Casual Vacancy 19: Seven Deadly Sins Guest Post

by John on February 17, 2013

Sarah McDonald shared this idea with me at a recent talk I gave at Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City. I begged her to write it up as a guest post which she has. Yes, I disagree with her conclusion about writers being the only ones who understand the intentions of their work — but I love the unveiling of the novel’s transparencies in light of the seven deadly sins. It almost certainly isn’t what Ms Rowling intended, as such, and it just as certainly opens up the virtues and vices (well, the vices…) of the novel’s players. Without further ado, then –  ‘The Seven Deadly Sins in Joanne Rowling’s Casual Vacancy,’ by Sarah McDonald.

It seems like important things come in sevens. There are seven notes in music, seven colors in a rainbow, seven books in the Harry Potter series, and of course, seven deadly sins. They are the big ones, the origin of other sins.

I’m not particularly proud of this, but until a few days ago the only one I knew was gluttony, mostly because it’s something we Americans seem to indulge in on a regular basis. As I sat curled up with The Casual Vacancy and read J.K. Rowling’s description of Howard Mollison and his massive stomach, I couldn’t help thinking that he exemplified the concept of gluttony perfectly. Then, I got an idea. Clearly, sin was rampant in Pagford. What if I could nail down all seven?

Reading the book became a game, a hunt for the sins, if you will. I managed to track down a character for each of the cardinal sins as follows:

1. Gluttony = Howard Mollison

As I mentioned previously, it wouldn’t take much to nail down Mr. Mollison with gluttony. Gluttony is any type of over-indulgence, though it is applied most often to over-eating, which is what makes Howard a prime candidate.

He is described in the book as having a stomach so grotesquely large that it leads people to thinking some rather uncomfortable thoughts. The fat has gotten to the point that he has developed a rash under his excess skin. Towards the end of the book, he suffers a second heart attack due to his obesity, and the prognosis is grim. When he talks about other people’s addictions as being easily cured at the Parish council meeting, Parminder Jawanda brilliantly rebuttals:

“‘And, let’s face it,’ said Howard, ‘this is a problem with a simple solution. Stop taking the drugs.’…

‘Oh, you think that they should take responsibility for their addiction and change their behavior?’ said Parminder… ‘Before they cost the state any more money.’…

‘And you,’ said Parminder loudly, as the silent eruption engulfed her, ‘do you know how many tens of thousands of pounds you, Howard Mollison, have cost the health service, because of your total inability to stop gorging yourself?’

A rich, red claret stain was spreading up Howard’s neck into his cheeks.

‘Do you know how much your bypass cost, and your drugs, and your long stay in hospital? And the doctor’s appointments you take up with your asthma and your blood pressure and the nasty skin rash, which are all caused by your refusal to lose weight?’” (Rowling, 388)

It is important to note that his being overweight was not the problem. It was his utter lack of concern, his consumption, in large quantities, of anything his wife sets before him at mealtimes. In short, it is not his weight that is the issue, but his “refusal to lose” it. His lack of self-control is a big part of his gluttony. Parminder is implying that he is just as addicted as the druggies of the Fields, and it certainly is rich of him to criticize them when he has never exactly been in the pink of health himself.

2. Wrath = Simon Price

Wrath is defined simply as “extreme anger,” a character trait that Simon Price certainly possesses. A short-tempered man, he is inclined to shout at his family, and it seems that beatings are not out of place in his home. His eldest son, Andrew Price, is particularly affected by this:

“Inside his head, Andrew matched Simon obscenity for obscenity. Inside his head, he could take Simon in a fair fight.” (Rowling, 15)

An interesting thing to be noted about this particular sin is that it originally applied to anger or hatred that was directed within as well as without. (This was the reason why people who committed suicide could not be buried in consecrated ground; it was the ultimate form of self-hatred.)

Si-Pie’s anger could well be stemming from a feeling of failure toward his family, the feeling that he isn’t providing enough. Isn’t that why he cuts corners and does his dirty dealings? To get ahead, to live the American Dream (English Dream?), and to make sure that his family wants for nothing? Don’t his angry spats seem to align with his spells of bad luck in crooked business ventures?

