Murder in the Cathedral: Theme Analysis

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Theme Analysis

In its assessment of Eliot's importance to modern English literature, A Literary History of England (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967; ed. Albert C. Baugh) argues that a shift from despair to hope-a change from "the 'inert resignation' of those who breathe the small, dry air of modern spiritual emptiness" to something more positive and potentially transcendent-can first be detected in Eliot's "Ash-Wednesday" (1930), "of which the theme is the search for peace found in humble and quiet submission to God's Will" (p. 1587).
This theme, clearly an expression of the Anglo-Catholicism Eliot embraced during his life, appears again throughout Murder in the Cathedral. It informs and breathes through the entire text of the play, as the commentary above has demonstrated. In Murder in the Cathedral, the "inert resignation" of modern life manifests itself in the Chorus' refusal to embrace transcendence: the women of Canterbury are content to go on "living and partly living." As they state, even imploringly to Becket, on several occasions, they "do not wish anything to happen." They do not want the wheel of God's pattern to begin turning. As do all moderns in Eliot's estimation, they "fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God." They are not ready to live, as Becket was, "out of time."
Yet, through Becket as he portrays him, Eliot forcefully argues that such transcendence must be achieved. In keeping with biblical testimony about the nature of spiritual power versus temporal power, however, Eliot posits that transcendence cannot be achieved by force. It arises, not through utilitarian machinations (such as those the Four Tempters propose to Becket in Part I), but by, in the Literary History's words, "humble and quiet submission to God's Will." As Becket himself declares, "I give my life / To the Law of God above the Law of Man." His triumphant affirmation of faith echoes the words of the New Testament: "Whether it is right in God's sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:19-20); or again, "Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?" (James 4:4). Only by valuing "friendship"-i.e., a total alignment of mind and soul and will-with the spiritual, with God, over such friendship with the world or the temporal order of the status quo, can "peace"-that elusive goal referred to throughout the play: in Becket's fragile relationship with King Henry; as Becket's greeting to the Chorus in Parts I and II; as the turning of God's wheel of providence-be found.
In this way, the themes of Murder in the Cathedral aptly crystallize the themes of Eliot's own life-long work.

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