Jodi Picoult is known for her ability to give a human face to intense ethical, moral, and social dilemmas. The Tenth Circle, published in 2006, is no exception. Although the book is two years old, it has received additional attention with its recent release (June 2008) as a Lifetime movie.
One of the elements that makes The Tenth Circle stand out is the integration between graphic novel and traditional text novel. In the acknowledgments of The Tenth Circle, Picoult commends one woman for her response “when I gave her a book that was like nothing she’d ever seen before.”
As media converge, with cell phones carrying Internet access, cameras, and MP3 players, it should be no surprise to see a similar phenomenon taking place in book publishing. Although most graphic novels and print novels stay at a respectable distance and appeal to different crowds, the lines are beginning to blur. (See this website for further rhetorical analysis of the intersections in postmodern texts, particularly this page discussing structure).
The Tenth Circle is about a family’s struggle to deal with events surrounding their fourteen-year-old daughter’s alleged rape. Picoult has handled this theme before (see Salem Falls, 2001). As usual, she does not simplify the issue. She portrays all of the conflicting emotions and muddled scenarios that make the line between consensual sex and rape difficult to define and impossible to gloss over.
Laura Stone is a college English professor. Her favorite class to teach is on Dante’s Inferno, the first of a three-part epic poem called The Divine Comedy. Her daughter, Trixie, is a ninth grader struggling with relationships, fitting in, and a recent breakup. Daniel Stone is a stay-at-home dad and comic book artist. He is working on a graphic novel that follows his hero, Duncan (and alter-ego Wildclaw), through the nine circles of Dante’s hell in search of his missing daughter.
After Trixie comes home and tells her father she has been raped, the ongoing investigation frames a family struggling to rediscover each other. Each section of the novel is preceded by several pages from Daniel’s graphic novel. The events in the graphic novel mirror the events in the text novel, suggesting that Daniel uses his artwork to wrestle with his own life.
Picoult has a gift for portraying raw, sometimes illogical, human responses to tragedy. This feature can make her books painful to read, but it also gives them a high degree of realism and emotional impact. Picoult begins the book in the prologue with these words: “This is how it feels when you realize your child is missing.” She goes on to describe the precise sensations of panic. Daniel’s memory of losing Trixie when she was a small child acts as a concise, symbolic picture of the entire novel.
In Dante’s Inferno, Dante and his guide, Virgil, proceed one level at a time through hell. Information about the fates of sinners is revealed level by level. Picoult’s book follows this structure in more ways than one. Obvious techniques involve the graphic novel excerpts at the start of each chapter, and the progression of discussion in Laura’s college class on the Inferno. Greater subtlety surrounds the gradual revelation of details about Daniel and Laura’s history together and about the truth behind Trixie’s alleged rape.
Like Dante’s Inferno, The Tenth Circle is heavily symbolic, using elements of the Inuit culture in Alaska as well as literature and language to reinforce its main themes. Daniel remembers losing a friendship in Alaska because of cross-cultural differences in communication (verbal versus non verbal). The same dilemma permeates Laura and Daniel’s struggling marriage and Laura and Daniel’s loss of closeness with their daughter.
A telling moment comes in Laura’s class when she asks her students whether Dante’s image of nine circles and nine classifications of sinners remains accurate and comprehensive today. With a jolt, she realizes, “there was a sin Dante had left out, one that belonged in the very deepest pit of hell. If the worst sin of all was betraying others, then what about people who lied to themselves?” (p. 274).
“There should have been a tenth circle,” Laura decides, “a tiny spot the size of the head of a pin, with room for infinite masses. It would be overcrowded with professors who hid in ivy-covered towers instead of facing their broken families. With little girls who had grown up overnight. With husbands who didn’t speak of their past but instead poured it out onto a blank white page” (275).
Although honesty with self and others ultimately offers the single lifeline of hope and restoration to Picoult’s characters, her conclusion remains ambiguous. Does honesty simply mean accepting yourself for who you are, or does it mean a willingness to accept the consequences for your choices? Does it mean allowing others to face the consequences of their choices? Does it mean holding others accountable?
As in other books, Picoult circumvents answers, choosing rather to emphasize the hard questions and complex decisions that individuals are forced to make; because unlike the world portrayed in most comic books, everything in our world cannot be reduced to black and white.
(…Picoult’s newest novel, Change of Heart, was released in March.)