“Simon’s investment had vanished with the company director, but although he had raged and sworn and kicked his younger son halfway down the stairs for getting in his way, he had not contacted the police.” (Rowling, 49)

And let’s not rehash his fury when he thought someone knew about the stolen computer.

That doesn’t necessarily make his actions justifiable, but perhaps it could make some kind of sense.

3. Greed = Tessa Wall

Greed is a deep, selfish desire for something. Generally this term is associated with money and other material possessions, but as with gluttony, it can actually apply to many things. Tessa Wall may seem an unlikely candidate for greed. The way she intercedes desperately between her husband and adopted son, as well as her job as a school guidance counselor, are not exactly traits that reek of selfishness. She seems like one of the better characters in the town. However, this does not change the fact that she adopted Stuart (known to us largely as Fats) against her husband’s will. The difference between Tessa and the previous two characters mentioned is this—Tessa admits that her actions were wrong:

“‘I was desperate to adopt you,’ she said. ‘Desperate. But Dad was very ill. He said to me, “I can’t do it. I’m scared I’ll hurt a baby. I need to get better before we do this, and I can’t do that and cope with a new baby as well.”

‘But I was so determined to have you,’ said Tessa, ‘That I pressured him into lying, and telling the social workers that he was fine, and pretending to be happy and normal. We brought you home, and you were tiny and premature, and on the fifth night we had you, Dad slipped out of bed and went to the garage, put a hosepipe on the exhaust of the car and tried to kill himself, because he was convinced he’d smothered you. And he almost died.

‘So you can blame me,’ said Tessa, ‘for your and Dad’s bad start, and maybe you can blame me for everything that’s come since.’” (Rowling, 477)

This is certainly an act of selfishness. Tessa disregarded the fact that her husband was ill and felt uncomfortable around children and pressured him into adopting a child. It appears, however, that she has suffered nearly every day since then with the weight of her secret. As happens to us many times in real life, she got what she wanted, but things didn’t quite go as plan. The genie granted her wish but still managed to cheat her out of the happiness that she was really after.

4. Sloth = Terri Weedon

The sin sloth is defined as “a spiritual or emotional apathy,” and yes, laziness. Terri Weedon is a resident of the Fields, and she is everything the Parish council says the Fields is: uneducated, impoverished, and addicted to drugs. The heroin has had such an effect on Terri that she has trouble remembering things, like the age of her daughter Krystal or what days her son Robbie goes to nursery. Her house is in disrepair and generally filthy, and she can’t even muster the motivation to stay awake for the social worker’s visit, let alone carry out household chores.

“But not to feel, not to care…” (Rowling, 72)

All through the chapters that detail Kay Bawden’s visits to the Weedon household, we encounter a near-lifeless Terri. Such earth-shattering events as the death of Nana Cath or the night her daughter was raped by her dealer barely illicit a response from her. What little motivation she had mustered to get clean once and for all, when it was threatened that Robbie could be taken away again, did not last long at the news that Bellchapel was closing. Even at her children’s funeral, in the last line of the book, Terri is described as being “half-carried” out of the church.

If you look at sloth as apathy, then it isn’t a difficult leap to say that evil exists (at least, in Pagford) when capable people fail to do what they know is right—in short, when they fail to act. Terri barely even reacted when Krystal told her that she had been raped, which led Krystal through a whole series of thought-processes and events that might have been avoided had her mother been more concerned.

By the same thought process, the vast majority of both Pagford and Yarvil are guilty of sloth because of their reluctance, and sometimes outright refusal, to be of any help to Fields. Instead, they grudgingly hand over funds for an ineffective rehab facility—a facility, I might add, that is very likely within their means to improve—and allow the undeserving children of the Fields to attend school with their own children. One might argue that their lack of action—not wanting to be involved with the Fields in any way, shape, or form—could have, by extension, resulted in the unhappy ending of the book:

“Her family half carried Terri Weedon back down the royal blue carpet, and the congregation averted its eyes.” (Rowling, 503)

5. Lust = Samantha Mollison

Webster defines lust as “a bodily appetite; especially excessive sexual desire.” The sin, however, can be applied to many things, like gluttony and greed before it, but we’ll stick to sex because that’s easy. Samantha Mollison fits rather neatly into this category. Of course, there are other characters that also fit neatly into this category as well, but we’re going to pick on Samantha because I really, really did not like her.

