Study Guide

Serena Principles

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Pemberton took one final step, the hunting knife's blade flat as he slipped it inside Harmon's coat and plunged the steel through shirt cloth and into the soft flesh above the older man's right hip bone. He grabbed Harmon's shoulder with his free hand for leverage and quickly opened a thin smile across the man's stomach. A cedarwood button popped free from Harmon's soiled white shirt, hit the plank floor, spun a moment, and settled. Then a soft sucking sound as Pemberton withdrew the blade. For a few moments there was no blood. (1.81)

Killing Harmon in a duel, Pemberton doesn't seem to care one way or the other if the guy survives. It's a riveting opening scene for us to dissect, especially since we don't know any of the characters yet. Makes us think this Pemberton guy isn't the most moral of all dudes out there. (And we're not wrong.)

"Will he still be a foreman?" Campbell asked.

"Yes, for the next two weeks," Serena said, looking not at Campbell but Pemberton.

"And then?"

"He'll be fired," Pemberton told the overseer. "Another lesson for the men." (2.156-159)

We should point out that Campbell wants to give Bilded his pay for the next two weeks, but Serena and Pemberton insist on letting the guy go. Right away, we can see a contrast between the upper class's principles and how the lower class (Campbell) behaves.

"Saved by a woman," Serena added, "and thus honor bound to protect that woman and do her bidding the rest of his life." (18.55)

Galloway's mom predicted he'd be saved by a woman and it turns out she was right. We expect for Galloway to be axed (get it?) as well, but instead Serena insists on keeping him around. There is some honor among thieves, so long as it can benefit Serena in some way.

"I done explained the science behind it, same as I explained what darksomeness can do to a man," Snipes said, sighing deeply. "It's ever been the way of the man of science or philosophy. Most folks stay in the dark and then complain they can't see nothing." (19.32)

The workers understand that sometimes the evil in the world is perpetuated by all of us. That's what they mean here by "stay[ing] in the dark." We'd also like to point out that the workers have the most principles out of anybody—they know what the dark looks like because they're in the light.

"Your wife and that henchman of hers thought she'd tell them where the Harmon girl and her child were. That's what I think. They went to the girl's cabin first. The door was wide open this morning, and I know for a fact it was fastened last night. Cigarette butts by the barn as well. Only I don't know which one they were after." McDowell paused. "Which one was it, the child or the mother? Or was it both?" (26.10)

McDowell reports this crime to Pemberton, trying to measure the guy's reaction. It's clear Pemberton wasn't the murderer, but that doesn't mean he wasn't involved. McDowell tries to do things with his principles in tact, but as we see here, it often doesn't get him anywhere.

"We've both killed now," Serena said urgently. "What you felt at the depot, I've felt too. We're closer, Pemberton, closer than we've ever been before." (28.8)

Serena's comment to her hubby about killing Widow Jenkins is creepy, almost like she's trying to bond with him over murder. We know before this that she doesn't have any principles, but we never thought she'd use throat slashing as a romantic gesture. Did anyone else just get chills?

The back portion was still aflame, but the front was a tumble of black smoking wood but for the brick steps that now rose toward nothing but singed air. A man in silhouette sat in a ladder back chair directly in front of the steps. The man watched the flames, seemingly oblivious to the workers who rushed and shouted around him. On the ground beside the chair was an empty ten-gallon canister of kerosene. (32.12)

In the end, McDowell sinks to the Pembertons' level. He figures that if he can't beat them, he should join them. His frustration is pretty understandable, especially since he's trying to hold the Pembertons accountable but no one else seems to want to. But does he have to give up his principles in the process?

"We had to feed our families," Henryson said.

"Yes, we did," Ross agreed. "What I'm wondering is how we'll feed them once all the trees is cut and the jobs leave." (35.17)

The workers convince themselves they had no other choice but to work for a corrupt couple because they had to support their families. But doesn't that sound like the beginnings of what every un-principled person says to themselves? The first step is justification.

"He deserved better than he got, McDowell did. He lived and died by his own rights. If I had it to do over, I'd as lief have killed him quick." (37.96)

Galloway says this about McDowell. Even though the sheriff purposely spills the beans about what Pemberton did to destroy his nemesis, Galloway has mad respect for McDowell. The guy did the right thing, and that's something that Galloway wishes he'd remembered in the end—you know, when he killed McDowell.

When the reporter wondered if there was anything she'd done in her life that she now regretted, Mrs. Pemberton said absolutely not, then turned the conversation to a tract of brazilwood in Pernambuco, which she hoped to purchase with the help of a West German tractor company. (Coda.2)

Serena is true to herself until the bitter end, no matter what it costs. The book is showing us here that she lived a long and happy life without principles, which is a kind of uncomfortable note to close on.

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