CV6 — Literary Alchemy: The Conjunction of Sex and Death

In my public Harry Potter talks this summer, more than fifteen, not counting my conversations with various Pundits at MuggleNet Academia, there was relatively little interest, believe it or not, in Casual Vacancy. I was asked several times, though, if I believed Ms. Rowling would embed the symbols, structures, and scaffolding of literary alchemy into her adult novel. I thought she would.

Why? There’s the common sense reason, of course, that a winning pitcher doesn’t throw anything but his best stuff in big games. To mix metaphors (and un-mixable horse races), given the success of Harry Potter , it’s not likely, I thought, that the author would feel the need to switch horses when the thoroughbred she’s been riding has won the Triple Crown, the Grand Prix de Paris, and the Derby Stakes.

To the objection that alchemy might work well with fantasy pieces but not a realist literary novel for adults (i,e., “serious writing”), my answer was simply “Shakespeare, Dickens, and Charles Williams.” I might have mentioned Hunger Games, too, but, alas, that powerful parable is classified as ‘Young Adult’ Fiction and in the Dystopian genre to boot, so it doesn’t qualify as serious literature.

To the point, though, I thought Ms. Rowling would not abandon her winning alchemical hand because the reason Literary Alchemy is such a successful story telling is that the act of reading is by nature alchemical. As explained in each of my books and everywhere on this site, the sequencing and symbols of metallurgical alchemy are efficacious to reader transformation when they are used in text because the experience of that reader in stories-told-well is that of the lead-to-gold alchemist: identification or elision of subject-object, catharsis in crisis-crucible, and illuminating transformation.

The full exploration of Casual Vacancy‘s alchemical signatures will require repeated readings. That Ms. Rowling still wears her alchemist bonnet when writing, however, is evident in the first rushed run-through. Not only does she mention alchemy three times, but the thematic heart of the book, ‘Love and Death,’ ‘Authenticity and Hypocrisy,’ is an alchemical glyph.

The out right mentions? The tears of Parminder at her father’s death which “seemed to undergo an alchemical transformation” (Part 1, ‘Monday, chapter 8), the “inevitable, alchemical transformation” consequent to Simon Price’s departure from the Padsford council race (part 3, chapter 7), and the “transformation” of Robbie in the public mind from “dirty and foul mouthed little boy” to “a water baby” (Part 7) if not explicitly alchemical is clearly meant to be read as such. Fats’ tormenting Jolly as a “hermaphrodite” is important, too, of course, especially in light of this young woman’s heroic transformation and actions at story’s end.

But it is the three “love and death” moments that are the alchemical highlights or ‘Howlers,’ if you will.

(1) Andrew and Stuart (“Fats”) meet in the Cave next to the river to discuss life and share their secrets while smoking dope (Part 1, ‘Saturday,’ chapter 2; the seventh day Part 1’s week, the end of the opening of the seven part work — see thread #7). Their posture relative to one another there is important:

“Fats stretched out on his back in his funeral suit, his feet toward the river. Wordlessly, Andrew stretched out beside him. in the opposite direction. They had slept like this, ‘top and tail,’ when they had stayed overnight at each other’s houses as children.”

Electing to skip the burial, Fats has come straight to the river from the funeral of Barry Fairbrother to go underground himself with his best of friends, his diptych ‘other’ (see thread #9). Together they form an Ouroboros or dragon eating it’s own tail, an alchemical Tao, which “paradoxical hieroglyph” as Lyndy Abraham notes in Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery “symbolizes the magical transforming arcanum which both slays and is slain, resurrects and is resurrected during the process of the opus” (p. 207, ‘Uroborus’). The two boys, in their relatively disembodied drug high “realize” and say aloud that the principal mysteries of life, “What Matters,” are sex (“fucking” inevitably, of course) and death. These are shadows on the Cave Wall of greater truths than they know.

Fats skips the Fairbrother funeral but he goes to the graveyard for a cannabis-laced sexual congress with Krystall Weedon, a Barry devotee. Here he is in his birthday rather than his funeral suit (Part 2, chapter 10; again, the last pages of a chapter). Here, in making the “beast with two backs,” Fats and Krystall are another Ouroboros and the elision of self and ‘other’ in both sex and death unnerves both male and female characters.

