Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 7: No 2) >> Guy Rivers's Self-esteem Deficit and the Psychological Prescience of William Gilmore Simms >> Page 9

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Secondary Scholarship | 1999
Transcription honor among thieves, is so dismayed by the extremes to which Rivers has taken
the passion and artifice imposed on him by his mother that he breaks his own code
and destroys Rivers's second career.
The last of the effects of Guy Rivers's self-esteem deficit I will explore are
those that become apparent in his attempts to form romantic connections. There
are three such attempts, the first two of which have already been mentioned: his
adoration of Edith Colleton and his attempt to broker, through Munro, a contract
marriage with Lucy. He is aware that both of these women despise him and love
Ralph Colleton. While he has power over Ralph, he attempts, with each woman
in turn, to buy her love with Ralph's freedom. Edith rejects the offer out of hand.
Her subtext that she would prefer seeing her true love die to marrying Guy
confirms the criminal's lowly opinion of himself. While Lucy accepts the offer,
she is spared its consequences by her uncle's confession. At the time that he
attempts these bargains late in the novel Rivers's self-esteem is nil; he is out
of hope that the personal attributes in which he once took pride might attract a
lover, so he sets out to "buy" one. But he is wrong in his despair. There is a
woman perhaps the novel's most tragic figure whose love for Guy is deep and
Ellen is a country woman who was seduced and abandoned by Rivers at
the height of his second career. Though her family had warned her against him,
her strong feelings for the villain led to her surrender. While she still sees him
occasionally, she defers to his preference that she make no claim on him. When
her mother dies, Rivers is the only human connection Ellen has left in the world,
but he refuses to acknowledge it. At the end of the novel, as Rivers sits in prison
without friends or prospects, Ellen dares to profess her continued love for him.
Rivers's feelings for her are tender; he asks her forgiveness, but he still cannot
accept her love.
Rivers's dealings with Ellen exemplify what psychologist William Swann
calls "Groucho's paradox" (after Groucho Marx's quip, "I just don't want to
belong to a club that would have me as a member"). According to Swann, a
subject whose self-esteem evokes Groucho's paradox comes to doubt the
discernment, taste, or veracity of any person who expresses affection for him. At
this depth of self-esteem deficit, the subjects' prime motivations in life are to
"think and behave in ways that tend to preserve their [negative] self-views" (18).
For Guy Rivers, self-esteem deficit becomes, in itself, his raison d'etre.
Readers of this article who assume that the only step remaining for Rivers
can be suicide are underestimating his self-esteem deficit. Before killing himself,
Rivers makes a point of cursing God, thus ruining, in the traditional Christian
world view, his already-slim hopes for salvation through faith. Then, with the
first real success he "enjoys" in the novel's narrative present, he stabs himself an
dies in the presence of Ellen. Simms deliberately undermines this final scene's
potential for softening his readers' harsh opinions of Rivers; while the villain
finally comes to some sort of an understanding of the effects of his evil ways, his