Let’s look at the facts, here: Samantha runs lingerie store, for starters. Some (her mother-in-law, for one) consider it tasteless; she, however, enjoys the work. Now, I don’t have anything against the good employees at Victoria’s Secret, but in a book, everything has some sort of deeper meaning.

Secondly, she becomes weirdly obsessed with her daughter Libby’s favorite band, watching a DVD of their music videos and interviews repeatedly and fantasizing about having sex with one of its members. She even goes so far as to get tickets for herself and Libby to see this band. In short, Samantha Mollison becomes a full-on fangirl. All she needs is a tumblr and a few badly written, sexually graphic fanfics posted on some poorly set-up website dedicated to fans of One Direction, and she’ll be completely set:

“Libby had propped the DVD cover against her glass of Diet Pepsi, and was ogling it.

‘Mikey’s so lush,’ she said, with a carnal groan that took Samantha aback; but the muscular boy was called Jake. Samantha was glad they did not like the same one.” (Rowling, 213)

For the record, so am I.

6. Envy = Gavin Hughes

Envy and greed are easily mixed up, because both have to do with selfishness. (Actually, I would say everything on this list has to do with selfishness in one way or another, but I digress.) The difference is this: greed is a deep desire for something, while envy is jealousy.

The unassuming Gavin Hughes, bumbling and unable to get a backbone and deal with his girlfriend Kay Bawden, is tailor-made to be envious. Finding himself either incapable or unwilling to get out of his relationship with Kay now that he feels he is in too deep, and his best friend, Barry Fairbrother, dying on top of it all has made him a pretty unhappy guy. Naturally, he throws himself into his work. What is his work? Helping Mary Fairbrother sort out her husband’s life insurance.

As Gavin spends an increasing amount of time at the Fairbrother household and less and less time with Kay, he begins to wish he had his old friend’s life. He likes Barry’s house, Barry’s kids, Barry’s dog, even begins to develop feelings for Barry’s wife. This, of course, ends his relationship with Kay, but it doesn’t end rosy for Gavin, either, as Mary does not return his feelings.

“Ever since Barry’s funeral, Gavin had dwelled, with a sense of deep inadequacy, on the comparatively small gap he was sure he would leave behind in his community, should he die. Looking at Mary, he wondered whether it would not be better to leave a huge hole in one person’s heart. Had Barry not realized how Mary felt? Had he not realized how lucky he was?” (Rowling, 272)

The thing about Gavin is that in this book, he does basically everything by halves, so his envy doesn’t sound like envy at first at all. I had to read this passage several times before I realized that’s what it was. He is jealous of Barry—Barry’s position, his wife, his happy, stable life, even his impressive death. In comparison to Gavin’s own rocky relationships and small, empty house, Barry’s life must’ve seemed like an El Dorado, where gemstones are nothing but rocks and gold has no value. It almost makes you feel sorry for the guy.

7. Pride = Stuart “Fats” Wall

Pride is nearly always considered to be the most serious of the sins, and is basically excessive self-love (or narcissism). Fats Wall is an excellent example of this. Strutting about the school with his devil-may-care attitude, he becomes so cool—or, perhaps, intimidating—that he manages to overcome any social inconveniences that having both parents on the faculty might have presented. Nothing seems to faze him; he always gets in the last word, always makes the opposing team look like idiots, and always, always wins.

