The Pilgrim Hawk is a very short novel. It describes the events that take place in a single summer afternoon in the late 1920s at a French chateau. The owner of the house is Alexandra (Alex) Henry, a young American heiress. Her friend, Alwyn Towers, an American expatriate/ novelist is staying with her, served by Jean and Eva, Alex’s servants. On this particular afternoon, they are visited by the Cullens, a wealthy, itinerant Irish couple, who arrive with their chauffeur, Ricketts. But more than the novel’s human population, it is Madeleine Cullen’s latest passion, a pilgrim hawk named Lucy that is central to the novel’s themes.
The pilgrim hawk here is, of course, a symbol. I felt the hawk is a symbol of the Cullen’s marriage. Larry Cullen would do anything – even things that he doesn’t necessarily enjoy – to placate the whims of his wife and keep her happy. Madeleine Cullen, on the other hand, although it looks like she is obsessed with Lucy and has made it the center of her world, is worried Larry might leave her despite her love for him. They are both prisoners of love, wondering what would happen should either of them leave the other, fearing an ending similar to a released hawk from captivity, who would live a harsh life in freedom and eventually die of hunger as it grows old.
Micheal Cunningham in his introduction to the novel provides a different perspective on the symbolism. In his view, Jean, Eva, and Ricketts, living in kitchens and cars, out of the way of in wealthy households are captives themselves, and to the rich “they matter more or less the way wild pets matter: as curiosities, as sources of trouble…”
The Pilgrim Hawk is a gem of a novel. There are a lot of interesting tidbits about falconry in the story, which added value for me! 🙂 For instance, I learned hawks do not mate in captivity. Trained hawks can only tolerate two consecutive unsuccessful strikes before they despair and fly away. Hawk trainers use hoods to cover the eyes of hawks to keep it from flying or getting excited by its surroundings.
Reading The Pilgrim Hawk made me curious to learn more about falconry! Lucky, I have The Goshawk by T. H. White in my TBR pile. I think that will be my April NYRB Classic read! 😀