“Illinois to Chile” is the second chapter of Thornton Wilder’s novel The Eighth Day (1967). It traces John Ashley’s adventures after his miraculous rescue from impending death. Since he belongs on a rat list of hunted criminals, Ashley assumes a new identity and life in Chile because of its available, though arduous, work in copper mines. He meets variegated characters along the way, including María Icaza (who awakens him to his ignorance about “the horror and the nada“), Dr. MacKenzie (whose settled disbelief puzzles him), and Mrs. Wickersham (whose charity to the public and friendship inspire “a category of the beautiful”). Upon being discovered by a rat catcher, Mrs. Wickersham saves Ashley by faking his death so he could leave Chile and achieve a homecoming like the fabled warrior Odysseus.
Ashley encounters María Icaza, a “midwife, abortionist, maga, teller of fortunes, interpreter of dreams, go-between, exorcisor of devils” (131). The narrator informs us that “their friendship grew in their silences; it was cemented by their destitution; it was nourished by the prevalence of misery in San Gregorio” (132). As time unfolds, María Icaza discerns that Ashley is haunted by “the dream of the universal nothingness,” where “Life has no sense. Life is an idiot laughing” (134). With clairvoyant vision, she says:
“You are forty-one or forty-two years old.” She drew her finger across her face. “You have no wrinkles here — from care and thought. You have no wrinkles here — from laughter. Your understanding is like a little fetus — a poor little twisting and turning fetus — trying to be born. When God loves a creature He wants the creature to know the highest happiness and the deepest misery — then he can die. He wants him to know all that being alive can bring. That is His best gift.” (134-135)
María Icaza exposes Ashley’s purported happiness as incomplete because “there is no happiness save in understanding the whole” (134). She tells him, “You are a creature whom God loves — particularly loves. You are being born.” In my favorite part of their exchange, “she drew out a small crucifix rudely carved from thornwood.”
“Before you go to sleep look at it well. Think of that suffering. Not the nails. The nails are not important. There are nails everywhere. But think of the suffering — there!” She put her fingers on the center of her forehead.
* * *
She took the crucifix out of his hand for a moment. She pointed to the red glass beads that had been affixed to it to represent the drops of blood. She looked at him. “Red. Red. Look at the red. Men, women, and children love you because of the blue of your eyes. But there is a better love than that. Blue is the color of faith. But red is love — every kind of love. Anybody can see that you have faith. So has Fidel! Faith is not enough. Maybe, if you are lucky, you will be born into love! (135-136)
With possession of the crucix, “Ashley had no more nightmares.” But “in his preparations for departure he lost the crucifix,” a little detail with enormous significance as we consider his development as a character (136). So much of this conversation between Ashley and María Icaza reminds me of the nocturnal exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus in the Gospel of John, where the Pharisee (like the miner of Wilder’s novel) expresses bewilderment when the rabbi (like the fortune teller) exhorts him to be “born again” (3:1-14). My question for this chapter: What would it take for John Ashley (or anyone) to be “born again” — and how? Via the character of María Icaza, is Wilder implying — in accord with Jesus — that one can only be born again through the Spirit of God?
Rather than quoting a lengthy passage, I will break it up and offer commentary on each paragraph.
John Ashley was a man of faith. He did not know that he was a man of faith. He would have been quick to deny that he was a man of religious faith, but religions are merely the garments of faith — and very ill cut they often are, especially in Coaltown, Illinois.(106)
As a Christian reader, I am skeptical about the notion of an unconscious man of faith because faith, according to Scripture, involves self-conscious confession, as St. Paul says: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). Perhaps, though, there is a man of faith who, unbeknown to him, undergoes regeneration by the Spirit of God in preparation to confess the name of the Lord.
The claim that “religions are merely the garments of faith” may reveal something about the author and the context of writing his novel in the Sixties, a turbulent decade in America that stripped religion of its cultural authority. Today it is fashionable to say, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” The Bible never throws out religion but distinguishes between worthless and worthy religion, as the apostle James says: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27). To call religion a garment of faith implies that religion is a superfluity, not essential to the nourishment of faith. We could adopt a different metaphor, calling religion the bedrock of faith. Of course, this whole discussion assumes certain definitions of faith and religion that I will not tease out here.
