The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry weaves a strange story of friendship between the most unlikely people. But slithering between the lines of this Victorian tale is a much darker theme—a theme that permeates much of today’s literature and film: that religion is the biggest threat to reason and progress.
Set in London, 1893, The Essex Serpent follows the ballsy, femininity-shucking Cora Seaborne, who after the death of her abusive husband, travels to a small coastal town in Essex with her nanny, Martha, and her neglected son Francis. There, she hears rumors about the mythical Essex Serpent, resurfacing after 300 years to stalk the salt marshes that cradle the town.
The residents are in a frenzy, blaming every death and ill fortune on the Serpent’s return—a sign of God’s judgement for sure. A naturalist to the core and a collector of fossils, Cora sets out to unearth the mystery in the hope of making a name for herself in the naturalist community and debunking creationism in the process.
“And imagine what it might mean: further evidence that it’s an ancient world we live in, that our debt is to natural progression, not some divinity—”The Essex Serpent
She is soon introduced by a mutual friend, to the affable but “unenlightened” Reverend William Ransome—a doting husband and loving father of three children. What ensues is a friendship of sorts: an on-again, off-again sparring match of ideologies (interspersed with inappropriate affection which culminates in adultery) that follows a well-worn, and frankly, tiresome literary trope.
What trope am I referring to? It’s the fumbling Christian who never has a solid defense for his faith vs. the worldly-wise heathen who wears skepticism like strong cologne, quotes Darwin, and leaves poor Christians tongue-tied and doubting their own faith.
You see this played out in their theological battles with William Ransome getting some things right but mostly quoting scripture out of context and using anecdotal experiences as proof.
“How else to explain how attentive, how loving my whole being becomes when I turn toward Christ? And how else to account for the longing I have for you?”the Essex Serpent
Cora on her part pities William—surprised upon meeting him that he’s not an illiterate country-bumpkin but a rather bright man who could have been anything:
“Yes, a shame. That in the modern age a man could impoverish his intellect enough to satisfy himself with myth and legend—could be content to turn his back to the world and bury himself in ideas that even your father must have thought outdated! Nothing is more important than to use your mind to its last degree!”the Essex Serpent
What emerges from their bantering is this theme: that faith in God is the abandonment of reason. As Christians we know the opposite to be true.
The most reasonable thing a human can do is believe in God and in the work of Christ on the cross. We’re given enough proof in creation, in eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life, miracles, death, burial, and resurrection yet we STILL ask for proof–for signs and wonders just like Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:3-4).
The issue is that people don’t want the Jesus of the Bible. “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God due to their hardness of hearts.” (Ephesians 4:18) They long after other gods, other spouses, and not the bridegroom of heaven (Matthew 9:15; 25:1-13).
“…at the bottom of human irrationality and spiritual ignorance is hardness of heart. That is, our self-centered hearts distort our reason to the point where we cannot use it to draw true inferences from what is really there. If we don’t want God to be God, our sensory faculties and our rational faculties will not be able to infer that he is God.”John Piper, Desiring God,Faith and Reason
Cora Seaborne more or less confirms this later in the book when, while attending one of William’s sermons, she admits to “selling her soul” to live as she pleases.
“Oh, I don’t mean without morals or conscious—I only mean with freedom to think the thoughts that come, to send them where I want them to go, not to let them run along tracks someone else set, leading only this way or that…”the Essex Serpent
As the story progresses, you realize that there is no mythical serpent in the marshlands, just a harmless fish that washes up dead on the shore. The townspeople, even William, feel a bit silly for their behavior—for the religious frenzy this creature provoked, and the pews once occupied by the scared and witless townsfolk, are now empty save a few stragglers.
It becomes pretty clear that the real Essex Serpent, is Cora. In this way, Perry creates a pseudo Garden of Eden—albeit a warped one—where instead of the Serpent being the catalyst for mankind’s plunge into chaos and darkness, it’s a beacon of light—a rope pulling humanity from the pit of ignorance.
I would agree with Perry’s Cora that we must use our mind to the last degree. But the rational mind leads to Christ. So we, as Christians, must use our minds to proclaim, explain, and confirm the gospel, and in doing so, shine a light on this dark and fallen world.
She drank the last of her coffee, which left a coating of bitter grit on her tongue and said: “We both speak of illuminating the world, but we have different sources of light, you and I.” Will, unaccountably elated, feeling he ought to be piqued at this odd woman’s grey gaze challenging him at his own table, instead smiled, and went on smiling and said: “Then we shall see who first blows out the other’s candle.”The Essex Serpent