Picking up on my last post about the broader crisis of existential meaning in Hemingway’s “The Killers” for noir 106, it might be be interesting to look at James M. Cain’s 1934 novella The Postman Always Rings Twice. I this reading I was struck by the deeply perverse relationship the main characters had with religious morality. There are a few moments when their intimacy is marked by an overt religious profanity. For example, when Cora tries to defend the suggestion that murdering her husband is all right, she says:
“Who’s going to know if it’s all right or not, but you and me?”
“You and me?”
“That’s it Frank, that’s all that matters, isn’t it? Not you and me and the road, or anything else but you and me.”
“You must be a hellcat, though. You couldn’t make me feel this way if you weren’t.” (17)
This solipsistic relativism is the moral fabric of their relationship. The two spend most of the novella trying to figure out how avoid suspicion by the authorities, all the while remaining completely unconcerned with what they’ve done. Despite the fact their victim, Cora’s husband Nick, is a good guy by both their accounts. Cora refuses to acknowledge a moral universe outside the two of them, which leads Frank to call her a “hellcat.” [Paul Bond has a great reading of the significance/symbolism of cats in this novella that I highly recommend.] And after that, without ever articulating it, murder becomes the only option for the couple. The final passage of that scene ends on an particularly interesting note:
“That’s what we are going to do. Kiss me, Frank. On the mouth.”
I kissed her. Her eyes were shining up at me like two blue stars. It was like being in church. (17)
This reference to “being in church” at the moment they consummate the plan to kill Nick is a pretty ungodly simile conflating religious communion with the act of murder. This might be one of the reasons this book was banned in Boston, and could explain why it was the inspiration for Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Ultimately, they break their pact and betray each other—“like wild animals” (a recurring theme in the novella)— when they are tried for Nick’s murder. They’re ultimately exonerated thanks to the greed of a few insurance companies, but that has nothing to do with Cora’s moral order. They were on some kind of untouchable “mountain” accordingly to her:
“…look at us now. We were up on a mountain. We were up so high, Frank. We had it all, out there, that night. I didn’t know I could feel anything like that. And we kissed and sealed it so it would be there forever, no matter what happened. We had more than any two people in the world. And then we fell down. First you, and then me. Yes, it makes it even. We’re down here together. But we’re not up high any more. Our beautiful mountain is gone.”
This idea of sticking together is far more important to Cora than any of the repercussions from the actual murder. In fact, she was at the height of her happiness just after they had murdered Nick and sealed that bond sexually. She goes on:
“We’re just two punks, Frank. God kissed us on the brow that night. He gave us all that two people can ever have. And we just weren’t the kind that could have it. We had all that love, and we just cracked up under it. It’s a big airplane engine, that takes you through the sky, right up to the top of the mountain. But when you put it in a Ford, it just shakes it to pieces. That’s what we are, Frank, a couple of Fords. God is up there laughing at us.”
This moment wherein God becomes the source of their happiness and love in the immediate aftermath of the murder suggests a pretty skewed vision of Cora’s moral order. Their turn to the devil is equated with their personal betrayal of one another during the trial, it has nothing to do with Nick’s death. For most narratives murder would be the source of psychological torments like guilt, shame, and self-loathing. There is none of that here. The ability for Frank and Cora to divorce themselves from these emotions represents the most harrowing element of this novel. Which, for me, highlights the deeper, darker existential themes undergirding noir.
The last few pages of the novella wherein Frank and Cora realize they are having a child and seemingly shed their evil ways seems tacked on at best. This shoddy resolution can’t begin with explain or deal with the moral relativism unleashed by these murderous lovers. And while they both ultimately meet their untimely end—Cora in a accident (not on purpose) and Frank in the gas chamber— the novella seems to almost force a fatalism that is at odds with the world Cain created. It’s as if they had to die for what they did because morality demands it—but not the morality we have been subject to for the previous 110 pages.
In short, it’s not a believable ending. What would be more believable is they do live, have their baby, and carry on as if they did nothing wrong—as long as they stay together. The ending tries to right the depravity which became normalized throughout the tale. As hard as Cain might try, killing them won’t reverse the effects of having immersed us in their moral universe for the length of the book. It’s as if he’s as bad as Frank and Cora in some ways 🙂