A Commentary on ‘Idols’ by Tim Gautreaux Essay
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‘Idols’ is centered upon the protagonist’s amoral attitude towards life, which in turn causes him to experience loneliness as well as being unable to maintain the dream of living in his great-grandfather’s mansion. Gautreaux chooses Julian, the protagonist, to be an arrogant and envious character to demonstrate the sorrowful lifestyle as a result of unreasonably wanting too much and the act of being spiteful to others who are good-willed. His arrogance proves he is living in a fantasy because he only feels superior as a result of his “good fortune” but he is not appreciative of this fortune because he believes he will be with it forever – he lacks a sense of reality.
Also, Julian’s self-superiority makes him inferior to others because he holds only a minimal amount of consideration and respect in himself. This is how Gautreaux explores the theme of worthiness in his story as he makes us question who is to decide somebody’s worth.
Gautreaux portrays Julian’s character to be a man of great arrogance. An exaggerated sense of self-importance is suggested as the protagonist “considered himself at least wealthy in knowledge, more so than the shopkeepers and record clerks he dealt with”. This notion proves to be far-fetched considering that Julian is merely a typewriter repairman of who has low competence in any other fields of work, including minor house renovations. He seems almost in denial about his true self and does not want to admit into consciousness that he is comparable to any ordinary man. In addition, Julian is depicted to be an envious person. Gautreaux communicates how his character normally “disparaged people who owned large houses” yet stored the memory of his ancestor’s mansion deep in his heart. Perhaps Julian held feelings of jealously for individuals who had a great deal of money because “the only extra money he’d ever had was a hundred dollar win on a scratch-off ticket”.
Julian’s entire plan to restore the mansion “the way it was” is a flaw. He wants to “hire cheap help” which leads him to having a cheaply built house – one gets what one pays for. As a result, his house is unable to withstand bad weather as the toilet “had shattered and fallen away from the floor” and the light fixture “popped off in a shower of blue sparks”. This foreshadows Julian’s ignorance and fantasy as the house would not be able to look as glamorous and high-classed as it may have done in the past considering his lack of budget.
Julian looks for a “broken-down old carpenter desperate for work”. When he finds Obie, it is apparent that the broken-down old man is actually Julian himself. He feels like he would be “granting a favor” to the carpenter but in actual fact Obie was better off not working for Julian hence when he departs without a word, Julian is the one calling and “begging” to speak to Obie. Obie is portrayed as a realist from these actions as he knows when it is necessary to move on, however Julian is overly concerned with making an image of himself to even realize that he is living in his imagination.
Obie seems to be a powerfully built man who can endure physical pain very well considering all the tattoo work “from his shoulders down to his waistband”. He does not cause any trouble in the mansion and shows respect towards his employer even when treated poorly. For instance, when Obie asks Julian’s opinion on the railing just after Julian told him that he would only be willing to send him to his doctor’s appointment “if [Obie paid] for the gas”. He is depicted to be a thoughtful person and merciful towards his wife when she decides to “run him off”. His rather constant analysis of why the marriage went wrong and his questions to Julian if he has “ever been married” suggests that he is constantly thinking about her which shows a very soft side of a seemingly tough man.
This is further emphasized when he uses “a soft and rhythmic voice” while he recites a section of the bible on the phone. He also shows respect to his wife as he does act superior to her in their relationship but rather allows her to “beat [him] with a broom”. This proves a sense of empathy within his personality as he allows her to express her feelings in the way she wishes and does not hold it against her. Overall, Obie is depicted to be a strong built but softhearted man who tries to be realistic about his decisions as he is living for the future. Similarly, Chance Poxley is a realistic man however he lives more for the moment as sees things come as they are.
He is very direct and does not allow for Julian to be condescending to him. He replies, “unless I missed my guess, you can’t afford [Obie] anymore” to Julian when he is asked where the carpenter has gone to. This demonstrates he is not afraid to speak his mind to Julian. When Poxley first visits the mansion he observes the place and asks what Julian does for a living. With the answer, Poxley replies “for your sake, I hope typin’ comes back in style”, which suggests that Poxley is a man with a sense of humor but is also sensible in the idea of what can be achieved. Julian, out of the three, is a man living in imagination. He completely ignores sensibility and lets his desires take over him. He does not pay attention to others around him, even when they are trying to warn him of his own downfall. Julian’s character is similar to that of protagonists in traditional Greek theatre: a flaw in the character that leads to his downfall.
