07 May 2008

The Devil and Miss Prym

Brazilian author Paulo Coelho's The Devil and Miss Prym is a tale of the human struggle to be Good and fend off Evil. In the small agricultural town of Viscos, the 108 women and 173 men who make up the population all live hard-working, Good lives--save perhaps one, Miss Chantal Prym. While the the perennial and Good residents of Viscos have accepted its simple existence and acknowledge a terminal future, Chantal Prym's generation has moved away from their quiet hometown to pursue the complexities of the world around them.

Chantal, as the youngest person in a town without children, develops a view of Viscos as a dead-end, lifeless place. Outsiders, however tend to view Viscos as a sort of paradise, a paradise where life is simple, easy, and Good. One day a stranger enters the town, and brings Evil with him. The Devil and Miss Prym explores temptation as a bait to bring out the Evil within all of us, and the human behaviors it evokes as a tool of its will.

As the stranger reveals the temptation which he has brought with him to Chantal Prym, a chain reaction of descending virtue--long-ago halted in the town of Viscos--is renewed. The Devil and Miss Prym is a story of the power and influence of a few, motivating the societal trend of many.

The unique history of Viscos is tied strongly to two men, a Saint named Savin and an Arab named Ahab. Ahab ruled the town, a Powerful villain in "a den of thieves." Ahab's Power was derived from his ruthlessness, his disregard for human life, and his ability to withhold the willpower of the people from moving toward a more positive future. St. Savin, on the other hand, earned his Power by performing acts of Goodness and by exploiting his access to the inner workings of human behavior. Thinking of Good acts as a scarce resource in Viscos, St. Savin had the ability to enact them and Ahab had the ability to prevent them.

In a meeting as incredible as that of Yoda versus Darth Tyranus in the caves of Geonosis, St. Savin decides that he wants to come down from his cliff-side safe haven and spend a night in town, in the home of none other than the perilous Ahab. Ahab allows this to occur, and intends to murder the Saint during the night, Savin drifting off to the sound of a sharpening knife. Morning comes, Ahab had been unable to follow through with an act he had executed countless times before, and the terrible leader is transformed. The reason? St. Savin had gone to sleep peacefully that night, knowing the truth that people may behave decently if it is believed they are capable to do so. Because he afforded and empowered Ahab the chance to do Good, one Power trumped another and the town of Viscos suddenly found itself hurtling down a new course.

The newly Good Ahab threw aside his cloak of Power in light of the methods of strategic Influence. Ahab read protective law as his first act, gaining the interest of the community's farmers and the intrigue of his former minions. Simultaneously, a just-constructed gallows was unveiled in the town square--never mentioned directly--but representing a silent incentive to do Good and weigh on the minds of past evil-doers. Ahab's understanding of human nature propelled Viscos forward, and influenced them to act in mimic of the iconic St. Savin. The true purpose of the gallows was to invoke the fear of punishment in town residents, the laws themselves not quite enough to drive the people to behave as society requires.

Ahab had said that there are two kinds of idiots--those who don't take action because they have received a threat, and those who think they are taking action because they have issued a threat; thus the gallows remained a patient and unspoken-of monument for ten years, until the Influence it was entwined with had run its course. Symbolically, at the end of that decade, the materials used to construct the gallows were re-used to erect a cross on the very same spot.

Fast-forward to the modern-day stranger and his temptation for Miss Prym and the people of Viscos. The stranger, calling himself "Carlos", brought the dynamic of Power back to paradise. His Power was purely financial, a challenge backed by the promise of eleven solid gold bars. His motive was Evil, but more pointedly to convince himself that all people are inherently evil--in order to justify a past wrong done unto him. The Devil made two offers to Miss Prym: the first involved her knowing precisely where one of the gold bars lay and her ability to unearth it at any time, to leave Viscos and its people behind, and to be selfishly rich. The second was the exchange of the other ten bars for the murder of an innocent Viscos town-person, by community consent.

