Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers takes place on an army base in the American South in the 1930s. It focuses on five characters, each of whom is dysfunctional in one way or another.
Although we are told at the outset of the novel that a murder will take place, we are not yet told who or why or how. Instead, we are introduced to the characters. There is the young Private Ellgee Williams who seems to suffer from a learning disability. Captain Penderton struggles with his sexuality, finding himself developing an obsession for Private Williams. Penderton’s wife, Leonora, is having an affair with their neighbor, Major Morris Langdon. Penderton has knowledge of his wife’s affairs, and although he feels nothing but loathing for his wife, we are told he finds himself attracted to her lovers. Alison, Langdon’s wife, also has knowledge of the affair. She suffers from a weak heart, is fragile both physically and mentally, and executes a fit of self-mutilation due to her frustration. Into this mix is Alison Langdon’s confidante and soul-mate, Anacleto, the gay Filipino house boy. The events gradually unfold, revealing the nature and extent of each character’s dysfunction.
After catching a glimpse of Leonora prancing about in the nude in her home, Private Williams develops an obsession for her and sneaks into her bedroom at night on several occasions to watch her sleep. Penderton’s obsession with Private Williams reaches such proportions that he begins to stalk him and wanders into areas where he knows he will encounter him. Leonora also has some sort of learning disability since we are told she finds simple addition of numbers and/or letter writing as overwhelming challenges. Major Langdon resents his wife’s bond with Anacleto and is convinced his wife is faking her illness. He displays a boorish insensitivity to his wife’s grief over the loss of their child. Alison Langdon is, perhaps, the most sympathetic of the characters in that she suffers her husband’s infidelity, is plagued with a weak heart, and is totally estranged from her husband. Her despair with life reaches a climax when she mutilates her body.
None of the characters are particularly endearing. McCullers’ skill lies in the gradual revelation of the full nature of each character’s dysfunction. The details pile up with restraint, dropping a hint here, a sentence there until the climactic conclusion. What emerges is a portrait of five very lonely, out of joint characters who muffle their pain with alcohol and sleeping pills. McCullers captures their hurts, sadness, loneliness, and festering resentments—all of which they bury under a veneer of respectability and social acceptance. She handles this with precision, detachment, and an acute eye for observing the frailties that make us human.