At the beginning of the story, Julian confuses Chance Poxley’s sense of humor for brainlessness and “turned to walk out” because he had little patience with uneducated people. This proves that Julian is too concerned with himself to try to associate himself with or understand others. Julian’s self-superiority is simply illustrated from this, which almost makes him seem like a laughingstock as he is living in a complete dream world. Also, when Julian attempts to fix the mansion but later watches it fail, it indicates that his ignorance leads him to descent into some sort of psychosis – he seems to have a distorted perception of reality as he strives to convince himself and Obie that he’ll never leave the house “in a million years” even after a house-shaking crash.
The character’s determination to make a statement in life through ownership of the “the only grand thing in his family’s history” is reinforced as he yells into the receiver in response to the idea that it “might be time to sell out”. This reaction highlights his desperation to maintain his ancestor’s dilapidated mansion. Julian is also depicted to be a man in great denial. This is conveyed through the rejection of his fate possibly being to lose the house and that maybe he truly belongs in the “sooty apartment next to an iron foundry”. Although Julian recognizes his “good fortune”, he barely shows any appreciation for it but is more obsessed with having it repaired, perhaps to make him feel godlier.
He is an imprudent boss to Obie throughout the entire time of which they knew each other, charging him for the car’s petrol and phone calls to his wife even when he is in true despair. Despite the unjust treatment, Obie stays on the phone with Julian in effort to make Julian come to his senses and realize that he can not live in the past any longer. Julian’s occupation as a typewriter repairman echoes his desire to live in the past as it is apparent that he can not accept that times change. Also, the fact that he can bear to lose his wife to an impoverish job but is so desperate to keep the mansion proves his moral decline and his association to materialistic needs rather than true values. Gautreaux incorporates Julian’s heartless actions to illustrate his selfishness and greedy nature in order to emphasize his demise.
There is a fundamental theme between reality and fantasy that is depicted through what each main character aspires to: Obie aspires to reunite with his wife whereas Julian aspires to maintain his position as the mansion’s homeowner. This signifies that Julian is confined in a materialistic world to make meaning of his life however Obie is simply content with finding spiritual meaning – religion and love. Obie is a realist as he recognizes his obligation to proceed with life, he removes the tattoos to express his change in identity, but Julian is still lingering in the past with his ‘typewriters’ unable to accept the nature of the real world. In addition, he considers altering his surname from Smith to Godhigh, which illustrates the character’s reverie because he is not thinking about what is real but only what he wishes for.
He is not able to accept that time marches on therefore, may not ever be able to develop into a more complete person. Julian tries to complete himself through ownership of the mansion but does not realize that what he really needs to do is accept what’s in front of him. Another theme present in the story is mercy. Julian is an imperious character throughout the story and is condescending to his employee, Obie, thinking he has every right because he has more money. In return, his dream house is burnt to ashes. Although he does not believe in a god, perhaps this outcome was a sign to indicate that Julian has not been forgiven and therefore has not received mercy. However, Obie’s tolerance and patience to Julian’s imprudent treatment could be associated somehow to why he was forgiven by his wife and granted a new identity in life.
Gautreaux titles his short story ‘Idols’ to express the admiration within the two main characters. The word idol denotes an image or representation of a god whom one reveres: both Julian and Obie revere something. Obie is covered in ‘fine-line tattoo work’ from his shoulders down to his waistband and his wife refers to these tattoos as idols. Perhaps she believes that the tattoos are of more importance to her husband than she is herself – that he worships them more. This is suggested as she tests his love for her by asking him to get rid of ‘all [his] idols’. In another sense, Obie’s tattoos could be his idols for he decided to engrave them into his body, thinking they would be with him forever (similar to constantly feeling the presence of a higher power with you). The pain he endures to get inked suggests a level of great devotion.
However, Obie’s devotion to his wife is undeniably greater than that of his idols because he removes them as she wishes. He states that when one gets ‘older and older’, you need ‘less and less’ which indicates his contentment for his marriage and thinks it is all he needs. Whilst Obie makes this remark, he is looking ‘out the door toward the big house’. The big house, on the other hand, is Julian’s object of worship. Looking out the door symbolizes looking past the surface to find a deeper meaning in something. ‘Deep in his heart’ Julian had stored the memory of the old mansion which proves that the house is what he greatly admires and is to an extent his representation of a god.
It is ‘the only grand thing’ and together with its Doric pillars, Julian somehow feels like a god living in it. Contradictory to Obie, Julian associates a god like figure – an idol – to his mansion, a materialistic want, which demonstrates the difference between values each character possesses. Obie seems to have found a new idol other than his tattoo whereas Julian, an old man who has experienced all of life, is still caught up in materialism and considers material possessions more important than spiritual values. This is further emphasized as Obie removes his idols with his own free will in order to “move on down the road” but Julian refuses to give up the mansion so looses it unwillingly from a fire which suggests both of their fate.