The first chapter of The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder narrates the story of the Ashley family at their house, “The Elms,” in Coaltown, Illinois. John Ashley is convicted for the murder of Breckenridge Lansing. On the train to prison, a group of unknown renegades rescues him and he escapes. This chapter tells us the effects the trial and escape of John Ashley has on his family.
Sophia saved the Ashley family through the exercise of hope. “Saved” was her brother’s and sisters’ word for what she accomplished.
She had had a long experience of hope. Hope (deep-grounded hope, not those sporadic cries and promptings wrung from us in extremity that more resemble despair) is a climate of the mind and an organ of apprehension. Later we shall consider its relation to faith in the life of Sophia’s father, who was a man of faith, though he did not know that he was a man of faith.
Sophia, at fourteen, had lived a long and busy life, burdened with responsibilities, fraught with joy and suffering. She had administered a large hospital. She was a veterinarian. In addition to raising chickens she had made splints for the mangled paws of dogs; she had rescued cats from torture on those long summer dusks when boys don’t know what to do with themselves; she had saved fledglings fallen from the nest–blue and featherless on and released them to their outdoors. She knew cruelty and death and escape and new life. She knew weather. She knew patience. She knew failure.
It is doubtful whether hope–or any of the other manifestations of creativity–can sustain itself without an impulse injected by love. So absurd and indefensible is hope. Sophia’s was nourished by love of her mother and sisters, but above all by love of those two distant outcasts, her father and her brother.
In this passage, along with others throughout the novel, Wilder mentions the three Christian graces: faith, hope, and love. In Scripture, we are told that love is “the greatest of these.” Wilder seems to be telling us the same thing, that hope and faith are nothing without love. This invocation of Scripture seems extremely intentional.
Why does Wilder mention the graces? What roles do faith, hope, and love play in this novel, and how do they relate to the roles they play in Scripture?
I don’t think we will get a straight answer, at least not until the end of the novel. We do get that love must be injected to the other two for them to be truly hope or faith–so in that sense, Wilder’s graces relate to the Bible’s graces.
People who couldn’t pay their taxes went to the poorhouse. The poorhouse at Goshen, fourteen miles form Coaltown, hung like a great black cloud over the lives of many in Kangaheela and Grimble counties. To go to jail was far less shameful than to go to Goshen. Yet the guests at Goshen enjoyed amenities hitherto unknown to them. The meals were regular and nourishing. The great verandahs were uplifting. There was no coal dust in the air. The women were set to sewing for the state’s hospitals, the men worked in the dairy and vegetable gardens and in winter made furniture. It is true that there was persistent smell of cabbage in the corridors, but the smell of cabbage is not repellent to those who have spent a lifetime in indigence. Some congenial hours might have been arrived at in Goshen, but there were no smiles and no kindness; the burden of shame was too crushing. The institution was a limbo five days a week; on visitors’ days it was hell. “Are you all right, Grandma?” “Do they make you comfortable, Uncle Joe?” We are enchained and we enchain one another. To go to Goshen meant that your life, your one life, had been a failure. The Christian religion, as delivered in Coaltown, established a bracing relation between God’s favor and money. Penury was not only a social misfortune; it was a visible sign of a fall from grace. God had promised that the just would never suffer want. The indigent were in an unhappy relation to both the earthly and heavenly orders. (p. 45)
Wilder, in this passage marks out the opinions of the poor in Coaltown, Illinois. The Christians see that, if one goes to Goshen, they have actually fallen from grace, God has turned his face on them. If one is not wealthy or flourishing, they have upset the heavenly orders.
Sadly, this message is not unfamiliar to me. Living in Dallas has shown the prosperity gospel is still flourishing. There are people that think believing in God means wealth and material happiness. Coaltown and Dallas both forget that Christians are called to suffer, to carry the cross daily. Christians are also deemed as “poor.” Sometimes, poor is used metaphorically, but poverty is not a sin, despite what the prosperity gospel says.
- II. Illinois to Chile 1902-1905
- III. Chicago 1902-1905
- IV. Hoboken, New Jersey 1883
- V. “St. Kitts” 1880-1905
- VI. Coaltown, Illinois, Christmas 1905