Reflections in a Golden Eye (1941)

Author: Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers (Carl Van Vechten / Public domain)

This novel is not an easy read because the plot and characters take unexpected turns that leave one both amused and confused. The interest of a female writer in the 1940s in exploring male queerness is unique. This portrayal of queerness is complex and not obviously judgmental. Carson McCullers, the noted writer of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, hailed from Georgia and died in New York at the age of fifty. Her life and this book leave one with more questions than answers. 

When reading Reflections in a Golden Eye, one is reminded of the film American Beauty (1999) and all of the films that were popular in the 1990s and 2000s about secrets and taboos. The third-person narrator allows the reader to be privy to these secrets and taboos. From the beginning of the book, the reader knows that a murder happens and that the characters involved include two officers, one soldier, two women, one Filipino, and one horse. 

The story takes place on a military base in the South in the early 1940s. Captain Penderton and his wife Leonora live in a house next to Major Morris Landon and his wife Alison. Private Elgee Williams works at the stable where Leonora, who is an avid equestrian, frequents. Private Williams becomes more familiar with the Pendertons when the captain asks him to clear the brush near his house. The captain remembers how Private Williams accidentally spilled coffee on him once. After Private Williams finishes the job of clearing brush, the captain is very dissatisfied with his work. Despite the captain’s dissatisfaction, Private Williams becomes quite enamored with Leonora, whom he sees naked when he peers into one of the windows of the house. For the rest of the novel, Private Williams lurks outside of the Pendertons’ house, spying on Leonora. In addition, he even enters the home at night and watches Leonora sleeping in her bed.

An extramarital affair haunts the relationship between the Landons and the Pendertons. Leonora and Morris have an affair throughout the novel, and both the captain and Alison secretly know that this affair is happening. Moreover, the captain lusts after Morris. Instead of confronting Leonora, Alison chooses to become her close friend. 

Alison Landon is not well. She has heart disease and struggles with depression. At one point, she even cuts off her own nipples with garden shears. She does not like her husband, and she wishes to divorce him. Her only real companion is her fawning, flamboyant, Filipino servant Anacleto. Alison eventually has a nervous breakdown and a heart attack that kills her before she can divorce Morris. 

Captain Penderton is even more unusual. He has inexplicable urges. For example, he suddenly steals a silver spoon at a dinner party. At the beginning of the novel, the captain encounters a kitten on a rainy night. He inexplicably puts the kitten in a mail receptacle on the street. When he is riding a horse by himself, he is even more cruel to his horse. The horse stumbles, causing the captain to sustain a minor injury. Penderton beats the horse thoroughly. After this beating, he sees Private Williams completely naked standing before him. Seeing Private Williams naked makes Penderton eventually realize that he really lusts for Private Williams, not Morris. Penderton’s hatred for Private Williams dissolves into passion. 

Although Private Williams’s stalking and spying seems harmless, the narrator reveals that Private Williams killed a man unapologetically before joining the military. After arguing with a black man about the ownership of a wheelbarrow of manure, Private Williams killed the man and hid his body in an abandoned quarry. Karma comes back around when Captain Penderton unknowingly kills Private Williams when Penderton spies a stranger lurking outside of Leonora’s bedroom. Penderton ironically kills the man that he had learned to love instead of hate. 


McCullers, Carson. Reflections in a Golden Eye. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.