Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Icarus and Daedalus in Manchuria

Daedalus always seemed so benign to me. A tragic father who effects and witnesses his son's catastrophe. Richard Condon spoiled all that paternal benevolence for me. It was sort of like that moment when I saw the marvelous Angela Lansbury (Mrs. Potts, Jessica Fletcher) cast into one of the 20th Century's most fearsome villains, Eleanor Iselin.

Condon's Manchurian Candidate develops the frightening character of Eleanor Iselin, the wife of Senator Johny Iselin and mother of the hapless Raymond Shaw. Condon's novel was published in 1959, and many saw it as the proto-screenplay it became. The Frankenheimer film of 1962, and not the novel, has certainly gone on to become the 20th-century artifact.

My myth students know of my attachment to Condon's brilliant application of the Orestes theme with the novel. This post documents another clever mythological allusion that plays functionally in the novel. (Cf. OGCMA0770NOTOrestes_Condon)

Condon introduces Mrs. Iselin with a few quick strokes, then allows the chill to settle in over the novel's fullness. Those who have read to the end know that there is really, absolutely nothing this woman will not do to promote her ambitions. Nothing. Likening her to Clytemnestra, Condon makes for brilliant mythological shorthand.

In the midst of her introduction, Condon describes Mrs. Iselin as "a woman as ambitious as Daedalus. The sergeant was twenty-two years old.” (23)
 The simile here creates simultaneously of Mrs. Iselin a Daedalus and of Raymond an Icarus. The son's fall is as sure as can be. Marvelous is the imputation of inappropriate motives to the parent’s audacious undertaking. 

That master engineer, Daedalus, could never actually be contained. Neither the remoteness of Minos' island nor the limitations of humanity itself kept Daedalus from contriving winged escape from a tyrant. Let's give Daedalus his due: he brought unprecedented resource to bear as he figured out a way to fly out of Minoan captivity that day. Did he know his son would pay the ultimate price for the boldness he inspired?

I hadn't really thought of the story of Icarus and Daedalus as the story of Daedalean ambition until Condon gave me pause. 

In that momentary brilliance presenting his mother as Daedalus, Condon sets us up for Raymond Shaw to become the victim of Eleanor Iselin's ambition. A reader who misses the clue that she's going to be working behind the scenes as a masterful engineer had better go back and read it again.

If you are basing your knowledge of The Manchurian Candidate on Jonathan Demme's film of the same name, you won't have the same view of Eleanor and Raymond. At least the Frankenheimer adaptation will get you closer to Condon.




  1. Very enjoyable commentary. I read the novel after having seen the film, precisely because the mother-son relationship presented in the cinematic version piqued my interest. The film seemed to hint that there was so much more there. And there was!

    1. "My mother is a terrible person," says Raymond Shaw.
      He has no idea.