A New York Times column posed the question “Do moralists make bad novelists?” Two novelists, Alison Gregory and Pankaj Mishra respectively, provided brief responses. Though both writers grapple with the question in a distinctive manner, they are unified on one thought: Morality in the context of a story should be inherent, not explicit. The concrete circumstances of the story ought to allow the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. And, both writers agree, ambiguity is usually a more suitable vehicle for such a task than certainty. Gregory sums up this conclusion well: “It’s not that fiction should be written by amoral authors — in fact, I would argue that novels actively unconcerned with which thoughts and behaviors are worth having are themselves not worth reading — but that their methods ought to be suggestive rather than forthright. Fiction should expose us to a conscience, not a conviction.”(1)
Allowing the circumstances of a story to speak for themselves can lead authors, their characters, and their readers in surprising directions, directions that don’t necessarily fit the assumptions of all three. This is when books get really interesting. When an author’s, a character’s, a reader’s assumptions smack against the hard surfaces of reality this can be a means to an enlarged perspective, an invitation to an outlook that is more subtle, generous, and humane. But this kind of undertaking requires courage. We seldom speak of great writers as brave. We should. Telling the truth flies in the face of fashion, ideology, vanity, and self-interest.
Asked if he is religious, author Jeffrey Eugenides responded, “I don’t think you should be interested in searching for the truth if you don’t think maybe you’ll find the truth.” One of the characters from his latest book, The Marriage Plot, discovers this first-hand. With a last name that is every bit as dramatic as his author’s, Mitchell Grammaticus sets his sights on Calcutta, India, where he plans to volunteer at the Sisters of Charity, Mother Teresa’s home for the sick and the dying. The year is 1982 and Mitchell has just graduated from Brown University. Mitchell boards the Calcutta-bound plane clutching a tattered copy of Malcolm Muggeridge’s Something Beautiful for God, his heart inflated by lofty ideals of charity and sainthood. The trip is a fascinating failure.
“Mitchell had never so much as changed a baby’s diaper before. He’d never nursed a sick person, or seen anyone die, and now here he was, surrounded by a mass of dying people, and it was his job to help them die at peace, knowing they were loved.”(2) Crowded by this unremitting destitution, Mitchell is pushed well beyond his limits. What is especially confounding to him is his seeming inability to marshal the kind of regard that Mother Teresa and her sisters have for their dying guests. His inner resources simply aren’t up to the task.
The breaking point arrives when Mitchell and another volunteer are trying to bathe a man’s cancer-ravaged body. “Not for a moment did Mitchell believe that the cancerous body on the slab was the body of Christ. He bathed the man as gently as possible, scrubbing around the base of the tumor, which was venomously reddened and seeping blood. He was trying to make the man feel less ashamed, to let him know, in his last days, that he wasn’t alone, not entirely, and that the two strange figures bathing him, however clumsy and inexpert, were nevertheless trying to do their best for him.”(3) But Mitchell’s resolve is fatally weakened. The hard surface of reality is unyielding and simply won’t crack open to reveal some liberating spiritual principle. There is only the slab, the failing body with its failing organs— the whole recalcitrant body of facts that register Mitchell’s impending failure. The ordeal concludes with these stunning sentences: “And Mitchell began to move. Already knowing he would regret this moment for a long time, maybe for the rest of his life, and yet unable to resist the sweet impulse that ran through his every nerve, Mitchell headed to the front of the home, right past Matthew 25:40, and up the steps to the bright, fallen world above.”(4)
Is this a disparagement of the Christian ideal of love? Has this incident simply woken Mitchell up to the sad fact that a human being is nothing more than a sophisticated animal bound to the same fate as whales, mice, and amoebas? Is that all there is to us?
Mitchell shares more than an exotic last name with his author. Following his graduation from Brown University, Jeffrey Eugenides made the same trip to Mother Teresa’s home for the sick and dying as Mitchell. Eugenides’ own experiment in sainthood also ended in failure. What drew both Mitchell and his maker to this humble little nun and her perch in the squalor of India’s poorest slums is the same thing that inspired Malcolm Muggeridge’s unforgettable words as he bade her farewell at the Calcutta railway station: “When the train began to move, and I walked away, I felt as though I were leaving behind me all the beauty and all the joy in the universe. Something of God’s universal love has rubbed off on Mother Teresa, giving her homely features a noticeable luminosity; a shining quality. She has lived so closely with her Lord that the same enchantment clings about her that sent the crowds chasing after him in Jerusalem and Galilee, and made his mere presence seem a harbinger of healing.”(5) Is this “shining quality,” this “noticeable luminosity” real? Or does the “bright, fallen world above” expose Mother Teresa as a fraud?
Eugenides doesn’t answers these questions for the reader. What he does do is offer a concrete demonstration of the fact that it is manifestly impossible to muster this kind of love on our own strength. Mother Teresa and her Sisters of Charity are seeing things in these decrepit bodies that Mitchell just can’t see. Something that doesn’t seem to fit into the “bright, fallen world above” is guiding their hands and feet.
Flannery O’Connor says that the “chief difference between the novelist who is an orthodox Christian and the novelist who is merely a naturalist is that the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe. He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural. And this doesn’t mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater.”(6) Confronting the limits of this world, Mitchell appears to be on the threshold of another world. True, he flees, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t brushed shoulders with a deeper reality. And besides, not everyone flees… Mother Teresa is proof of that. Jeffrey Eugenides is portraying a larger universe in this scene. It would have to be a larger universe in order to accommodate Mother Teresa and others like her. And there are many others like her if we would only have eyes to see.
Cameron McAllister is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Alice Gregory and Pankaj Mishra, “Do Moralists Make Bad Novelists?” The New York Times (July 7, 2015), Italics mine.
(2) Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (New York: Picadore, 2011), 297.
(3) Ibid., 319.
(4) Ibid., 321.
(5) Malcolm Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1971), 17-18.
(6) Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Sraus and Giroux, 1957), 175.