Vertigo: A novel in Woodcuts, by Lynd Ward is especially intriguing and unique in many ways. The novel follows the trials and tribulations of three main characters, the Girl, the Elderly Gentleman, and the Boy. Told entirely through woodcut images, Vertigo establishes relationships between the characters and uses them to illustrate society and the economy during the Great Depression. In the beginning portion of the 1929 section of the novel, Ward includes a brief nine page pocket history of America. The pocket history shows images of the birth of America from Jamestown to what appears to be more modern times. Through the struggles and failures of the characters in Vertigo, Ward uses the images of progress shown in the brief history to emphasize the disappointments, downfalls, and stagnancy of the American people’s lives and the country as a whole during the Great Depression.
The brief pocket history acts as a sort of pictorial timeline of American history, and in doing so, the images provide a sense of movement and evolution through time. This is very important because that sense of societal advancement is, for the most part, lacking in the rest of the novel. The few instances of success are diminished by failure after failure, and the events that occur in the Boy’s story support this notion. Initially, readers see him leaving an abusive relationship with his employer, the grocer. This separation may be seen as an accomplishment at first, but readers soon realize that the Boy will most likely not be able to find another job. Thus proves to be the case; every job or hope he receives ends in disappointment, like the job in the garment factory for instance. The Boy makes many moves, jumping from place to place, but he never ends up actually going anywhere.
The first historical picture used by Ward depicts a ship sailing on the ocean. Large waves push the vessel along and signify a long journey. A star can be seen in the distance and it offers a sense of hope and the idea that the ship is transporting its passengers towards a brighter future. This general theme of hope and prosperity is carried out through the other historical woodcuts as well. If one looks at the two images following the ship in tandem, he or she will notice the implied progress of America. In the second picture men can be seen beginning to clear the forest. In the image immediately following, a man stands and looks out over an area of land that has been cleared. His pose suggests a sense authority, perhaps over the Native American standing in the background. Together these two images establish a new sense of dominance over the land and the people, and in the pictures that follow readers are exposed to the general theme of expansion (which is especially noticeable in the woodcut of the Conestoga wagon, indicating the westward expansion). Lastly, what is most significant about this historical pocket guide is the final image. In this image, a man stands with outstretched arms as if to say “look what we have built”. In the background there are clusters of cities and the sun is shining down on the landscape. Overall, it is an image of success. It is the sum of the earlier achievements depicted in the previous eight woodcuts.
The last image of the historical sequence is the picture of triumph, and if the pocket history is included by Ward to emphasize the difficulties and tribulations faced by the people of the Great Depression, it is important to examine the very last image of the character’s stories as well. Incidentally, both the Girl and the Boy’s stories end together on the last page where they can be seen embracing on a roller coaster. The ride represents the ups and downs of their lives and of the world around them. It also represents the idea that they lack a sense of control. This was a common feeling for many people during the Great Depression as jobs were lost and money was scarce. Also, one must notice that the pair is seated in the last car downward speeding roller coaster; their lives are not improving and the picture makes it seem as though they are being dragged into worsening problems. A downward spiral seems to be their only break from stagnancy. In the last picture of the history sequence, the man’s outstretched arms make him seem strong and dominant whereas the last page of the novel depicts the Girl and the Boy in a rather submissive position. The Girl’s head is buried in the Boy’s chest, and his eyes are wide as if frightened. It is an image of fear and uncertainty, a sharp contrast to the last image and the overall theme of the pocket history.
The characters in Vertigo represent the lives and experiences of many Americans during the Great Depression. Like the Boy, many were unable to find jobs, many were unable to follow their dreams, like the Girl and her dream to be a violinist, and unfortunately, many even tried to commit suicide like the Elderly Gentleman. The brief pocket history is very linear in that it sets up a sequence of events all building on each other to make a successful country. The rest of Vertigo is not set up this way. Even title suggests dizziness and confusion. The advancement and success shown in the history provided by Ward can be used as a tool for readers to fully see how unsettling and difficult life was during the Great Depression.