The Use of Veils in The Earthquake in Chile and Lieutenant Gustl

I find both short stories to make considerable use of metaphorical veils, both to hide or to justify acts of morality. These interact with the catastrophes that shape each story, possibly strengthening, creating and altering these veils. I will go through some of the veils that I think are most influential to each story and how they link to catastrophe as well as descent of morality, which I think is an important theme that both stories share.

I would say that the initial state of morality in both stories is nothing to be proud of. In The Earthquake in Chile, one can analyze morality in two levels, first in the eyes of the protagonists, Jeronimo and Josepha, as well as the society of Santiago. In the eyes of society, their immoral treatment of Josepha, such as throwing her in prison right after she gives birth, is veiled by their strict laws forbidding adultery. These laws act as justification for Josepha’s execution and obscure the inhumanity lying beneath. In the case of the lovers, they fully realize the immorality of their actions, but by secretly consummating their love, by veiling their affair, they manage to escape lawful retribution. However, this veil fails when Josepha gives birth, thus setting in motion the in medias res conflict. So here we can see veils being used both as methods of obscuring, or justifying immorality and hiding it, and that the hiding veil is weaker than the justifying veil.

In Lieutenant Gustl, I think the veil is much more obvious. His true thoughts, which are expressed , are veiled by the privacy of his mind. No one can discern what he is thinking, except the readers, so this allows him to get away with many opinions that one would consider immoral. He considers beating up people who get in his way and lusts for women he spots around the concert hall, among other things. Therefore, it is seen that here, the veil serves to hide his immorality. Where it does falter is through his incident with his baker, where he lets too much aggression through and loses his honor as a result. Again, we can see that veils used to hide immorality are susceptible to failure.

Now the catastrophes in both stories shake things up considerably, and that they themselves can also be veiled, not in the mind of the characters, but in the mind of the reader. I feel that point of view is essential to understanding the catastrophes that happen in each story. First of all, the earthquake in Santiago, in the eyes of the two lovers, can be seen as a blessing because it saves their lives and their romance. After they reunite, they retreat into a valley, celebrating instead of mourning. An earthquake is undeniably a great tragedy, but considering that Jeronimo and Josefa are protagonists, through their eyes, we see the catastrophe being veiled by triumph. The opposite effect happens in the church massacre. In the eyes of the mob, the massacre has a rectifying effect, acting as retribution for the two lovers’ sins. If the story were told in the view of a person who has lost everything due to the earthquake, then obviously Jeronimo and Josepha’s death, among others, would lose much of its tragedy under the veil of vengeance.

A similar thing happens in Lieutenant Gustl. Since we are literally looking through his eyes and thoughts, his point of view is extremely biased. He treats his encounter with the baker as a great blow to his honor, and through his interior monologue, what would have been seen as just a minor incident in the eyes of others, is now a profound catastrophe. It even overshadows the catastrophe of the baker’s death, which, if one were to liberate the point of view into a more omniscient form, would be undeniably a tragic event. However, under the veil of Gustl’s impending suicide and shattered honor, this becomes a catharsis, a liberation, much like the earthquake was for Jeronimo and Josepha, but on a more interior scale. Here, one catastrophe veils another. The catastrophe of the baker’s death is obscured by the resolution of Gustl’s confrontation with the baker, and we as the audience are profoundly tricked into believing that a single threat in retaliation to Gustl’s insults. Both of these stories veil our natural compassion and morality for humanity as a whole by providing catastrophes that solve the problems of the protagonist through an influx of tragedy, forcing us to make moral decisions. More often than not, we tend to choose the protagonist, be it a hero or an anti-hero.

Lastly, I would like to point out how the catastrophes create veils not only for the audience, but their perception of the characters’ fates as well as the characters themselves, ultimately degrading their morality. In The Earthquake in Chile, a veil is creating through the surprising unity that the disaster has engendered among the surviving people. They cooperate with one another, and Jeronimo and Josepha seem safe. This, however, is followed by the massacre at the church, foretold by Dona Elvira. Here, the veil is temporal, presenting a state that one assumes will last, but which quickly dissolves into its exact opposite. This extreme juxtaposition can only create uneasiness. In the massacre itself, the earthquake is used as a justification, a veil that hides the brutality of the mob under the presumption that God is unhappy with them for allowing the sin of adultery to bloom. This is an extreme version of the earlier veil that justified Josepha’s execution, as the immorality hiding behind the justification is much more severe and brutal, thus providing a tragic ending.

In the case of Lieutenant Gustl, I find several similarities. Not only does the catastrophe of the confrontation with the baker warp the audience’s perception of the baker’s death, but also Gustl’s reaction. He celebrates instead of mourns, providing a severe juxtaposition, triumph against sorrow. This time however, sorrow is the outward force while triumph is the veiled force. Nonetheless, the distinction remains; Gustl’s elation at another man’s death, simply because he insulted his honor, is disturbing, and even more so when he feigns sadness and boasts at his success. Here, the hiding veil is ironclad, and the fact that he finds catharsis in the baker’s death indicates that his morality has degraded even further. Even though the ending of this story may seem like a triumph for the protagonist, considering these aspects, it is very much a tragedy.

I believe this is the format I want to use if I write my essay on this topic, so hopefully this makes logical and coherent sense.

One thought on “The Use of Veils in The Earthquake in Chile and Lieutenant Gustl”

  1. Very thought-provoking discussion here! I think you’ve picked up on many interesting ways in which things are hidden that are related to immorality, or attempting to justify immorality. There are several different kinds of examples here, and it can be easy to get a bit lost in what is being veiled, by whom, and how. So if you were to write on these ideas I think it would be best to focus them around a single main point, as much as possible: e.g., how the way veiling is used can lead to degradation of morality for the characters in the stories (as well as the audience?). Then be sure that all aspects of the essay clearly relate back to that main point whatever you choose it to be!

    I did follow here pretty well up until the last two paragraphs, where I lost the thread a bit, for example…

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