What Can Literature Teach Us About Forgiveness?

“How I’m gon keep from killing him,” says Celie, the protagonist of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel “The Color Purple.” The “him” is Celie’s husband, Mr.__. His first name is Albert, but he’s so cruel Celie won’t speak his name. In any case, Mr.__ wouldn’t brook such disrespect. He would beat Celie for it, as he has beaten her ever since he married her to look after his four children and work his land; and for the milk cow Celie’s Pa threw in to sweeten the deal.

Once married, Mr.__ allows Celie’s sister Nettie to live in his house, but when Nettie spurns his advances, he throws her out. Nettie disappears and Celie gives her up for dead. Years pass — the novel, set in rural Jim Crow Georgia, spans some three decades — before Celie learns that Nettie is very much alive. She has been writing to Celie faithfully, letters Mr.__ intercepted and dumped, unopened, in a trunk hidden in the house. Killing Mr.__ wouldn’t set things right, but it might make Celie feel better, at least for a while. If she doesn’t kill him, does he escape all consequence? Would she have to forgive him?

The previous essay in this series ended with a hard truth: The tribulations of the past cannot be undone even as they cannot be excused. The transgressed and their transgressors carry with them the irreversible past, and so we arrive at the vexing question of forgiveness. Most would define forgiveness as a moral good, a virtuous act that requires us to forgo retribution for wrongdoing and extend pardon without conditions. But what about the fact that forgiveness cannot restore what’s been lost to grievous harm? What of the transgressed person’s grief or rage? In a case like Celie’s, what good would forgiveness accomplish?

Western Christian conceptions of forgiveness hinge on an idea of atonement: Humankind is indebted to God for its existence, a debt that we can never pay and that is compounded by our sinful fallenness. In a profound act of love, God sacrificed God’s own son to an agonizing death by crucifixion. Thus humanity’s debt is paid, and universal forgiveness, or salvation, becomes possible. Somehow, we — individually and collectively — have derived from this account a sense that forgiveness ought to be unconditional and freely given, but the crucifixion is a violent, harrowing event. Alone on the cross, the suffering Christ cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Viewed one way, this story suggests that forgiveness always costs something, and suffering is payment. Another, less transactional, interpretation might emphasize the role of God’s grace and loving sacrifice.

Biblical narratives are recondite and sometimes contradictory, confounding any straightforward assumptions about forgiveness. In the Hebrew Bible, Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery in Egypt, but only after testing their character and loyalty: Ultimately, his forgiveness is loving and absolute even if he doesn’t forget his brothers’ wrongs. In a parable in the Gospel of Matthew, a king forgives a slave for a debt, but when the forgiven man refuses to extend this same benevolence to a fellow slave, the king reverses his pardon and has the first man thrown into prison. In part, the parable is about mirroring the mercy one has been shown, but it’s also the case that forgiveness is conditional in this instance, revoked when the forgiven fails to meet a moral standard dictated and enforced by the king.

To further confuse matters, there are a multitude of conflicting phrases, biblical and secular, that offer partial, calcified notions of retribution and forgiveness: an eye for an eye, turn the other cheek, forgive and forget. In his recent book “Forgiveness: An Alternate Account,” the Harvard Divinity School professor Matthew Ichihashi Potts quotes his colleague the theologian Mark Jordan on the Gospels: “They are contradictory stories studded with paradoxical aphorisms. Every theology that is not written as a life told four ways already departs from the most authoritative model of Christian writing.”

In other words, this multitude of vantage points, even contradictions, are not obstacles to be overcome in order to arrive at a single, distilled truth: There is wisdom in the accumulation and juxtaposition of biblical narratives. They are choral and kinetic, not fixed; they invite reinterpretation and re-engagement. Forgiveness involves striving — to find new meanings inside older ones, to uncover what we have overlooked, to revise inadequate and indurate conceptions. Forgiveness is not a single act or event but a process.

