Can Literature Teach About Forgiveness?

What Can Literature Teach Us About Forgiveness?

American fiction has always grappled with sin, atonement and mercy. In the second installment of an essay series on literature and faith, Ayana Mathis examines what we can learn from forgiveness.

By Ayana Mathis

“How I’m gon keep from killing him,” says Celie, the protagonist of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel “The Color Purple.” The “him” is Celie’s husband, Mr.__. His first name is Albert, but he’s so cruel Celie won’t speak his name. In any case, Mr.__ wouldn’t brook such disrespect. He would beat Celie for it, as he has beaten her ever since he married her to look after his four children and work his land; and for the milk cow Celie’s Pa threw in to sweeten the deal.

Once married, Mr.__ allows Celie’s sister Nettie to live in his house, but when Nettie spurns his advances, he throws her out. Nettie disappears and Celie gives her up for dead. Years pass — the novel, set in rural Jim Crow Georgia, spans some three decades — before Celie learns that Nettie is very much alive. She has been writing to Celie faithfully, letters Mr.__ intercepted and dumped, unopened, in a trunk hidden in the house. Killing Mr.__ wouldn’t set things right, but it might make Celie feel better, at least for a while. If she doesn’t kill him, does he escape all consequence? Would she have to forgive him? Read the full piece at the New York Times.

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