“Stuart Wall was the most nicknamed boy in school…. but it was his trenchant humor, his detachment and poise that set him apart. Somehow he managed to disassociate himself from everything that might have defined a less resilient character, shrugging off the embarrassment of being the son of a ridiculed and unpopular deputy head; of having a frumpy, overweight guidance teacher as a mother. He was preeminently and uniquely himself: Fats, school notable and landmark, and even the Fielders laughed at his jokes, and rarely bothered—so coolly and cruelly did he return jibes—to laugh at his unfortunate connections.” (Rowling, 28)

Notice that Rowling doesn’t think it’s necessary to mention that nobody would ever dare laugh at Fats himself at all.

Then he starts going out with Krystal Weedon—not because he particularly likes her, but more because he knows it will get a rise out of his parents, particularly his father, whom he loathes. It turns out to be not so much fun, however, when Krystal’s little brother Robbie drowns in the river while he’s having sex with Krystal.

“He kept imagining the funeral. A tiny little coffin.

He had not wanted to do it with the boy so near.

Would the weight of the dead child ever lift from him?

‘So you ran away,’ said Tessa coldly, over his tears.” (Rowling, 476)

Very likely, somebody that you know, such as an old grandmother, or an aunt, or your mother, has said knowingly, with that raised-eyebrow look middle-aged women get when they are certain that they’re right, “Pride goes before a fall.” In this case, they would have been quite correct. Fats Wall went before Sukhvinder jumped in the river to rescue Robbie. Fats Wall ran away, and I think we could easily argue that his pride was gone after the deaths of Krystal and Robbie.

Conclusion –

Now, once you read this, I know what you’ll probably be asking: “But why would J.K. Rowling put the seven deadly sins in her book?”

I’m going to level with you here. I’m not a scholar. I don’t have a college degree. I haven’t even finished high school yet. So I have absolutely no idea. You could ask the Professor (as John is known around my house) or somebody more qualified to answer your question. However, I will say a couple of things in that direction.

When it comes right down to it, I honestly don’t think the Professor, or anyone else, for that matter, has any idea why any author does anything in their books. Why would Lewis, Tolkien, and Rowling put alchemy in their books? Why did Shakespeare make up words? Why does John Green really, really like writing books about relationships that don’t work out? Nobody knows for sure but the authors.

Honestly, though, if Ms. Rowling came up to you and explained everything about the symbolism in The Casual Vacancy flat-out to you, would any of this be any fun? Books belong to their readers as much as they do to their authors. So, I could be spot on or a million miles off the mark. Either way, my theory was crazy enough for the Professor to like it.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Joy M February 17, 2013 at 7:38 pm

I think it’s an interesting idea. I’m trying to decide where I would classify Shirley Mollison. She is at least as bad as Samantha although in other ways. Shirley really grated on me. She reminds me of the Levite who passed by the traveler in the Biblical parable of the Good Samaritan. She just doesn’t want to get her hands dirty. That, too, could apply to several characters.

Nana February 18, 2013 at 2:07 pm

I think it a very good idea to use the seven deadly sins as a structural form in a book, but I don’t see it in Casual Vacancy. Everyone in Pagford seems a sinner, but to assign the sin of wrath to Simon Price for example, seems inadequate for what ails him. The characters are all flawed and it is the reader who must decide how their flaws create or contribute to the chain of events leading to the tragic ending. I think we can know what the writer intends. A good writer like J.K. R. works very hard to create a structure and narrative that will enable us to see what she wants us to see and understand what she is saying. Otherwise what is the point of writing? She writes so we may consider things we may not have considered before. Writers often urge us to sit up and pay attention. Having said that, sometimes we find things, little treasures, that the author may not have planned, but is still a product of their expertise.

Ken Schneyer April 10, 2013 at 11:16 pm

I had exactly the same thought when I read the novel. Not the specific match-up of characters to sins, but I was convinced that this book was about the Seven Deadly Sins. I think Pride is properly Shirley Mollison’s, and Sloth is Gavin’s. Shirley detests anyone who might think they’re better than she, and nurses her superiority over others, while going so far as to imagine that she understands the law better than her son with a law degree and medicine better than the local doctor. Gavin, meanwhile, takes practically no action on anything throughout the entire book; he is infuriatingly passive.

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