Literature, by its very nature, is in the business of telling things “four ways.” It is visionary and revelatory, and finds dynamism in a mix of insight, incident and description. The experience of being wronged (or doing wrong) is messy and full of ambiguity, a realm in which literature thrives. American fiction, preoccupied from the outset with sin, atonement, recompense and mercy — themes that run from the novels of the nation’s Puritan heritage through the literature of its continuing struggles — has long grappled with these issues. At its best, our literature is possessed of an expansive moral imagination about forgiveness that goes beyond legal redress and the payment of debts, eschewing pronouncements and implacable conclusions for questions and observations. This openness, this lack of rigidity, is of some comfort and utility in these days of rage and polemic, of fear and deep unknowing about how, or if, we will survive the current crises.

Credit…Andrea Dezso

Near the middle of Yaa Gyasi’s novel “Transcendent Kingdom” (2020), her protagonist, Gifty, remembers giving her heart to Jesus in the Pentecostal church of her childhood: “I knelt down before my pastor as he placed a hand on my forehead and I felt the pressure of his hand like a beam of light from God himself.” When we meet Gifty she is 28, a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Stanford researching addiction, pain and reward in mice. She grew up in Huntsville, Ala., where she, her mother and teenage brother were among very few Ghanaian families. Her brother, Nana, died of an overdose after getting hooked on painkillers prescribed for a basketball injury. Since then, Gifty’s once indomitable mother, so sharp-tongued and unknowable that young Gifty nicknamed her The Black Mamba, has suffered from bouts of near-catatonic depression.

“Transcendent Kingdom” is a novel of reverent remembrance. Gifty’s plunge into memory begins when she brings her mother to Palo Alto after the older woman has a depressive episode that leaves her unable to eat, work or bathe. At first, Gifty’s memories are innocuous: sweet letters she wrote to God as a child about winning three-legged races with Nana or her annoyance at his coming into her room without knocking. But they quickly progress to the terror days of his addiction: “He picked up the TV and smashed it on the floor and punched a hole in the wall and his hand was bleeding and TBM started crying.”

Gifty is a pious, anxious kid, desperate to believe that good behavior and faith in God will heal her family and protect her from the racism of her school and church. Nana was the star basketball player, adored by everyone in town, but after the parishioners discover his addiction, Gifty overhears two of them talking about him: “I really do hate to say this — their kind does seem to have a taste for drugs.” For the first time, Gifty feels self-hatred, and in that moment she hates her brother too. When his addiction leads him to play poorly, the church folk turn on him and boo him in the stands. This is the beginning of the end for Gifty and God: “I saw my church and I couldn’t unsee.” After Nana’s death, she leaves the church.

Adult Gifty hopes she can find a way out of these labyrinths of pain through the study of addiction, as if the science could restore Nana, and her mother. As Gifty says, “I had traded the Pentecostalism of my childhood for this new religion.” But what her work reveals about a mouse brain doesn’t solve the mysteries of her own, and leads, in fact, to deeper and more unsettling reflection. Gifty’s memories pull to the surface what she most wants to submerge. Of Nana’s addiction, she writes, “When I saw him strung out … I would think, God I wish it was cancer, not for his sake but for mine. … Because I still have so much shame. I’m full to the brim with it.”

There is so much that Gifty must forgive: She must face her shame and forgive herself. She must forgive Nana for his addiction, and for dying and leaving her. She must forgive her mother for abandoning her when she needed her most. Finally, she must forgive religion itself for its narrowness and betrayal. Yet Gyasi offers no simple remedy — rather, a kind of lament. Gifty’s lamentation is intolerable, but it must be tolerated if she is to have a future that isn’t circumscribed by the past.

Matthew Potts writes that forgiveness “is more mourning than miracle, a manner of living with rather than magically fixing a broken past.” We have come to think of sorrow as a pathology to be cured, when in reality it’s a reflexive, and reflective, response to the caprice and mystery of devastating experience. This insight doesn’t make for a triumphant story of overcoming. But in the face of great loss, triumph is a mirage that denies the finiteness and vulnerability we have in common with every other living being. Compassion, and ultimately forgiveness, are pushed further out of reach.

