Places: Omensetter’s Luck

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1966

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Symbolic realism

Time of work: 1890’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Ohio River Valley

*Ohio Omensetter’s LuckRiver Valley. Region lush with wild game and vegetation, yet also the domain of animal struggle, the uncontrollable river, and dense growth of weeds and thorns. There, the woods are home to Brackett Omensetter, who can whistle like a cardinal. When he and his family first arrive in Gilean in a horse-drawn wagon, he finds a house to rent owned by Henry Pimber down the South Road near the river, where the woods are dense with trees. Gass depicts nature as the original home of humanity before the onset of rationality and self-consciousness.

Gilean townsfolk, such as Pimber and Jethro Furber, know better than to live there, yet the separation they feel from the natural environment creates significant distress in both. Shamed by the naturalness of Omensetter–who heals Pimber’s lockjaw at one point with a beet poultice–Pimber hangs himself in a white oak, seventy feet above ground, representing the pain of his separation from nature. Pimber’s suicide, coupled with the death of Omensetter’s son Amos from illness, causes the townspeople to blame Omensetter’s lack of reason, introducing him to the pangs of conscience, causing his “fall” from natural grace which is signaled by his family’s departure from the woods.

Gilean

Gilean. Imaginary Ohio town in which the novel is principally set. Gass does not describe the town in detail, but it is clearly a backwater settlement near the Ohio River and not far from Columbus. The town contains a Methodist church, to which Furber ministers, Matthew Watson’s blacksmith shop, where Omensetter works after arriving in town, and numerous houses, including Henry Pimber’s.

In a novel of consciousness and intense metaphysical reflection, the town represents civilized human community, in which church, law, and medicine–the voices of reason–preside. However, consciousness in this novel separates humanity from the world of natural action. The three primary narrative reflectors in the book–Furber, Pimber, and Israbestis Tott–are men of the community, and their perceptions are densely packed with the relentless voices of consciousness–which breed envy, fear, and suspicion of both the woods and Omensetter.

By utilizing a rural backwater for his setting, Gass reveals the innate struggle of the civilized world. The townspeople are not plagued by civic problems but simply by the separation of civilized life from nature. Thematically, the novel reveals the possibility of human redemption through a reconciliation of spirit and body, reason and intuition, and experience and innocence. Some commentators argue that Furber’s character achieves such a redemption, yoking pre-and post-Fall states of being, and that his departure from Gilean suggests that he will locate a new place of being where such harmony may occur communally as well as privately.

Omensetter’s house

Omensetter’s house. Home of Brackett Omensetter; an old wood house in the woods near the river that Omensetter rents from Pimber. In a location susceptible to seasonal flooding, the house’s exterior reveals water lines of past floods, signaling the capacity of nature to overwhelm humanity. Omensetter lives there peacefully with his family until Pimber’s suicide and the death of his own son.

An abandoned well at the house becomes a trap for a fox that kills one of Omensetter’s chickens. With no sign of enmity or anger, Omensetter tells Pimber to let the fox be and allow nature to have its way. Such an acceptance of nature, with its indifferent and often fatal struggles, distresses Pimber. Omensetter’s later departure from the house signals his fall from grace but also reveals the novel’s complex vision: That humanity cannot go back to a primal state and must find a reconciliation that admits, rather than denies, reason and conscience.

Pimber’s house

Pimber’s house. Home of Henry Pimber; a broad house with a shaded porch, Pimber’s home contains vases, silver spoons, handmade quilts, china cups, bubbled colored glass, painted plates, and wood-framed beds. A barn and cellar are also present on the lot. At the beginning of the novel, which opens in the early twentieth century, although most of the narrative that follows unfolds during the 1890’s, an auctioneer is selling off the items of the property, signaling the dismantling of a life that abounded in creature comforts but was too removed from nature to achieve peace.

BibliographyBrans, Jo. Listen to the Voices: Conversations with Contemporary Writers. Dallas, Tex.: Southern Methodist University Press, 1988. Includes an interview with the author that provides interesting anecdotes about the composition of Omensetter’s Luck.Holloway, Watson. William Gass. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A comprehensive study of Gass, which includes a chapter devoted to the major themes in Omensetter’s Luck.McCaffery, Larry. The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982. Includes a chapter on William Gass, which discusses his essays, short stories, and novels, including Omensetter’s Luck. The author places Gass’s work in the context of a “contemporary metasensibility.”Saltzman, Arthur M. The Fiction of William Gass: The Consolation of Language. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986. In a separate chapter on Omensetter’s Luck, Saltzman analyzes the works of William Gass with reference to the author’s philosophical beliefs about the insularity of fiction.Tanner, Tony. Scenes of Nature, Signs of Men. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. An overview of twenty-five years of American fiction. Includes a skillful summary of Omensetter’s Luck.
Categories: Places