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University at Buffalo Libraries

George Kelley Paperback & Pulp Fiction Collection


cover image By: Cain, James M. (male)
Publisher: New American Library, Inc. (Signet Books - 1152)
Place of Publication: New York, NY
Catalog #: Kelley Box 211: PS3505 .A3113 G2 1954
Contributor: J. Vourgourakis


Era: 1950s Author as on Cover: James M. Cain Geographic Locale: southern Maryland, "a tongue of land comprising five small counties between the Patapsco, Chesapeake, and Potomac estuaries, geographically the South's northernmost outpost, spiritually of its deepest heart." Date of Publication: 1954  |  Original Date: 1953 Setting: rural; farm country Motives: jealousy, murder

Plot Summary

Duke Webster works as a handyman for local restauranteur Val Valenty. Duke had been arrested, but managed to avoid going to prison by signing a confession and agreeing to work for Mr. Val for an unspecified period of time. Duke is attracted to Mr. Val's wife, the incredibly obese Mrs. Val, a woman whom Mr. Val married in order to secure her family name and political clout, hoping she would provide him with an heir. Duke eventually helps Mrs. Val lose weight, and she begins to fall in love with him, but their dreams of pursuing a life together are hampered by the signed confession locked up in Mr. Val's safe. They dupe Mr. Val into handing over the confession, but he wises up to the situation, confronting Duke and Mrs. Val with a gun. The three of them climb up a water tower where Mr. Val plans to kill Duke and make it look like an accident. A strange plot device, foreshadowed throughout the novel, foils Mr. Val's plan and he ends up falling off the tower to his death. This strange plot device is the ghost of John Wilkes Booth, said to haunt the local area seeking vengeance for the way he was treated in the town the night before Lincoln was shot. Apparently, the ghost comes for those who are not pure of heart, suggesting that Duke and Mrs. Val, having survived, while Mr. Val does not, are innocent. The penultimate scene takes place in a courtroom with the protagonists on trial for murdering Mr. Val. Although the prosecution presents a case against the defendants that seems to be airtight, they are acquitted by a jury that happens to overhear Mrs. Val tell Duke that it was the ghost of John Wilkes Booth that really killed Mr. Val because he was not pure of heart. The novel concludes with Duke and Mrs. Val living in Nevada. Thanks to Mrs. Val, now Mrs. Webster, Duke no longer has an "adrenaline" problem, and they can live blissfully ever after.

Major Characters

Duquesne Webster "Duke", adult male, 26 years old, failed prize-fighter, hot-tempered, handyman for Val Valenty

Holly Valenty "Mrs. Val" (nee Hollis), adult female, "American Gentry", 20s, obese housewife, cures hams for her husband's restaurant business, her sole pleasure is eating

Val Valenty "Mr. Val", adult male, restaurateur, 40 years old, gray hair, sallow skin, worked his way up from busboy to own a chain of restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area

Bill Hollis adult male, "thick, blocky guy of 30 or so", Mrs. Val's brother

Marge Hollis adult female, thin, wispy, unattractive, Mrs. Val's sister-in-law

Homer adult male, African-American, valet

Sol Lippert adult male, liquor salesman with underworld connections

Officer Daniel adult male, county police officer, arrested and then freed Duke to Mr. Val

Mr. Lucas adult male, lawyer

Mr. Brice adult male, lawyer

Ghost of John Wilkes Booth

Level of Violence

Duke's hot temper (his "adrenaline" problem) lands him in jail, which sets the plot in motion. Later in the novel, there are some punches thrown by Bill when he is drunk, and by Duke when he is provoked. Toward the end of the novel, Mr. Val holds Duke and Mrs. Val at gunpoint, but the only character shot at is the ghost of John Wilkes Booth. Mr. Val falls to his death.


strictly heterosexual; Duke is attracted to Mrs. Val despite her obesity, and he becomes more and more sexually aroused as she loses weight. Mrs. Val has an overwhelming desire to show her naked body to Duke so that he can see the changes that his diet has made. She presents pictures of herself in her underwear in court as evidence that Duke has had a positive effect upon her.

Gender Roles

Mrs. Val, as her nickname attests, is under the complete control of her husband. With Duke's help, she struggles to lose weight and free herself from the authority of her husband. At one point, she tells Duke that she is fighting two battles, that of her voracious appetite, and also a "women's" battle against the expectations of her family and the town. Mr. Val marries Mrs. Val for her family name, and the heir he hopes she will produce for him. Though he initially has no love for her, when she later becomes more physically attractive, he is overcome with jealousy and even cries at the thought of her with another man. Duke and Mrs. Val share a friendship that may be described as being on even ground, with Duke acceding to Mrs. Val's will and acknowledging her part in changing his character.


slavery is discussed when Mrs. Val recounts the history of St. Mary's County. The county was very poor, and Mrs. Val claims that the land was so poorly cultivated that the local white population reverted to cannibalism, buying, selling, and breeding slave as food. Homer is an African-American character, referred to as a "colored fellow" and depicted very stereotypically as irresponsible, superstitious, and uneducated.

Alcohol/Drug Abuse

Bill Hollis and several politicians get very drunk at a party that Mr. Val gives at his house

Law Enforcement

the police seem to be at the beck and call of politicians and people like Val Valenty who wield power in the local area. During the trial of Mrs. Val and Duke, the jury is described during its deliberations as being connected "by a grapevine" to the happenings inside and outside the court. It is this "grapevine" that gets Mrs. Val and Duke acquitted of murder.

Added Features

the novel's title, Galatea, is not mentioned or alluded to during the course of the story. The cover illustration, along with the cover notes, makes no mention of Mrs. Val's obesity. Instead, the cover describes "an unusual woman and the two men who struggle to possess her."

Subject Headings

Maryland/ Murder/ Obesity/ Jealousy

Psychological Elements

class and social consciousness are key psychological factors; Duke and Mrs. Val initially become friends because both of them regard the other as fully human despite their respective flaws -- his criminal past and her obesity. Mrs. Val, despite her "family name", treats Duke with respect and goes out of her way to make sure that her husband does not make him work as a servant at his restaurant or parties. Fear and a feeling of unworthiness initially hinder Duke's declaration of love to Holly. Mr. Val, though, is constantly called a "bedbug" and it is taken for granted that his "bootstrapism" -- pulling himself up from busboy to restaurateur -- should be deplored by the reader. In contrast, Duke's work as penance for his crime is valued, and exonerates him of his criminal past both in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of Mrs. Val and her family. The novel seems dated because of the assumptions it makes about the reader's attitude towards work and class. Mrs. Val's obesity does not have overt psychological causes, perhaps stemming from a lack of love rather than a weakness of will.