At the end of the novel, we meet Gifty some years into the future. A scientist with her own lab, she has not returned to religion, but the memory of being saved as a child calls her to a nearby church in the quiet empty hours between services. Gyasi writes with poignant clarity about this character who has traveled so far and mourned so deeply: “I’m no longer interested in other worlds or spiritual planes. I’ve seen enough in a mouse to understand transcendence, holiness, redemption. … I sit in blessed silence and I remember. I try to make order, make sense, make meaning of the jumble of it all.” Gifty’s “blessed silence” is a kind of forgiveness as Potts conceives of it — an awe at the incomprehensibility of her life, of any life.

Credit…Andrea Dezso

Gyasi’s conclusion makes a powerful analogy to apophatic, or negative, theology: When faced with the magnitude of God, we can articulate only what we know, which is limited and elementary — the rest is silent astonishment. Gina Berriault riffs on apophatic awe in her 1996 short story “The Overcoat.” A young man named Eli returns home to visit his parents after a 16-year absence. Eli has lived rough, “his arms lacerated by needles, scar on scar, like worms coming out, with the tattoos like road maps to show them the way.” The overcoat of the title is far too large for him, a carapace around his thin body. Shaking and battered, he takes a ferry and several buses to find his fisherman father, who lives on a boat at the “watery” edge of Washington State.

Narratives about prodigal children generally have reconciliation as their goal; this typically involves repentance followed by unconditional forgiveness. In Berriault’s hands, such forgiveness isn’t on the table. “What the hell else did you do with your life?” Eli’s father wants to know. “I wrecked it,” Eli replies. “Well now you see you got sick,” his father says. “Could be you’re being punished for wrecking your life.” He has nothing to offer his son, no comfort, no wisdom.

Later, dozing on a spare bunk on his father’s boat, Eli recalls the people he’s met over the years — social workers and parole officers and the like — and the explanations he’s given them for his troubles: “He’d blamed this old man on this rotting boat and he’d blamed his mother, wherever she was, for what had become of Eli. They had pried out his heart, those prying strangers, and the empty place left behind was where death got in.” Both father and son reach for a logic of blame and punishment to account for the wreckage of Eli’s life. But Berriault shows us that Eli’s suffering cannot be understood solely as punishment for sin or payment for debt; death got in through many fissures.

Eli seeks out his mother, who is institutionalized in Seattle, in a place of endless corridors and narrow beds, filled with old women like her. Here Berriault’s language summons the mystical: “He went along before their pale faces staring out at the last puzzling details of the world, himself a detail.” Eli finds her on a bench in a concrete courtyard. She does not seem to recognize him, or rather, his significance to her takes time to register. But oh, when it does! For years she’d wake in the night, she tells him, convinced that he was about to meet some harm, and to save him, she’d yell, “Run, Eli, run!” “I rescued you, every time,” she says. Eli pulls his overcoat over his head so that she won’t see him weep.

The scene is a little death before the final one we suspect is coming — Eli is likely not much longer for this world. Berriault doesn’t offer the clarity of epiphany, or even resolution. But there is mercy. By the end of the story, Eli is, in a sense, reconciled with his mother and father, seeing them as objects of love and sorrow. He enters a kind of apophatic state in which the whole foundation of his resentment toward his parents, their failures and his, and what he thought he knew about the whys of his life, is reduced to tiny fragments that together gesture toward something overwhelming and ineffable. “The Overcoat” ends: “They were baffled by what had gone on in their lives and by what was going on now and by whatever was to go on, and this was all they had to offer him, Eli, come back to them, baffled enough by his own life.” Forgiveness is re-envisioned here as mystical, intelligible only as a shared experience of woeful, baffled wonderment.

IN SOME CIRCUMSTANCES, bafflement leads not to transcendent wonder, but to bitter confusion and a mouth full of ash. No depth of mourning will suffice. Instead, vengeance presents itself as a viable option. Celie narrates “The Color Purple” through a series of letters, the first of which reads: “Dear God, I am 14 years old. ̶I̶ ̶a̶m̶ ̶ I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.” As the novel progresses, we learn of years of abuse. Celie births two children, a result of repeated sexual assaults by her stepfather. The babies are taken from her, one in the dead of night. Then there is her marriage-sale to Mr.__, who continues the abuse. “He say, Celie, git the belt,” Celie writes. “It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree.” The misogyny, exacerbated by the racism of the Jim Crow South, is enfleshed in the figure of a young girl.