The human tao, life underground, sex and death, the river, dissolution in coitus and drugs — we see them again in Part 5, chapters 9 and 12, when Krystall, realizing that her mother has used heroin and that this will end whatever hope she has of keeping Robbie unless she becomes pregnant, finds Fats and takes him to the river. They have at it in the bushes, Robbie drowns, and both Krystall and Fats die to self, she in suicidal overdose and he in the birth of conscience and responsibility. Both have turned into their opposites, she the mother to her mother, no-drug-use police woman become drug user, he the Leopold and Loeb nihilist who despises his guilt paralyzed father becomes both his father’s ward and image after Tessa reveals to him his possibly incestuous (self-loving) biological and geometric origin.

Jolly and Samantha are the most changed by this crisis and chrysalis, which transformations I hope to explore on another thread. To close this first of what I assume will be several Casual Vacancy alchemical posts, I’m obliged to note that ‘Love and Death’ are alchemical signatures because the edifying action of the magnum opus is solve et coagula, conjunction and dissolution, which contrary and complementary polarities, like the beating of the organic and inner heart, are the means and symbol of biological life and the greater life.

In alchemical literature as in metallurgical texts, this expansion and contraction is represented by the Alchemical Wedding, the consummation of which joining leads to the death of each contrary, their respective elevation, and the birth of the Philosophical Orphan or Philosopher’s Stone.

Krystall Weedon in this hermetic parable is the spiritual cornerstone despised by the World, whose name points to her being the embodied Light of the novel’s action (‘Crystal’) as well as the Christ figure only the potentially illumined or brilliant can see and love, namely, Barry and Stuart, the presidential and royal names, again, being no accident. Kystall Weedon broken down becomes ‘Christ pissed on by everyone.’ Vacancy‘s original title was Responsible — and Rowling reminds us in the figurative and literal story deaths of Krystall Weedon and Stuart Wall that we are responsible for the life or death of Christ in ourselves and, as much as we love brother as self, in our neighbor as well. Crucifixions are happening all around us and we are the mob worshiping Caesar and denying Christ inwardly and outwardly in our nihilistic pre-occupations and political casuistry or indifference.

More on this allegory via Lyndy Abraham’s Dictionary soon, especially about the differences and similarities of the story’s caduceus sightings. Until then, your thoughts please on the alchemical freight and power of Casual Vacancy as you experienced it on your first reading.


  1. I should’ve put my Good Samaritan comment here. I plainly saw this parable in the three people walking past Robbie and then Sukhvinder being the one to jump in and try to save him. I kept feeling like “if only Barry were alive everything would be different”. I think Rowling is challenging us to not let Barry die in our lives, but to help him live on by being him – the transforming power that should’ve caused more alchemical changes, but ended before it could. Were there any alchemy symbols in his death?

  2. From Lyndy Abraham’s Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, the ‘Chemical Wedding’ entry:

    Chemical wedding

    The opus alchymicum consists of a repeated cycle of dissolutions and coagulations of the matter of the Stone in the alembic. The old form of the metal or matter for the Stone is dissolved into the original stuff of creation, the prima materia, and this materia is coagulated into a new, purer form. Each time the process of solve et coagula is reiterated, the substance in the alembic becomes more and more purified. In certain instances this sequence of solve et coagula is referred to as the cycle of separatio and coniunctio. The coagulation or coniunctio is the triumphant moment of chemical combination where such opposite states and qualities as sulphur and mercury, hot and cold, dry and moist, fixed and volative, spirit and body, form and matter, active and receptive, and male and female are reconciled of their differences and united….

