Can Literature Make Us Better People?

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In 2012, the novelist Toni Morrison gave a lecture titled “Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination” at Harvard Divinity School. Prompted, she says, by the response of the Amish community to the 2006 school shooting (in which a young man lined up 10 girls along the blackboard in a small, one-room schoolhouse, and shot them), Morrison set out to understand the nature of goodness, particularly the role goodness plays in literature. For Morrison, the community’s “silence following that slaughter, along with their very deep and sincere concern for the killer’s family, seemed to me at the time characteristic of genuine goodness, and so I became fascinated […] with the term, and its definition.”

What follows in Morrison’s lecture is a familiar discussion of theories of altruism and goodness: goodness as taught and learned; goodness as a form of narcissism and ego-enhancement; goodness as genetics, as instinctual love of one’s group. Her innovation is to refract and reimagine these definitions through the prism of literature and its uses. For Morrison, the great failing of contemporary literature—and this seems especially convincing to me—is the way in which its opposite, evil (in all its legion disguises), is the object of far more sustained attention:
Evil has a blockbuster audience. Goodness lurks backstage. Evil has vivid speech, and goodness bites its tongue […].

Evil grabs the intellectual platform and all of its energy. It demands careful examinations of its consequences, its techniques, its motives, its successes, however short-lived or challenged. Grief, melancholy, missed chances for personal happiness, often seem to be contemporary literature’s concept of evil. It hogs the stage; goodness sits in the audience and watches, assuming it even has a ticket to the show.
I begin with Morrison’s discussion of goodness because her claims describe and clarify a problem I have felt keenly as a reader and critic. Afraid, at times, to balk at a text simply on account of its manifold perversities and essentializing narratives about humankind’s inevitable ugliness (afraid, that is, of being caught doing something like moralizing or finger-wagging), I see in Morrison’s words an opening: a way into narrative that takes claims of goodness seriously.

At the end of Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, Claudia—the young narrator of much of the novel—reflects on the failure of marigolds to flower that year. In the novel, marigolds stand in for the broken and abused Pecola Breedlove, who bears her own father’s child, and yearns impossibly for the beauty and saving promise of blue eyes:
I even think now that the land of the entire country was hostile to marigolds that year. This soil is bad for certain kinds of flowers; certain seeds it will not nurture; certain fruit it will not bear. And when the land kills of its own volition we acquiesce and say the victim had no right to live. We are wrong, of course. But it doesn’t matter. It’s too late. At least, on the edge of my town, among the garbage and sunflowers of my town, it is much, much, much too late.
Claudia’s insight—while not blind to the ravages of a very real and enduring evil—is not a trivial one. Claudia and her sister have spent the entire novel surrounded by an internecine racism of assured ugliness that is rehearsed by their community, and reinforced by the broader culture. By the end of the novel, Pecola’s swollen belly ensures her separateness: she operates as a locus for the community’s own self-loathing and learned forms of self-disgust. But despite these social pressures, Claudia comes to understand that it is not the failure of the marigolds—and thus not the failure of Pecola—but instead, it is the soil that is bad. It is much too late for Pecola, of course. But not for Claudia.

This moment of realization—which is really the slow accrual of understanding that morphs into a kind of witness—provides an example of Morrison’s particular understanding of what must be involved in the production of goodness in literature: that is, the acquisition of self-knowledge. Morrison ends her lecture with these words about the closing paragraph of The Bluest Eye:
Expressions of goodness are never trivial in my work, and never 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 of goodness be handled as comedy, or irony, and they are seldom mute. Allowing goodness its own speech does not annihilate evil, but it does allow me to signify my own understanding of goodness: the acquisition of self-knowledge […]. 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.
Recognizing Goodness