I have never begun this book without a rageful desire to hurt these men for what they’ve done. And yet, the novel’s arc is not toward retribution. Walker turns the ship, subtly, event by event, year by year, so that we end in decency and dignity, not just for Celie but for nearly every character. Remarkably, despite having witnessed such carnage, and without dismissing the men’s offenses, the reader too is reoriented toward mercy.

We learn that for many years Mr.__ has been in love with an itinerant singer named Shug Avery. Shug is glamorous: She dresses in furs and feathers; she is unmarried and unburdened by children (her three children with Mr.__ don’t live with her); she has her own money and her own mind. When she comes to town, Mr.__, whom Shug calls Albert, has dozens of her pink concert fliers in the trunk of his car. Celie is infatuated: “I just be thankful to lay eyes on her.” Sometime later, Mr.__ brings an ill Shug to his house to nurse her to health.

“You sure is ugly,” she says the first time she meets Celie. Celie takes the comment in stride. After all, a sick woman’s scorn isn’t lethal, and Celie is ever mindful of what might kill her. “I think about Nettie, dead,” she writes in a letter to God early in the book. “She fight, she run away. What good it do? I don’t fight. I stay where I’m told. But I’m alive.” Months pass, and Celie and Shug become dear friends, and then lovers.

Celie’s liberation begins with Shug; the novel wants more for her than brute survival. We might map its themes onto a branch of contemporary Christian thought called womanist theology, which has its roots in Alice Walker’s Black women’s feminism of the same name. Womanist theology emphasizes Christ’s solidarity with the poor and the disregarded. Its focus is on poor women of color — the idea is that if Christian thought and practice addresses the spiritual and material needs of the least powerful and most vulnerable, it becomes more just, more capacious, more truly Christian. It envisions a Christianity that is most concerned with fellowship and loving care for all humanity, and that de-emphasizes transactional suffering as God’s requirement for forgiveness and salvation.

Indeed, by the novel’s final section, after so much misery, Celie has no interest in a God who would allow decades of anguish. Shug wants to know what Celie’s done with God. “Who that?” Celie replies. Shug’s response to this is a kind of womanist sermon, in which she distinguishes God and belief from church dogma. “Any God I ever felt in church I brought in with me,” Shug declares. “When I found out I thought God was white, and a man, I lost interest.” She continues: “Man corrupt everything. … He try to make you think he everywhere. Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain’t.” God isn’t Mr.__ or Celie’s stepfather, God isn’t white, God isn’t even a man.

Celie’s life is profoundly altered by these realizations. For a time she lives with Shug, whose fame as a singer affords her a big house in Memphis. She is reunited with her sister and with her children. Celie doesn’t kill Mr.__, despite his crimes. The problem with vengeance, Walker suggests, is as much pragmatic as moral. Retaliation has consequences; to resist it — such resistance is itself a kind of forgiveness — is to end a cycle of harm that traps the injured party in an irremediable past and poisons the present. Once Celie understands herself as a woman loved by others and by a God who does not delight in her pain, the people who have hurt her are dethroned and diminished. She is renewed by the twin action of love and forgiveness. Here is the salutation with which she begins her final letter: “Dear God. Dear Stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear people. Dear Everything. Dear God.”

Gyasi’s remembrance, Eli’s baffled awe, Celie’s everywhere, everything God: These are not solutions to the problem of transgressor and transgressed. Instead, they are metaphors that recruit forgiveness to the creation of a livable future, one that acknowledges the wrongs of the past so that it can move beyond them. In each of these works, transformation accompanies forgiveness, and grace liberates the future from the past. These stories hew closer to the nuance and multivalence of biblical narratives, or to how we might read them if dogma hadn’t gotten to them first. We end, then, with a final metaphor: resurrection. I don’t mean life after death, per se, but renewal, the chance to revise our stance, until we get to something better.

Ayana Mathis’s new novel, “The Unsettled,” will be published in September.

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