    Alchemy is based on the Hermetic view that man had become divided within himself separated into two sexes at the fall in the garden of Eden and could only regain his integral Adamic state when the opposing forces within him were reconciled. The union of these universal male and female forces produced that third substance or effect which could heal not only the disease of the physical world but also the affliction of the separated soul. Metaphysically, the chemical wedding is the perfect union of creative will or power (male) with wisdom (female) to produce pure love (the child, the Stone). The creation of this Stone always involves some kind of sacrifice or death. Thus emblems of the chemical wedding almost always include symbols of death which overshadow the coniunctio. The amorous birds of prey copulate while devouring each other. The sixth emblem of The Rosary of the Philosophers shows the united lovers lying on a coffin (McLean, Rosary, 39), while the lovers in the sixth emblem (second series) of Mylius’s Philosophia reformata are shown encased in a glass coffin with Saturn and a skeleton with a scythe at either side (fig. 10) The death at the wedding symbolizes the extinction of the earlier differentiated state before union, and also powerfully conveys the alacrity with which the festive moment of the coagula or wedding is transformed into the lamentation of the solve or death. Many texts state that the solve and coagula are simultaneous. Alchemical theory stated that generation could not take place unless there had first been a death. In Christian mysticism the same idea occurs with the parable of the grain of wheat which must first die in the earth before it can bring forth fruit (John 12:24-5), a parable which the alchemists often cite. The philosopher’s stone cannot be generated until the lovers have died and their bodies putrefied in the mercurial waters…

    At a metaphysical level, the aim of the separation of the soul from the body is to free it from its age-old attachment to the body so that it can transcend the turmoil and pull of the merely natural forces of matter. The separation of the soul is able to become conscious of its own true nature and of the difference between natural and spiritual man. In the light of this knowledge the soul desires to unite with the spirit above and become illumined by it. The subsequent reunion of this spiritual awareness with the new, purified body means that knowledge gained in a state of higher consciousness can now be put into action, made manifest in the phenomenal world. At this point the male and female energies of the universe are united and balanced within the individual, bringing into being a whole or holy state.

  3. I am no expert in alchemy, nor particularly prone to reading very deeply, but I was somewhat struck by the way Rowling divided The Casual Vacancy into 7 parts, and how Part 1 is likewise divided into 7 parts. I can’t help wondering if each part might be an allusion to an alchemical operation.

    In Part 1, Monday specifically, we are introduced to all major characters and instantly familiarized with the faults of each. Pagford starts out dark; the dump of Yarvil is the first place we really get to see. The epigraph for Part 1 and the situation of Barry’s demise quite clearly indicate what this section is all about: death. The end of part 1 is Barry’s funeral, followed by Andrew and Stuart’s epiphany that life is all about sex and death.

    Part 2 begins with rain, about a clear a clue as my feeble mind can comprehend that this section might be an allusion to dissolution. Might the epigraph again contain another clue? I am not wise enough to know.

    Part 3 remains a mystery to me, but it seems logical that Part 4 might be a reference to the conjunction phase of the Great Work. By the end of this section, Krystal has decided she wants a baby, just as the two great opposing forces collide and it’s time to vote (or not, as the case may be).

    Part 5 again is beyond my meager alchemical knowing, but I do see some major purification occurring in Part 6: Stuart is humbled and shown a light of truth, Sukhvinder is illuminated, Parminder’s eyes are opened, and Krystal is liberated from a world of darkness.

    In Part 7, we get to see who coagulates into something new and better, and who misses out on spiritual growth. Howard suffers for his indifference to need, even his own personal needs; Shirley is embittered and her heartlessness exposed; Andrew gets the girl; Stuart willingly takes the fall as the Ghost behind all the mayhem; Samantha feels love and guilt, is humbled by Miles’ capacity to forgive, quits drinking; Kay makes up with Gaia and gets over Gavin; Colin connects with Stuart; Sukhvinder is glorified and stops cutting; Robbie is “purified and regretted by Pagford”; Parminder loosens up; Ruth hopes the family’s sacrifice will lead to their rebirth. About the only thing that seems to come out even is the council, who loses 1 Barry supporter in Parminder but stands to gain 2 more in Colin and Samantha.

    So am I naively reaching on this notion, sophomorically connecting 7 literary parts to 7 alchemical operations, or might there actually be something to this idea?

  4. Susan Stacy says

    I really enjoyed this articles insight to the literary alchemy of Casual Vacancy and I look forward to your further posts on this subject. I did catch the references to alchemy in the book and the stories language when it reflected on the dirty, dank and squalid as opposed to the purificating use of water and rain. However, you have illuminated many other sign posts throughout the book for further thought. I’m eager to learn more.

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