In the last few decades, theorists of literature have begun (again) to take seriously the ways in which we, readers, use literature. According to Rita Felski in The Uses of Literature (2008), “more and more critics are venturing to ask what is lost when a dialogue with literature gives way to a permanent diagnosis, when the remedial reading of texts loses all sight of why we are drawn to such texts in the first place.” The goodness of Morrison’s work—the seriousness of its aims, and the quality of its expression—does not exist solely within the text itself, but operates experientially: something happens to us as readers when Claudia has her moment of genuine self-realization. And what is that seemingly inexpressible thing that occurs when these consciousnesses that we inhabit as readers are irrevocably changed? Our dialogue with literature is, of course, multiple, and complex, and liable to give way under the weight of manifold pressures. I don’t believe reading should be viewed as merely transactional, where the text operates as a kind of bank from which we withdraw forms of knowledge. (The Bluest Eye does not exist to tell us what racism was like in prewar Ohio, for instance.) But our identification with Claudia—our inhabiting of her perspective—is not incidental to understanding what literature does. The acquisition of self-knowledge—Morrison’s hopeful vision of goodness—is a felt reality in the moment of reading.

Felski’s term for this “felt reality” is “recognition,” which she admits may invite derision. She writes that any engagement with this category of feeling is often “spurned as unseemly, even shameful, seen as the equivalent of a suicidal plunge into unprofessional naïveté,” adding that we “risk trivializing and limiting the realm of art once we start turning texts into mirrors of ourselves.” But recognition, for Felski, is vital for understanding the complex and “mobile interplay of exteriority and interiority” that reading entails, where “something that exists outside of me inspires a revised or altered sense of who I am.” It is possible to think about the closing lines of The Bluest Eye as something more than bleak resignation. Claudia’s self-knowledge—the goodness in striving to apprehend Pecola apart from the ugliness of her situation; the recognition that systems of racial oppression are rooted in the soil of America—is a knowledge formed within a consciousness that is dense, and fully realized, and with which my own interior life has been—for a time—intermingled. The goodness of this moment is revelatory and hopeful: for Claudia, but also, in some sense, for me.

Thinking about the recognition of goodness—both its artistic seriousness in literary expression, and its felt reality—isn’t exactly familiar ground for me as an academic working in the field of literature. It doesn’t always seem possible to be rigorous about something as invisible as a “felt reality,” while also avoiding the trap of didacticism: here is what you must learn from this work. And all the worse when it is something as saccharine, sentimental, and unlikely as goodness. But Morrison’s fiction substantializes goodness, making manifest what might elsewhere appear as hopefulness or naïveté, depending on your position: the possibility that people can grow more expansive through genuine and generous connection with the other, even when that other is imagined. Indeed, especially when that other is imagined. In an essay titled “Imagination and Community,” the novelist Marilynne Robinson writes that community (by which she means any community “larger than the immediate family”) is largely comprised of “imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.” This imaginative love, for Robinson, comes close to expressing the wordless exchange that occurs in the act of reading:
I have spent literal years of my life lovingly absorbed in the thoughts and perceptions of—who knows it better than I?—people who do not exist. And, just as writers are engrossed in the making of them, readers are profoundly moved and also influenced by the nonexistent, that great clan whose numbers increase prodigiously with every publishing season. I think fiction may be, whatever else, an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.
Taking Morrison’s valorization of goodness as my starting point—and conceding the possibility that reading such texts might be generative of that selfsame goodness—I want to highlight one striking instance in George Saunders’s first novel, the Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo (2017), where the literalization of recognition leads to the possibility of goodness. Saunders has received an impressive amount of media attention in the last few years—including guest spots on late shows and the requisite viral commencement address video—and, particularly in the wake of a much-shared piece on Trump for The New Yorker, the writer has accrued a kind of oracle-status: a generous, self-effacing public figure who can be relied upon to articulate what is unalterably wrong about America, while also pointing to ways in which art might provide a way out of the mess. In a recent interview with Zadie Smith (whose book-cover quote for Lincoln in the Bardo labels Saunders “a morally passionate, serious writer), Smith notes that “if he [Saunders] were just a vicious satirist, he would still be enjoyable, but what sets him apart is his willingness not only to go into the heart of darkness but to suggest possible routes out.” Like Morrison, Saunders’s work never papers over forms of violence, nor sentimentalizes systemic injustices, but instead offers a more generous vision of human fallibility. Those “possible routes out” are not always in the form of salvation for his characters—who are, generally speaking, socially or economically on the periphery—and often they reinforce the ever-widening gap between those on the inside and those without.

