In an essay on “Goodness,” published in the September 8, 2019, issue of the New York Times Book Review, the late author Toni Morrison wrote of her search for goodness in American literature of the 19th and 20th century. She found that, generally speaking, with the exception of satirical works such as Don Quixote and Candide, it was evil that inspired writers to “vivid language” and gained for them a “blockbuster audience.” Those novels of earlier times ended, however, with redemption and the restoration of order, virtue its own reward in the triumph of the long-beleaguered protagonist.
The movement away from happy endings or the enshrining of good over evil was rapid and stark after World War I. That catastrophe was too wide, too deep to ignore or to distort with a simplistic gesture of goodness.
It hogs the stage. Goodness sits in the audience and watches, assuming it even has a ticket to the show.
Expressions of goodness are never trivial or incidental in my writing. In fact, I want them to have life-changing properties and to illuminate decisively the moral questions embedded in the narrative. It was important to me that none of these expressions be handled as comedy or irony. And they are seldom mute.
Such insight has nothing to do with winning, and everything to do with the acquisition of knowledge. Knowledge on display in the language of moral clarity — of goodness.
“There could have been a way. Some other way.”
“You got two feet, Sethe, not four,” he said, and right then a forest sprang up between them, trackless and quiet.
Sethe and Paul D take longer to open themselves to self-knowledge, but who can blame them? It’s a long road because they have had so much pain and are protecting themselves from more until, finally, their shared past allows them to face a future together and to see not only themselves but each other in new and important ways.