: Ilsa by Madeleine L’Engle

Ilsa: The Passions and Complications of Human Nature

Madeleine L’Engle’s recently re-published novel Ilsa follows Henry Porcher’s obsession with Ilsa Brandes. Since he first gets acquainted with her, Henry is irresistibly drawn to Ilsa like a moth to a burning flame. He cannot live in peace without seeing her or at least following the events of her life at a distance. As children, Ilsa and Henry play together, but since Ilsa is three years older than Henry, she treats him somewhat like a younger brother or friend in whom she confides.

Henry himself comes from an old-fashioned southern family with a complicated past. His mother had a sister, Henry’s Aunt Elizabeth. Elizabeth fell in love with Ilsa’s father, Dr. Brandes, who was then just finishing his doctorate. As soon as Henry’s mother Cecilia and her sister-in-law Violetta found out about this romance, they forbid them to get married, arguing that Dr. Brandes was too poor to marry Elizabeth. Eventually, they forced her to marry Cecilia’s cousin. In the meantime, Elizabeth continued seeing Dr. Brandes and eventually became pregnant. When Cecilia, Violetta, and Elizabeth’s husband discovered this, they forbid her to see him and tortured her until she was at her wit’s end.

As opposed to all of them, however, Elizabeth was actually a humble, strong, and truly kind person. In the end, she was confined to the insane asylum after a miserable attempt to bring on a miscarriage. She soon died in childbirth. After Elizabeth’s death, Henry’s mother despised Dr. Brandes. In the meantime, Dr. Brandes got married and had Ilsa who lived alone with her father after her mother’s death. By now, he had become a famous naturalist. Ilsa’s and Henry’s story, however, begins many years after these events have passed. Consequently, their story is intricately intertwined with Elizabeth’s and Dr. Brandes’ romance.

It is into this complicated web of relationships that Henry is gradually initiated. Early on in the book, a fire destroys the Porchers’ Southern-style home. In the fray, Henry’s parents lose sight of their children. Dr. Brandes and Ilsa save Henry and his sister and shelter them in their home. When they finally bring them back, Cecilia and her husband are astounded because the people they most despise have rescued their children. Cecilia even goes so far as to say, “If I had known what was going on, those children would never have crossed the river with that man. Rather would I have seen them being carried down the stairs in their coffins” (37). For Cecila, her children’s survival seems to be far less valuable than her own high-flown principles. Cecilia’s cold-blooded reaction cannot fail to both shock and disgust us. Instinctively, we may wonder whether she has any human values at all. It is horrifying for a mother to even hint at the death of her children. And yet, unperturbed by any guilt whatsoever, she adamantly clings to her principles.

The book as a whole thus offers a very interesting commentary on the relationship between parents and children. It seems to prompt the question: What should be more precious to us — human values or our own principles imposed by family traditions and old hurts? Henry is both the product of an ancient family who is fixated on principles and an adolescent who dreams about being with someone who is so completely different from him and his family. He is thus attracted by everything Ilsa stands for — freedom, independence, and open-mindedness. Early on in the novel, after his father cruelly punishes him for asking a question about Ilsa and her family, the boy begins longing for the kind of people he just saw, “for Ilsa’s authoritative voice, and Dr. Brandes’ quiet one, and Ira’s cross one” (43). Henry is thus completely lost. He does not get any real guidance from his parents. Henry’s father only punishes him but neglects him otherwise, while his mother ignores him altogether. So, Henry is left entirely to himself.

In a way, it is only natural that he will turn to someone for support and guidance. Ilsa becomes his beacon. Over the years, he becomes more and more obsessed with her. Everything he does in his life revolves around her. The irony of the matter is, however, that she does not care about him enough. She treats him like a friend. And when the time comes for her to get married soon after her father’s death, she marries Monty Woolf, Henry’s cousin.

As for Henry, he simply mopes his life away. He goes to Paris to become a musician just because his father insists on it. He is gone for eight years. To his complete and utter disappointment, Ilsa does not even write to him once. She tells him, “I never write letters, so don’t expect to hear from me” (123). In response, Henry thinks to himself, “— Did she ever, did she ever wonder — I thought — Did she ever think once during those years: where is Henry, what is Henry Porcher doing now, Henry Randolph Porcher?” (123). Interestingly, she does not even think about what Henry is doing with his life or how he has changed. By this time, we may think that Henry could get the cue that she will never be as interested in him as he is in her. At this point, we may also think that it is time for him to free himself from his obsession. And yet, he just keeps dreaming about her, suffering that he cannot be with her, and dreaming some more.

As for his own accomplishments in life, we get the impression that he does not care too much about them. In Paris, he studies the violin for eight years only because that is what his father wants. Strangely, however, he himself does not seem to care. At one point, when discussing Henry’s Paris experience with him, Ilsa asks, “What else have you failed at, Henry?” His response is “Everything” (136). Afterwards, Henry himself asks her in despair, “What am I to do?” (136). At this point, Ilsa has a daughter, and, while she may not be happy with Monty, she at least has a stable situation in life. In contrast, Henry is always lost. He does not know what to do with his life. He knows that he cannot have Ilsa. Yet, he does not do anything to make himself happy. He is stuck in a vicious cycle and cannot move on.

When reading the novel, I kept thinking about the kinds of characters that Henry resembles. Eventually, I realized that the character he most resembles is Pip from Dickens’ Great Expectations. Pip loves the unattainable Estella and suffers miserably because he cannot be with her. Otherwise, however, he lets his benefactor decide his future for him and make him into a gentleman. Similarly, Henry lets his father and later his sister decide his life for him. His father sends him to Paris, but he does not become anyone. He fails. In contrast, whether he is miserable or not, Pip at least becomes a gentleman and has the chance to talk to his benefactor, Magwitch, before his death. Henry, on the other hand, becomes nobody. He just dreams about Ilsa and watches her life.

At one point in the novel, a stock company visits and Henry takes Ilsa to see Hamlet. Eventually, she falls in love with the main actor. After her husband dies, she begins dating him. As I was reading this part of the book, I realized that, whatever her situation in life, Ilsa at least does not despair. She knows how to survive. As Henry acknowledges close to the end of the book, “And I thought that no matter what happened she always would be all right. That had always been the most Ilsa thing about her” (329).

I cannot but agree with Henry’s conclusion, because, whether she is tortured by her husband or mourning her father’s death, she has the cool and at the same time passionate attitude to life that keeps her afloat, so to speak. Henry, on the other hand, is weak. He needs the image of Ilsa in his heart to stay alive. No matter how much of a good-for-nothing he himself may be, she sort of provides him with the raison d’être that he needs to keep going. In his suffering, Henry privately exclaims, “I wanted to write, to pour everything out of my soul in a wild impassioned torrent of poetry, in the ecstatic ravings of a novel” (254). But again, he does not even do that. It even frustrated me after a while that throughout the whole novel Henry did not  lift a finger to do something about his life, do his best to forget Ilsa.

Until the very end of the book, Henry just mopes and stays by Ilsa’s side. In the end, however, after his sister keeps pushing him to leave and forget about Ilsa, he finally walks out of her life. As the novel closes, he is in his mid-twenties. Although he does leave in the end, I cannot help but think that he had completely wasted his life.

The book as a whole is an insightful study of human nature, but in terms of character development, it somehow fails to leave a lasting truly positive impression. In the end, as far as Henry himself is concerned, his development as a character does not impress at all. He fails at everything in life and until the very end remains the inert sufferer. Ultimately, the book offers interesting and profound commentaries of human nature and, as such, it is definitely a valuable read.


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