In one such story, “Puppy,” a trailer-park mother is reported to Child Services for tethering her disabled son to a tree. The story swerves between the narrative perspectives of two mothers: Callie, a poor woman living out in cornfields on an interstate, whose solution to her obviously-cherished son’s proclivity to self-violence is to fashion a harness to keep him safe; and Marie, a newly middle-class mother of two on the way to purchase a white-trash puppy, whose memories of her own impoverished childhood fill her with righteous indignation and pity at the sight of the chained boy. At the end of story, the perspectives converge and report on the same event—first Marie and then Callie—and Callie’s obliviousness to Marie’s intentions imbues her final words with brutal irony:
The boy came to the fence. If only she could have said to him, with a single look, Life will not necessarily always be like this. Your life could suddenly blossom into something wonderful. It can happen. It happened to me.

But secret looks, looks that conveyed a world of meaning with their subtle blah blah blah—that was all bullshit. What was not bullshit was a call to Child Welfare, where she knew Linda Berling, a very no-nonsense lady who would snatch this poor kid away so fast it would make that fat mother’s thick head spin.


Like Bo wasn’t perfect, but she loved him how he was and tried to help him get better. If they could keep him safe, maybe he’d mellow out as he got older. If he mellowed out, maybe he could someday have a family. Like there he was now in the yard, sitting quietly, looking at flowers. Tapping with his bat, happy enough. He looked up, waved the bat at her, gave her that smile. Yesterday he’d been stuck in the house, all miserable. He’d ended the day screaming in bed, so frustrated. Today he was looking at flowers. Who was it that thought up that idea, the idea that had made today better than yesterday? Who loved him enough to think that up? Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him?


She did.
Saunders offers no simple solution to this chaotic meeting of consciousnesses—the mother will in all likelihood be reported; the puppy is unbought and left shivering in the middle of a cornfield—but what is generated in the reader through this fusion of perspectives is something akin to Morrison’s vision of goodness as self-knowledge. Faced with two compelling and richly articulated inner lives, judgment of either mother gives way to a stunned silence: they were both right, both wrong. In the world of “Puppy,” these two points-of-view are irreconcilable, but our inhabitation of each perspective affords us the rare chance to genuinely perceive—and live within—competing ways of seeing the same moment. Felski notes that while we already possess the knowledge that people such as Marie and Callie have rich inner lives—and thus have more complicated reasons for acting as they do—recognition in reading involves re-experiencing, and often reevaluating, what we know:
Recognition is not repetition; it denotes not just the previously known, but the becoming known. Something that may have been sensed in a vague, diffuse, or semi-conscious way now takes on a distinct shape, is amplified, heightened, or made newly visible.
Saunders’s attention to the inner lives of his characters—and the ways in which these points-of-view oscillate within his stories—operates as a kind of formal device for producing recognition in the reader. Joshua Ferris—in his introduction to Saunders’s first story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline—writes that this quality of Saunders’s writing produces an unusual expansiveness in the reader:
He teaches us not only how to write but how to live. He sets the bar and also the example. He hopes we might see the possibility of our better selves and act on it. He seems sent—what other way to put it?—to teach us mercy and grace.

A Haunting Sense of Goodness

But it is in Lincoln in the Bardo that Saunders gets closest to communicating fiction’s unexpected capacity for producing goodness through these moments of recognition. Saunders’s first novel is characteristically strange, inventing a novel-form that draws on a gamut of historical texts that interweave epigraphically with the narrative’s multiple voices. Provoked by a story about Abraham Lincoln cradling the body of his dead son, Willie Lincoln, Saunders repurposes historical sources as literary voices that tell the “true story” about the death of the president’s son. These epigraphs make up around half the narrative, a multiplicity of voices long since deceased, but revocalized through Saunders’s telling. A countervailing narrative is told from the perspective of the plaintive and unassuaged ghosts of the unwilling deceased, voices from the Bardo (a strange, liminal space between life and death) who live out the repetitions, failures, regrets, and self-deceptions of their past lives, and who are startled into action by the the extraordinary and unimaginable affection Lincoln shows to his son’s body:
To be touched so lovingly, so fondly, as if one were still—
roger bevins iii
hans vollman
As if one were still worthy of affection and respect?
It was cheering. It gave us hope.
the reverend everly thomas
We were perhaps not so unlovable as we had come to believe.
roger bevins iii