Chantal Prym held onto the private information from "Carlos" for a few days, torn inside by the struggle between her inner demons and angels. The stranger becomes anxious and brought the Influence of Academia (a credible reference) into play, citing an anonymous philosopher who has said that "man needs what's worst in him in order to achieve what's best in him." This is an attempt to convince Chantal that ending the life of one will dramatically enhance life for all, and to a point it works. Weighing her choices of fleeing town with her bar of gold, staying to deliver the stranger's message to the town and later being praised for the role she led in a community-wide revival, or remaining silent and then being accosted by the people for not having shared the opportunity with them at the earliest possible time, Chantal's decision-making process is motivated by both fear and self-interest. She tries to leave town, she tries to deliver the message, but always fails to follow through. The angel on Chantal's right shoulder and the devil on her left continue a tug-of-war, collaborating the influences of learned-values, personal desires, collective gains, and the pressure of being an object of involuntary manipulation.

Unable to make the town's decisions for it, Miss Prym conceded to issue the stranger's challenge in front of a normal weekend crowd at the hotel's bar. Most find the proposal at first to be unbelievable, but the simple nod of confirmation from the Devil starts the ball rolling. The mayor and the priest become important characters at this spot in the story. An overflowing congregation gathers at the church to seriously consider the murder, the priest having made up his mind before hand. The priest uses Influence to shape the opinions of his crowd, drawing upon the historical characteristic of a man of God's trustworthiness, caring, and wisdom. The priest also used the holy scripture and the intangible measure of God's Influence to awkwardly justify an act which is a clear violation of one of the Ten Commandments. The community falls prey, wanting to believe, wanting to stay Good while being Evil, and that easily one man has congealed the Viscos population into a murderous lot.

The town mayor calls for a nighttime meeting in the square, not wanting the priest to hog the spotlight. The mayor appeals to the people, again assuring that what they are about to do is right and just. He says that the ten gold bars will ensure the continuity of their little corner of the Earth, will allow for tax cuts and the building of a children's playground. Influence is thrust further onto the 281 people of in the form of economic plusses, and a movement toward an idyllic future (children re-appearing in Viscos). That is, 281 people minus 1--the intended target. Old Berta lives on the edge of town, spends her days on her front porch, and while an agreeable woman, does not produce anything or provide any value for the community. Some of the gatherers at the square advocate for Miss Prym's murder alternatively, but ultimately Berta is chosen--the matrimonial Influence of the mayor's wife on her husband playing not an insignificant role.

In the end, it is multiple pressures, multiple Influences, and of course the Power of gold that leads a mob of shotgun-bearing, torch-toting Viscosians to the Celtic monolith, a rock slab similar to that in C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe on which Aslan was left for dead. A drugged, peacefully sleeping old Berta was tied to the rock, and the firing line of townspeople prepared to do the deed. And then Chantal Prim became Powerful.

Using the advice of old Berta's late husband--"whenever you want to achieve something, keep your eyes open, concentrate and make sure you know exactly what it is you want"--Miss Prym decided to restore the Goodness of her fellow peoples' hearts. She told the story of King Midas' misery to the would-be murderers, which ends with Midas being surrounded by nothing but gold and falling eternally victim to the basic human needs of food and water. Her point was that the thing Midas coveted the most harvested no life value. The ten gold bars that Viscos would receive for murdering an innocent would not give them a way to shear their sheep, or to plant their seeds. The gold in itself had no value, and road to conversion into usable money was unclear. Miss Prym's storytelling filled her listeners with doubt, dampened the prevailing Evil, and turned the Good people of Viscos back to their homes.

A riddle proposed by the stranger mid-way through The Devil and Miss Prym read as the following: "Of all the days in our life, which is the one that never comes? Tomorrow." The joke is in the fact that while tomorrow may be talked about, we never get to live tomorrow. We are always living today. In the fabled town of Viscos, tomorrow almost came. But it didn't, and it was wholly thanks to the Power of Chantal Prym's unrivaled access to impact stump speeches and her ability to overcome the battlefield of Good and Evil by exercising choice.


Anonymous said...

I love this book!I have no words to descrive how much it meant to me!

Seth C. Burgess said...

Yes, the Devil and Miss Prym is a fairly "quick" read--yet packed with tidbits of the human struggle.

Anonymous said...

nothing good can come from being evil or trying to exact justice out of
pain. even the pain of losing a child.

Anonymous said...

Could we use one of the concept as the Reflection of the strangers past?

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