“The Elms” is the first chapter of Thornton Wilder’s novel The Eighth Day (1967). Its title refers to the Ashley house, which assumes the role of a character after its patriarch escapes from his impending death sentence. Once Roger Ashley departs to Chicago in order to financially assist his mother and sisters, Sophia, the industrious daughter, turns the family home into a boarding house, expanding the family’s insular and lonely world.
Ashley had no idea that work could be so varied and that it could call so constantly on improvisation and invention. He rose each day with zest. To the ends of their lives his children could remember him singing before his shaving mirror, “‘Nita, Juanita,” and “No gottee tickee, No gettee shirtee, At the Chinee laundryman’s” (31).
In this chapter, the narrator focuses on the work ethic and work experience, contrasting John Ashley’s impressive actions (later mirrored by his daughter Sophia) and Breckenridge Lansing’s active impressions. What is the role of work in human dignity and purpose?
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. 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 the sidewalks; she had reared young foxes and badgers and gophers 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.
So defenseless is hope before the court of reason that it stands in constant need of fashioning its own confirmations. It reaches out to heroic song and story; it stoops to superstition. It shrinks from flattering consolations; it likes its battles hard won, but it surrounds itself with ceremonial and fetish. Sophia slept with the three green arrowheads beside her. There are no rainbows in the narrow gorge at Coaltown, but she had seen two in her life on picnics along the Old Quarry Road. She knew their promise. Above the secret hiding place for her money she lightly drew an arc and wrote “J.B.A.” and “R.B.A.” Because it is irrational, hope rejoices in evidence of the marvelous. She drew strength from the inexplicable mystery of her father’s rescue. Hope — the daring — is subject to intermittent overthrow, to black hours. Sophia drew into herself, lowered her head and waited, like an animal in a snowstorm. The Ashleys attended church every Sunday, but there were no religious exercises in the home. Sophia felt that it would be a weakness to pray for any astonishing reversal. Her petitions did not extend beyond asking that she be given some “good ideas” on the morrow; she asked that her mind be “bright.”
Here is a brilliant portrait of hope. The narrator calls it “a climate of the mind and an organ of apprehension.” I love the first metaphor because climate refers to the prevailing weather in an area over a long period of time, whereas weather is fickle, sometimes rainy and sunny in the course of a single day. In another metaphor, hope is “an organ of apprehension” or way of seeing, which cynics might call a distortion of reality, perceiving yellow where there is only gray. Apprehension comes from a Latin word which means to seize or grasp. The hope-filled person seizes upon what is really real — the yellow beneath the gray.
We are also told that hope is one of the “manifestations of creativity” along with faith and love, which are not coincidentally the theological virtues that St. Paul extols in the concluding sentence of his famous sermon on love: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). The implication is that any one of these virtues must be nourished in the presence of the others. Sophia’s “exercise of hope” is supported by her love for family and her faith in human ingenuity, a contrast to the Christian’s exercise of hope, buttressed by his love for and faith in God, who enables these daring virtues. Of course, the narrator does not refer to hope as a virtue but a manifestation of creativity; it is less of a character trait than a mental capacity. Nevertheless, the hope of Sophia and St. Paul share this: “before the court of reason,” hope is “absurd and indefensible” — absurd because its defiance in the teeth of facts appears irrational and indefensible because its own “confirmations” appear superstitious.
Consider St. Paul’s paradigm of hope: God promises that Abraham will become “the father of many nations.” The facts make such a promise laughable. First, there was Abraham’s “body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old)” (Romans 4:19). Second, there was “the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” Still, Abraham hoped — and God gave him Isaac. If this were not enough of a trail for hope, God then demands that Abraham sacrifice Isaac on the altar. How can God multiply Abraham’s “offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sands that is on the seashore” if his only son is dead (Genesis 22:17)? St. Paul says “in hope [Abraham] believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, ‘So shall your offspring be'” (Romans 4:18). This hope against hope is what characterizes the person of faith, which Sophia is not; even so, she believes, against the gossipmongers and busybodies of Coaltown, that the good-as-dead patriarch of the Ashley family shall not signal the death of her household. “The Elms” is given newness of life through her ingenuity and industry. Abraham and Sophia reach “out to heroic song and story,” although for the former it is Yahweh’s faithfulness to Israel while for the latter it is the “American dream of a better, richer, and happier life” in the words of popular historian James Truslow Adams. The deep insight here is that hope must be storied, which is to say that hope is not kept in a formaldehyde jar but embedded in a sustaining narrative. I have not encountered an image more fitting for hope than this one: “Hope — the daring — is subject to intermittent overthrow, to black hours. Sophia drew into herself, lowered her head and waited, like an animal in a snowstorm.” While Sophia’s “exercise of hope” elicits my admiration, she does not live up to her namesake, which means wisdom, because true hope, at least from a Christian perspective, is not when we draw into ourselves, as if hope is buried deep down inside, but when we draw into God, as Abraham did, finding a hope outside ourselves to survive and even thrive in the snowstorm.
- Bensonian: The Eighth Day: Prologue
- Bensonian: The Eighth Day: II. Illinois to Chile 1902-1905
- Bensonian: The Eighth Day: III. Chicago 1902-1905
- Bensonian: The Eighth Day: IV. Hoboken 1883
- Bensonian: The Eighth Day: V. “St. Kitts” 1880-1905
- Bensonian: The Eighth Day: VI. Coaltown, Illinois, Christmas 1905