It is not simply the polyphony of competing voices that opens up the possibilities for comprehending goodness in Lincoln in the Bardo. Rather than locate the reader within these multiple perspectives, Saunders unmoors the speaker and the speech act, attributing dialogue from one character to another’s voice, as well as ventriloquizing the many voices of his historical sources. But it is in one extraordinary formal invention that Saunders invents a mode of writing that literalizes the experience of becoming a multitude in the act of reading. It is this invention that I believe has the capacity to generate goodness in the reader off the page, though it is difficult to articulate. Saunders’s ghosts learn that in inhabiting the body of the living, they become them, to a degree: it is not merely that the living person’s thoughts are revealed, but also something more fundamental about their being. When two ghosts—hans vollman and roger bevins iii—enter together into Abraham Lincoln, this is what they describe:
There was a touch of prairie about the fellow.
hans vollman
roger bevins iii
Like stepping into a summer barn late at night.
hans vollman
Or a musty plains office, where some bright candle still burns.
roger bevins iii
Vast. Windswept. New. Sad.
hans vollman
Spacious. Curious. Doom-minded. Ambitious.
roger bevins iii
Back slightly out.
hans vollman
Right boot chafing.
roger bevins iii

This inhabiting works as a kind of radical empathy—identification that blurs self and other, where feeling with another shifts into feeling as the other—and before long the ghosts speak in union, shifting from first to third-person narration. Upon leaving Lincoln, this blending of selves lingers, and each ghost—at one point in the novel it is a multitude—finds themselves irrevocably altered by the experience:
My God, what a thing! To find oneself thus expanded!
hans vollman
How had we forgotten? All of these happy occasions?
the reverend everly thomas
To stay, one must deeply and continuously dwell upon one’s primary reason for staying; even to the exclusion of all else.
roger bevins iii
One must be constantly looking for opportunities to tell one’s story.
hans vollman
(If not permitted to tell it, one must think it and think it.)
the reverend everly thomas
But this had cost us, we now saw.

We had forgotten so much, of all else we had been and known.
roger bevins iii
But now, through this serendipitous mass co-habitation—
the reverend everly thomas
We found ourselves (like flowers from which placed rocks had just been removed) being restored somewhat to our natural fullness.
roger bevins iii

Saunders’s ghosts concretize the experience of recognition that Felski theorizes, where the exterior and interior give way to the possibility of radical alteration. And this is an alteration that Morrison would describe as goodness in the form of an acquisition of self-knowledge. These ghosts, previously trapped in a solipsism of dread or self-deception, are liberated from the Bardo state, freed through a profound moment of self-knowledge that is achieved through this multiplicity of selves. This liberation strikes me as the literalizing of that moment of expansiveness that we sometimes, if only graspingly, achieve, as readers. As works of art pass through us, or us through them. In a recent talk, Saunders reflected on the possibilities of this kind of response to art in the Trump moment:
I’m sure many of you feel, as I do, that the best person you have been been […] is when you are in the thrall of some beautiful work of art. Suddenly you are not just you: you are everybody. […]. We have to fight against the sort of aggressive banality that seems to be so current. And we have to stand up for this thing that we have known in our best moments is the best of us.
Reading, as Saunders explores in Lincoln in the Bardo, operates as a kind of possession: inhabiting the perspective of these imagined and imaginative communities—and, likewise, being inhabited by those selfsame perspectives—opens up possibilities of transformative identification, not only within the work of art, but also off the page. If, like Morrison, we take seriously the claims of goodness that works of literature make—claims that needn’t divert from ugliness, and indeed often illuminate systems of injustice—then our time spent in fictional spaces is hardly wasted. Alteration is not inevitable, of course. Identification can devolve into narcissism. But, like Claudia in The Bluest Eye, we are offered—through reading—new and more generous ways of seeing others, and our world. We hope that it isn’t too late.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.