Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent: When Opposites Meet

The Essex Serpent is the first book in a long time that I actually enjoyed from my book club. I really enjoyed the journey it took me on with each chapter. I want to caution future readers of The Essex Serpent to not get lost in finding out if the serpent is real or not. 

[SPOILER ALERT]

How do you love?

“I’ll fill your wounds with gold”

It was hard to ignore the theme of love in this book with many seemingly parallel examples of love. The first example would obviously be Cora and Michael. As a new widow, Cora unwittingly begins to reflect on her marriage to Michael. Michael and Cora’s marriage seemed perfect since Michael is a respectable member of society but Michael was, in fact, an abusive spouse. 

It comes to no surprise that Michael’s abuse shaped Cora’s perspectives of love which almost led her to spiral into her next relationship with narcissist Luke Garrett. You can clearly see how we have been loved will affect how we continue to love others. Because our past experiences with love are what we base our love language on. Her loveless relationship also leads to her becoming somewhat a terrible mother to Francis who sees Martha as more of a mother figure.  

Cora doesn’t come to a realization that the brokenness of her marriage and love in any relationship should not be one-sided until she meets Will. Given its pre-feminism timeframe, the marriage between Will and Katherine is a polar opposite from Cora and Michael. They might be living a life of much less privilege from Cora but they are truly happy together. It’s rather fascinating that Cora’s friendship with Will and Katherine allowed her to realize and face the truths of her own life. I mean we live in a society of social media where you almost can’t escape the idea of comparing your life to others. I’m a firm believer that the people around us, are more often than not, mirrors and a reflection of our own life. 

“…to love humbly and quietly with no hope of return”

Other examples of love were seen with Martha and Spencer who was a couple that never came to be. But I have to say I admired Spencer’s heart of gold that he maintains throughout the book even after his unrequited love for Martha and when Martha begins dating Edward. The portrayal of unrequited love was actually paralleled with Martha and Spencer, and Luke and Cora. The diversion comes when, unlike Spencer, Luke becomes petty and spiteful towards Cora and how she falls in love with Will. He lacks Spencer’s capacity to “love humbly and quietly with no hope of return”. 

“I am torn and I am mended — I want everything and need nothing — I love you and I am content without you.”

Of course, one cannot ignore the connection between Cora and Will. I have to say I didn’t expect them to fall in love with each other. This is not due to their frosty first impressions or the criticism of how each chose to live their lives. Rather the lack of any commonality in their personalities or interests. But I do admire their deep respect and admiration of each other that developed throughout the course of events which I felt is what love should be about. Though they don’t end up together (despite the blessing of his wife), I could see how much they truly love each other. I actually liked the idea that they didn’t end up together because it was just so much character development for Cora who never really knew a life without a man. 

The Dualistic Life

While the interrelationships of the characters are hard to ignore (especially in a novel), the biggest theme to me was dualism. The dualism I’m referring to is the condition of two such contrasting forces. What amuses me is how each character pairing function well together despite being so different from their partner. This was demonstrated in the book when Cora writes about the dual meaning of the word “cleave” to Will. 

Right off the bat, you could see how each character pairing — Cora and Will, Martha and Cora, Luke and Spencer, Spencer and Martha — are very much opposites of each other. Martha is a socialist who believes in fighting for the working class while Cora lives a life of privilege. Luke is arrogant and narcissistic while Spencer is kind and humble. Each character who contrasts the other and yet, so loyal to each other. All of them (and maybe even us) function and live in societies which are dualistic (or maybe in more ways) in nature. The opposing forces work in a way that they each somehow make the other a better person. 

“We are cleaved together — we are cleaved apart — everything that draws me to you is everything that drives me away.”

Other ways you could see this theme being played out is when Cora and Will discuss their life paths and choices. Before becoming friends, Cora criticizes Will for choosing to live a rather average or mediocre life. To which Will responds by saying, “Can you really not imagine that I might take a path which differs from yours and be happy walking there?” 

This was a simple way of emphasizing the idea of #youdoyou to put it in a millennial point of view. Often or not, people can be so critical of others who might choose to live a life of simplicity instead of joining the rat race. But have you considered that people choose their paths in life for a reason? The funny thing is that Cora criticizes Will’s simple life and yet, she felt compelled towards this “simple life” because she was jaded with her life of privilege. 

Finding your purpose

Some other interesting ideas I got from this book was how people of a certain character might be “born” to do certain things. This was very clearly seen in Luke’s character and ambitions as a surgeon. His ability to save Edward which is remarkable might only be able to occur due to his true stubbornness and arrogance. Unlike Spencer who is a good-natured person but could not ultimately save Luke from his injuries. 

All in all, I really enjoyed reading this book of fiction because of the depth of the characters. I am not a huge fan of the plot (aka the serpent). But I did enjoy the major point of the realness of the serpent lives with the people who tell the story and their level of belief. Just like every other fable or folk tale in life, the reality or truth behind the story is what you choose to believe in. 

My favorite quotes from The Essex Serpent

  • Can you really not imagine that I might take a path which differs from yours and be happy walking there? — Will
  • To sin is to try, but fall short. Of course, we cannot get it right each time — and so we try again. — Will
  • What’s use was it to observe the human species and try to understand it? Their rules were fathomless and no more fixed than the wind. — Francis
  • But doesn’t it take greater strength to walk a mile in pain than seven miles in none? — Katherine
  • “We are cleaved together — we are cleaved apart — everything that draws me to you is everything that drives me away.” — Cora
  • I’ve not been able to afford my pride for a long time. — Will
  • “I am torn and I am mended — I want everything and need nothing — I love you and I am content without you.” — Cora

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