We have reached the last message about the virtues identified in Professor Karen Swallow Prior’s book On Reading Well. The series has given me the opportunity to reflect on things I truly believe are essential for the development of a moral character. It has also exposed me to the literary works Professor Prior asserts are valid teachers, though fiction based, of these qualities. I have thereby taken the liberty to offer my own suggestions about books, which have inspired me through the words and deeds of their fictional characters. Reading well has the ability to change us as the good professor insists.
The final virtue covered in Prior’s book is humility and her offering for literary examples in support of this virtue must be stated in the plural. For her examples come from two short stories written by author Flannery O’Connor; Revelation and Everything that Rises Must Converge.
O’Connor is a writer with whom I am totally unfamiliar. This meant doing a little on-line research to gain some appreciation for her artistry and personal life. It is a clever saying that life imitates art, but I think that is only coincidental as art is derived from the life of its creator. O’Connor’s commitment to being a writer of southern vintage during the Jim Crow Era, her devout Catholic beliefs, health issues and the lack of a satisfying love relationship naturally infused her work.
O’Connor’s characters are noted for committing one or more of the seven deadly sins to which we must add racism as number eight. Their misdeeds are followed by an act of contrition if not repentance as they move away from their tepid Protestant roots to become more like O’Connor’s own Roman Catholic self. Redemption is key, though not always expressly achieved by story’s end.
Prior illustrates this through her choice of stories. In Revelation self-assured Ruby Turpin blithely criticizes others, revealing her own sin of pride. It also reveals the companion sin of hypocrisy as we see the things she condemns in others being vividly present in her own life. In a similar vein, Julian Chesney feigns a moral superiority by judging his mother’s intense racism in the story Everything that Rises Must Converge. To judge is to condemn and to condemn is to punish. Punishment is indeed meted out to Julian’s mother, but in a sinister way it is handed out to Julian as well as a consequence of his own lack of love and care for the one, despite her flaws, who sacrificed so much for him.
Pride is the overwhelming issue driving both stories. It is the antithesis of the virtue of humility. This leaves me in my usual quandary about learning from the negative perspective. It is simply not my forte in the quest for answers about life and love and meaning. Therefore I would like to offer an alternate literary work, which I think portrays humility as a positive develop in the protagonist’s story arc.
My choice is Amor Towles 2016 novel A Gentleman in Moscow. The story follows the life of Count Alexander Rostov, a man of once favored status as the scion of a prominent aristocratic family in Czarist Russia, who is exiled to house arrest in the Metropole Hotel conveniently located directly across from the Kremlin. In a truly wonderful irony, Rostov’s former cultivation of art, literature, manners, fine wine and gourmet tastes makes him the perfect head waiter. His descent from master to servant is accompanied by a moral growth as he willingly sheds his sense of entitlement, while gaining the friendship and respect of others in service with him. The camaraderie of this select group shames the national imitation, enforced by the Kremlin, by addressing each person as comrade in a supposed homogenization of fraternity.
Towles loads his story with subtle often amusing scenes of Rostov’s humbling and how each lesson learned aids the former Count in his adjustment to life as a prisoner. In truth it is hard to feel anything but joy for Rostov as his inner growth, his true humility born out of the Kremlin’s attempt to humiliate a former aristocrat, adds to his impressive six foot three physical stature. The beauty of this growth is reflected in the person of Sophia, a child forced on Rostov by an acquaintance, who develops into an exquisite young woman under his care and tutelage. She is the revelation of his soul in face and form.
Professor Prior quotes from the book Back to Virtue by author Peter Kreeft to help us understand that “Humility is thinking less about yourself, not thinking less of yourself.” This is the complete opposite of the mantra of our age in which we are told that to love others we must first love ourselves. Narcissism is the more likely result in place of humility, when self is enjoined to be perpetually preening in front of a self-obsessing mirror.
As a child I was taught a theological truth about humility through a simple song with the lines: “Jesus and others and you. What a wonderful way to spell joy.” The inherent mnemonic follows a sequence in which Jesus (J) is primary, Others (O) are second and You (Y) is third as the basis of true humility. The song ends with the line “Put yourself last and spell joy.” There are no mirrors in this mindset as the focus is outward as if through an open door of redemptive opportunity.