From the earliest pages of his first novels and plays, Wilder examined the universal quandaries encapsulated in the questions the young man Pamphilus asks in The Woman of Andros: “How does one live? What does one do first?
– Penelope Niven, Foreword to The Cabala and The Woman of Andros
“Thornton Wilder invited readers into a global arena when he set each of his first three novels in exotic times and places–Italy, Peru and Greece. Of the three destinations, he had spent nearly a year as a student in Italy, but he had yet to visit Peru or Greece, except in an imagination informed by the rich traditions of classical and European literature, including writers as varied as Terence (190-158 BC) and Marcel Proust (1871-1922). No matter where and when Wilder’s novels take place, his characters grapple with universal questions about the nature of human existence.
In Wilder’s first novel, The Cabala (1926), Samuele, an American student, spends a year in the fabulously decadent world of post-World War I Rome. He experiences first-hand the waning days of a secret community–a “cabala” composed of decaying European royalty, eccentric expatriate Americans, even a great cardinal of the Roman Church. The vivid portraits he paints of these characters, whom he views as the vestigial representatives of the gods and goddesses of Ancient Rome, launched Thornton Wilder’s career as a celebrated storyteller and literary stylist.”
Wilder’s best-selling novel The Woman of Andros (1930), set before the birth of Christ on an obscure Greek island, tells the story of the enigmatic Chrysis, a courtesan (and an outcast) of haunting beauty and intelligence. In her gatherings with the young men of the island, Chrysis probes what is precious about life, and how we live, love and die in a harsh world, themes that Wilder revisited eight years later in his play, Our Town. Pamphilus, the only son of a prominent villager, fathers a baby out of wedlock with Chrysis’s sister, whom he wants to marry. The questions faced by Pamphilus, his family and the other “respectable” citizens of the island also explore themes of social class and status.