Cultural Inspirations from The Nature of the Beast

“There’s been weapons since there’s been man,” said Delorme. “Neanderthals had them. It’s the nature of the beast.” (The Nature of the Beast, Page 186, Trade Paperback Edition)

Collection of English ProverbsFor those of you who have read the 11th installment in the Louise Penny canon, you know that this retort, directed at Gamache, comes at a crucial moment in the plot. It’s the only time the phrase, the nature of the beast, is used within the novel but the power it conveys is so strong it titles the book. The Oxford Dictionary defines the expression as “The inherent and unchangeable character of something” and the phrase itself first appeared in John Ray’s Collection of English Proverbs which was published in the 1600’s.

The origin of the idiom is murky and has been interpreted in many ways since it was first uttered. In Louise’s novel, it is both a reference to human nature, and a haunting evocation of something far more malevolent. The biblical beast, who waged war against God in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations. Here is the moment, from The Nature of the Beast, when the investigators begin to get an inkling of what they might be up against:

“An etching?” he asked.

“Oui,” said Beauvoir, standing up slowly at his desk in the Incident Room. “At the base?”

albrecht durer woodcut“Oui,” said Beauvoir, caution creeping into his voice.

“Is it a beast?” Rosenblatt asked, finding it difficult to breathe. “A beast?”

“Un monstre.” His French wasn’t very good, but it was good enough for that. “Oui. A monster.”

“With seven heads.”

“Oui,” said Inspector Beauvoir.

To the right is a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer depicting the Beast as interpreted from the Book of Revelation (17:7). Count the heads.

If you have read The Nature of the Beast, you know a major plot point revolves around man’s apparent predisposition to make war. But, as Gamache proves time and again, it’s also in our nature to cherish decency. Kindness. Peace.

Discussion on “Cultural Inspirations from The Nature of the Beast

  1. Laurie Gagne says:

    The “beast” is always depicted as the “other”–the being that is not you. The beast is foreign to you and you can see no commonality with the beast. Soldiers are taught to de-humanize their enemy in times of war so that killing them will be easier. But for many people, the “beast” they are most familiar with is the one that dwells within us–the one that makes it easy to distrust any difference or to demonize immigrants or any marginalized people. When governments try to appeal to the beast within us, beware. Fear-mongering is rampant because fearful people are more easily controlled. I love Gamache’s character because he sees the humanity in everyone.

  2. Janell Cleveland says:

    This was not one of my favorite books the first time I read it. But with each re-reading I absorb more….true for all if this series. And I keep going back to the little boy with his stick who lives in his imagination…until he finds something real but so beyond the scope of the adults around him. And, of course, he is struck down by the beast early in the book. And, thus, opens the way for so many more beasts to come out of hiding. Really a hard book to read…so many different beasts.

  3. Harriet Rynkiewicz says:

    Thank you Mr. Hochman for the commentary and also beautifully expressed, Ms. Gagne. Of couse the biggest kudos go to Ms. Penny for the whole inspired cast of characters, both those who live in Three Pines and those who may come to visit.

  4. Sarah McKibben says:

    Authors who are familiar with scripture (CS Lewis, JK Rowling, etc) and Louise Penny, of course, bring richness to their novels. It is sad to me that religion is looked upon by many intelligentsia today as superstition and worse.

    • Tracy Jean Cameron says:

      I agree
      Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, esp post- conversion, at top of my list…
      Any you can suggest?

    • Karen Cru says:

      The problem is that society , ie it’s inhabitants , finds it difficult to distinguish between religion , The institution , and belief . So while people look at history and decry what has been done in the name of religion , they cannot disassociate those events from an earnest desire to believe and to try to apply or live or act upon those beliefs . Personally , I find that society is better for having beliefs …What I appreciate amongst many other things in Mrs Penny s book , is the presence of religion and belief . It is part of the structure of the book and is a source of betterment within the narrative . Thank you Mrs Penny for writing these wonderful books full of enlightening philosophical ideas such as the nature of fear .

    • Nicki Broch says:

      T S Eliot, GK Chesterton, JRR Tolkien, Russell Kirk, Rod Dreher……RR Reno

  5. Beth Van Vorst Gray says:

    Sarah, your remarks touched me. We all fight beasts–the worst ones being those which live inside us–and we need all of the tools known to man to overcome them. Religion– as we usually use the word to describe an organized religion that has an established set of principles and tenets by which they abide–should be always one of the points of life–that place where we can freely examine our own nature and use as a reference and guide the life of Jesus (if you are a Methodist, as I am). Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case–some “religions” have chosen to make man-made “rules” by which one becomes a believer rather than a fellow-explorer with congregationalists on the path of discovery. In extreme cases, the institution itself–the Church, if you will–becomes a 7-headed beast. It is leading followers into the institution and not out on paths of discovery. The belief that compliance is all that is needed to be “pure,” takes people away from the real (and sometimes rocky) path they need to follow. I respect the manner in which Gamache honors his Catholic religion–it is pure and honest. However, some of the “pagans” in Three Pines are true to nature in their beliefs and hold to them as strongly as Gamache.

