The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder: III. Chicago 1902-1905


Chapter 3, Chicago, outlines the story of John Ashley’s only son, Roger, in Chicago. Roger Ashley left the house shortly after the conviction and escape of his father. He went to Chicago to look for work. This chapter takes us through his time in Chicago up until 1905, when he returns to Coaltown for Christmas.


In this chapter, we see Roger leave his home and interact with the crowds of Chicago–reconciling himself with “human continuity” (p. 209). He also starts meeting young women in Chicago, often dating multiple at one time. We get short phrases such as these: “Everybody liked him and he liked nobody” (p. 210), “He loved no one” (p. 215), and “He was loved and he loved no one” (p. 216).

What is the nature of love in Roger’s life? Why does everyone love him and why does he love no one?

I think that Roger takes after his dad, John. Back in Coaltown, John Ashley attracted the attention of everybody. He was loved by everyone, especially the women in Coaltown. Roger probably has the same effect on the people he meets in Chicago.

With regards to Roger’s lack of love towards others, Wilder as narrator says the following:

He was expunging from his imagination–by urgent necessity–the compelling presence of the woman who he had loved so passionately and whose failure to respond to him had come close to convincing him that he would never be loved, that he could never love. None of these women resembled their mother. (p. 251)

Beata Ashley, Roger’s mother, apparently wasn’t loving. When we hear about Beata as a mother, she seems to be a good mother. But after we become acquainted with her, we realize that she wasn’t necessarily loving to her kids. She cared for them and provided for them, but there wasn’t an outpouring of love that is usually present in maternal relationships. Apparently,

She merely didn’t care they [or we] existed or not. Mama cared for only one person in the world. She adored Papa. (p. 272)

Beata was so devoted to her husband, John, and she adored him so much, that she neglected to love her own children. This comes to affect Roger. He loved her with all his heart, but she failed to reciprocate that love, forcing him to question whether he could be loved at all, and wonder if he could ever love again.

We get a peak at a possibility for him to love again at the end of the chapter. On the train home, Felicite Lansing, the daughter of the man that John Ashley was convicted of murdering, talks to Roger about something she needs to tell him on Christmas Day. He says to himself that he will marry that girl.

Will roger be able to love?

Favorite Quotation:

“One day, months ago, the Maestro made his youngest daughter–Adriana–leave the table. She’d merely said that she adored her new shoes; she thought they were divine. He said that those were religious words and that they had nothing to do with shoes. He turned to me and said that they had nothing to do with human beings either. He warned me to beware of husbands and wives who adored one another. Such persons haven’t grown up, he said. No human being is adorable. The early Hebrews were quite right to condemn idolatry. Women who adore their husbands throw a thousand little ropes around them. They rob them of their freedom. They lull them to sleep. It’s wonderful to own a god, to put him in your pocket.” (p. 272)

One day, Lily Ashely, the oldest daughter of the Ashley family, after moving to Chicago also talks with her music teacher about adoration. Lily’s mom, Beata, adored her husband–so this conversation is decently relevant to her.

Wilder really hits a chord with me in speaking about this. Idolatry is something so easy to fall prey to. I love reading, which is a good in itself, but I can go overboard and covet different books and desire just the possession of the physical objects, as opposed to the knowledge and love that God gives me with these books. There are other examples, but I think Wilder is right to separate Adoration as something purely divine, not for us humans.

Cross Reference:

Bensonian on Chapter 3 Chicago



6 thoughts on “The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder: III. Chicago 1902-1905

  1. Ah, yes . . . the idolatry of books, a familiar cult to any avid reader. I would like to hear you elaborate on “the knowledge and love that God gives [you] with these books.” What kind of knowledge does it impart — and how is it similar or dissimilar from the knowledge that the Bible offers? How have books helped you love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself? Can you think of specific examples? Where agape is other-centered and social, reading is unavoidably self-centered and solitary: therein lies the danger.


  2. Well what these books give me is an opportunity to experience through others (see On Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis). You know the example of Raskolnikov and Sonya in Crime and Punishment–where it actually changed the trajectory of my life by allowing me to see someone else’s anxiety. This book is great because I am drawn to John and Roger. What books like these allow me to do is learn through the characters of the book. The characters learn from experience and I can learn through this. The Bible is different because it is THE NARRATIVE as opposed to a narrative, one that is true, it is not fiction as novels are. My fate directly hinges on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whereas it does not directly hinge on the confession and regeneration of Raskolnikov, for example. Reading is better to do in community in order to fight the self-absorbed tendency of reading–I am reading this novel with you, The Old Man and The Sea with Ian, and Blood Meridian with Parker–I also will be reading books with teachers and classmates in the coming years.

