Analysis of Aldous Huxley’s The Gioconda Smile

Originally published in the April 1921 issue of The English Review and later included by Aldous Huxley in Mortal Coils (1922), “The Gioconda Smile” is inspired by the story of Harold Greenwood, a man who had been acquitted of poisoning his wife. The story’s title alludes to the enigmatic grin of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa del Gioconda.” Thanks to Huxley’s adaptation of the story for the screen in 1947 (renamed A Woman’s Vengeance by Universal Studios) and subsequent dramatization for the stage in 1950, “The Gioconda Smile” has become one of the author’s most famous works.

Henry Hutton, the philandering middle-aged banker at the center of Huxley’s story, having grown weary of caring for his invalid wife, prides himself on his ability attract women. The narrative opens as Hutton pays a surprise visit to his wife’s closest friend, Janet Spence. Unabashedly flirting with the 36-year-old spinster despite experiencing a profound sense of boredom in her presence, Hutton invites Janet to have lunch with him and his wife Emily the next afternoon. After kissing Janet’s hand, Henry departs, leaving Janet thoroughly charmed by his behavior. Despite Janet’s desire to accompany Henry to his automobile, Hutton insists that he go alone, concealing the fact that his young mistress, Doris, is waiting for him.

At the next afternoon’s luncheon, the normally sickly Emily Hutton feels surprisingly robust and allows herself to eat stewed currants, the digestion of which doctors had deemed too taxing for her fragile constitution. Despite Henry’s half-hearted protests, Janet insists the man allow Emily to indulge her appetite. As the Huttons’ maid brings the party their afterdinner coffee, Emily remembers that she must take her medication, and Henry volunteers to retrieve it while the women prepare their coffee.

Not long after Emily takes her medicine and drinks her coffee she begins to feel ill and returns to the house to rest. While in the garden, Janet informs Henry that Emily “is dreadfully ill . . . anything might happen” (101). Despite Janet’s ominous comment and under the pretense of having made an appointment with a colleague, Henry leaves to spend the evening with Doris, dismissing Emily’s sudden illness as the inevitable result of her unwise decision to eat the stewed currants. Upon Henry’s return later in the evening, the family doctor informs him that Emily is dead; her heart, because of chronic vascular disease, could not handle the strain caused by the stewed currants.

After a brief period of mourning, during which Henry appears to have reformed his libertine lifestyle, he marries Doris long before the traditional period of grieving has passed. Spurned by the object of her desire, Janet Spence accuses Henry of having poisoned his wife. After a preliminary investigation reveals traces of arsenic in the Huttons’ garden, police exhume Emily’s body and arrest Henry for murder. Responding to a doctor’s inquiry shortly after Hutton’s execution, Janet admits that it was she who had put arsenic in Emily’s coffee, presumably with the intent of marrying the newly widowed Henry herself.

The short story demonstrates what Nicholas Murray has called the “morbid interest in human decay and debility . . . evident in much of Huxley’s early work” (142). Additionally, Huxley’s use of satire in “The Gioconda Smile” criticizes the hedonistic zeitgeist of the Jazz Age, in particular such prevalent social ills as infidelity and egocentrism. Furthermore, by writing with “the coldness of the vivisectionist” (Murray, 142), Huxley presages the hard-boiled attitude and meticulous attention to detail found in the crime fiction of James Cain, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Horace McCoy that was popular in the 1930s and 1940s.

Clark, Virginia M. Aldous Huxley and Film. London: Scarecrow Press, 1987.
Dunaway, David King. Huxley in Hollywood. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Huxley, Aldous. Collected Short Stories. London: Chatto & Windus, 1957.
Murray, Nicholas. Aldous Huxley: A Biography. London: Little, Brown, 2002.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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