    • SYLVIA HARRIS says:

      This thinking about the beast inside ourselves reminds me of that wonderful “parable” in The Beautiful Mystery about the two wolves waging war inside us. And which one wins? The one we feed!

    • I appreciated your thoughtful remarks. People who never grow, never test their beliefs are troublesome to me. As are people who hold scripture like a weapon to attack fellow human beings! I am a Methodist and glad that we are short on dogma but long on freedom of thought. My idea of Jesus is one who loves, accepts, encourages, forgives.

  6. Beth Van Vorst Gray says:

    New thought for Sarah– I think a “parable” short story by Isak Dinesen, written many years ago, illustrates the basic dilemma found in any organized group that claims to be a “religion.” There were twin sons born to a wise and devout king and his young, tempestuous wife. She was beautiful, but unpredicable, a bit of a charletan, and acknowledged no religion to be hers. The twins were mirror images, but one exhibited the nature of his father and the other the nature of his mother. There was a fire and only one child escaped; he joined the priesthood. Many years later, his mentor asked him if he knew which twin he actually was. His answer was astounding. He said (paraphrase, of course) “I consider this deeply when I am listening to confession. I have God’s power to take the burden of sin off of the back of the communicant. I ask myself if I do this as a saintly, deeply devout man who is showing his flock the way to go, or am I the charlatan–a blasphemer– who gives forgiveness in the name of God so the receiver can ease his conscience and simply continue in ungodly ways.” “I have to believe that I am the son of my true father, on earth, and the Father in Heaven or I would go mad.”

    • Mireille says:

      And yet again, the woman as temptress. Evil. Damn good thing we always have the benevolent loving Father to save us.

      • Nicki Broch says:

        Your bitterness does you little credit. It was a parable, not propaganda. I’m not sure I see its relevance to this discussion myself. I really appreciate the comment of the Jewish reader. As a refugee from the liberation theology that has overtaken my denomination it is becoming more difficult to have conversations regarding the Christian world view.

    • cmdaudier says:

      Specific to the parable of the twins: Graham Greene’s novel, The Power and the Glory, presents a fascinating look at how a priest (the “whiskey priest”) considers himself when on the run, starving, having broken his vows and belonging to the abject poor around him versus when he was a respected priest in comfortable surroundings. And how he so easily slips back to his indifferent piety when he has a chance. So, which is the beast?

  7. Louise Winheld says:

    And for those of us who are Jewish, or who do’t follow any organized belief system, we try to live by that basic guideline: “do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” In other, even simpler words, do no harm with words (spoken or written), actions (including facial gestures). We need to consider these three ideas before speaking or even acting: is it true? is it kind? is it necessary? I believe that Armand Gamache would know how to speak and act in almost any situation (I’m not sure about Ruth!)

    • Sue Jackson says:

      Beautifully written and right on. Your simpler words about doing no harm with words and or actions should be basic tenants of our society. Unfortunately that is not always the case. This Lutheran reader who has Jewish relatives by marriage likes how you wrote your analysis. And I think Louise Penny would agree.

  8. Judy Thomas says:

    Ganache represents hope in all the novels. It is his kindness and goodness that stand against the “beasts” of this world.

  9. Lynne Weddle says:

    I absolutely loved everything about this book……the subject was dark and the secrets plenty but as always the human spirit shone through. The ability of Inspector Gamache to gently bring out the truth made this book a remarkable read. As the series moves on we discover the hidden pasts of every one of the friends in Three Pines , we are getting to know them flaws and all and learning to love them despite this. Louise Penny shows us no one is as good or bad as we perceive them to be. They are human,like us all.

  10. Alice says:

    Louise Winheld, I think Ruth gets 2 out of 3 . She usually speaks the truth and in her mind, at least, it is necessary.

  11. Nancy Bradley says:

    I wish all of you were in my book group. Your comments were insightful and thoughtful. I have read and enjoyed all of Louise Penny’s books and am about to start back through them again. Having these discussions about the literary references in her books is sure to enrich my second reading.

  12. Bettie Westphall says:

    This group of responses goes deep! I have fluctuated since first reading the focus of the replies and am reluctantly bringing the problems of US politics into it. I feel huge monsters threatening my world. And impotence to fight it. My faith, religion as discussed, is all I have to protect myself this morning. And the importance to me of Louise’s wisdom as imparted in her books is solace. I will begin to reread A Rule Against Murder today. Fitting, maybe.

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