    I hope this answers your questions–it’s a little jumbled.


  3. Good answer to the question about what kind of knowledge literature imparts. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum rightly says the value of literature is its exercise of “the narrative imagination,” which holds the possibility, though not guarantee, of expanding our sympathies. I do not think you have really answered the question about IF or HOW literature helps you obey the double command to love God and neighbor. We Christian readers need to wrestle with this. I agree that shared reading, whether with a friend or in a classroom, turns an otherwise solitary activity into a social activity. Just because we are being social does not mean we are being loving. My open-ended question is this: Can the reading of literature and poetry actually make a person love God and neighbor more actively, more tenderly, more deeply, more sacrificially? I want to say “Yes” but I have my doubts. You are drawn to the characters of John and Roger Ashley. Have they empowered you to love God and others more than you did before you encountered them? Both of us would admit that the words of literature and poetry inspire us, but are they impotent to change us in the ways we need to be changed as disciples of Christ? Reading the Bible is a singular experience because of the dual authorship, where God cooperates with human writers to transform us from the inside out. Scriptural words are endowed with the power of the Spirit of God, whereas literary and poetic words are endowed the personality of the writers. The danger for us is adoring Wilder, Dostoevsky, or whoever else when God alone deserves our adoration. And one of the chief ways we adore God is to attend to his Word. All this is to say that I do not want to make the error of literary readers in our contemporary society who have made literature their secular scripture.

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  4. I think that reading can be a way of praising God–thereby loving God. I’m certain that reading can help us love others. I think that reading allows us to experience through someone else, growing our sympathies to someone else, which can improve our sympathies to real flesh and blood human beings.

    John and Roger have interested me because they strike me as “good” characters, but they most certainly are not perfect. This is how all characters are (other than Jesus Christ, who was and is real). But Wilder seems to make it explicit that Roger and John have their flaws, even though they are, for the most part, good characters. I just have found it difficult, yet interesting to wrestle with the main characters flaws.

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  5. I’m inclined to agree that “reading can be a way of praising God.” Tell me HOW you think we can praise God through reading.

    Even if exercising the narrative imagination expands our sympathies in principle, it is no guarantee that it will expand our sympathies in practice. Again, I’m looking for examples. Specifically, how do fictional characters like John and Roger Ashley empower you to love your non-fictional family? And if they actually could empower you to love them more deeply, more tenderly, more sacrificially, by what authority do they accomplish this feat? We would not want to say by “the authority of the author.”

    What I’m really asking here is whether literature can save us. As I said above, we should want to avoid the error of some literary readers in contemporary society who turn to literature as their secular scripture. Even a Roman Catholic writer like Rod Drehrer may have committed this error. He has recently written a book called, “How Dante Saved My Life.” While I expect that he does not mean “save” in a theological sense, it is still a troubling notion. I do not think Christians should say any human author, however, great saved their life or sanctified their life. Great writers may inspire us, challenge us, provoke us, but not save or sanctify us. As much as I have been influenced by some writers, I would not talk about how Milton or Herbert or Hawthorne saved my life. God alone saves. He alone sanctifies.

    Put differently, we should ask ourselves: How does human beings change? And by “change” I do not mean rearranging the exterior but fundamentally altering the interior. Based on my experience and observation of others, I am convinced the only change agent is the Gospel. Sure, God can use our reading of literature to reinforce or deepen the Word. But the Word uniquely puts us into direct contact with God, whereas the words of authors may only put us into indirect contact with him. The point here is the words of poets and novelists must be subordinate to the Word, which alone has authority to change us from the inside out.


  6. Well, I only have my view on life, but reading allows me to see that there are other ways to see things, and they might be right, and I might not be. Somewhat specifically, I tend to seem pretentious–literature “diversifies” or “humbles” me to show how may different ways of thinking there are. I don’t think prostitution is moral, but Sonya showed me that their can be a “good-hearted prostitute.”

    And I agree with you to not idolize authors as “saving people,” and neglecting Scripture. The Word, God’s Word, is what saves.


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