Like most men of faith John Ashley was — so to speak — invisible. You brushed shoulders with a man of faith in the crowd yesterday; a woman of faith sold you a pair of gloves. Their principal characteristics do not tend to render them conspicuous. Only from time to time one or other of them is propelled by circumstances into becoming visible — blindingly visible. They tend their flocks in Domrémy; they pursue an obscure law practice in New Salem, Illinois. They are not afraid; they are not self-regarding; they are constantly nourished by astonishment and wonder at life itself. They are not interesting. They lack those traits — our bosom companions — that so strongly engage our interest: aggression, the dominating will, envy, destructiveness and self-destructiveness. No pathos hovers about them. Try as hard as you like, you cannot see them as the subjects of tragedy. (It has often been attempted; when the emotion subsides the audience finds that its tears have been shed, unprofitably, for itself.) They have little sense of humor, which draws so heavily on a consciousness of superiority and on an aloofness from the predicaments of others. In general they are inarticulate, especially in matters of faith. The intellectual qualifications for faith — as we shall see when we consider Ashley’s faith in connection with his mathematical gift and his talent as a gambler — are developed and fortified by a ranging observation and a retentive memory. Faith founded schools; it is not dependent on them. A high authority has told us that we are more likely to find faith in an old woman on her knees scrubbing the floors of a public building than in a bishop on his throne. We have described these men and women in negative terms — fearless, not self-referent, uninteresting, humorless, so often unlearned. Wherein lies their value? (106-107)
This is a fascinating portrait of the man of faith, although the trouble comes with its generality. Which faith? Whose faith? Faith in what? Since this account disassociates faith and religion, I wonder if the author is only trying to offer a phenomenological description. Even so, should we imagine there is a a trans-cultural and trans-religious man of faith, every one of whom is “fearless, not self-referent, uninteresting, humorless, so often unlearned”? Or, should we posit substantial differences between an American Christian and Chilean Christian, between a syncretist like María Icaza and do-gooder like Mrs. Wickersham?
I am acquainted with men and women of faith in the pages of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scriptures. Take two examples: David and Peter. Until the shepherd becomes a mighty king and the fisherman becomes a bold disciple, they are invisible. If you brushed shoulders with David in the pastures where his sheep grazed or with Peter in the boat where nets of fish were hauled, would you recognize a man of faith? Probably not. Our stories about them complicate the portrait given to us by the narrator of The Eighth Day. At times, they were afraid. Oppressed by his enemies, David cries out to God, “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror overwhelms me” (Ps. 55:4-5). When Jesus summons Peter to walk on the water with him, “[Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me'” (Mt. 14:30). Other times, they were fearless. Against all expectations, the youth valiantly killed a Philistine giant (1 Sam. 17). After being put into custody by religious leaders for healing a crippled man, the evangelist bravely proclaims that he performed the miracle “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom [they] crucified, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 4:10). Were David and Peter “self-referent”? Yes, for no human being can escape the curse of self-reference except through the divine enablement of altruism. Were they “uninteresting”? That would depend on the observer. Ask Saul about this upstart from Bethlehem and the answer is probably “Yes.” Ask Saul’s eldest son Jonathan, who befriends David, and the answer is different. While neither of these men could be regarded as jokesters according to our records of them, let us not assume they were “humorless,” lest we make an argument from silence. As for whether they were “unlearned,” we must answer affirmatively if learnedness happens in a schoolhouse but negatively if it the deepest form of study happens on the sidewalks of life. What we can conclude here is that these two biblical men of faith challenge the fictional man of faith in The Eighth Day: they are round characters rather than flat — human, all too human, but . . . also superhuman insofar as God acts upon them or in them to say and do what humans seldom say and do. For that reason, there seems to be something amiss in the depiction of John Ashley as a man of faith. So, to modify the question of the narrator, “Wherein lies [his] value?” By changing the possessive pronoun from “their” to “his,” I am deliberately questioning the reliability of our narrator’s phenomenological description. John Ashley deserves our special scrutiny.
We did not choose the day of our birth nor may we choose the day of our death, yet choice is the sovereign faculty of the mind. We did not choose our parents, color, sex, health, or endowments. We were shaken into existence, like dice from a box. Barriers and prison walls surround us and those about us — everywhere, inner and outer impediments. These men and women with the aid of observation and memory encompass a large landscape. They know themselves, but their self is not the only window through which they view their existence. They are certain that one small part of what is given us is free. They explore daily the exercise of freedom. Their eyes are on the future. When the evil hour comes, they hold. They save cities — or, having failed, their example saves other cities after their death. They confront injustice. They assemble and inspirit the despairing. (107)
If our narrator is right, the value of the man of faith qua man of faith resides in his escape from the prison of solipsism, where the only window outside the self is actually a mirror to perpetually behold the self, and in his “daily exercise of freedom,” which pushes against the accidents and impediments of human life. By the end of this chapter, Ashley, who was “preposterously slow” to mature, starts to exhibit these signs of faith as he petitions the administrator of Rocas Verde to increase the pay for miners and to recruit a priest; as he builds a church to facilitate worship; as he helps Mrs. Wickersham to continue her good work with the hospital, orphanage, and lace-making school for the blind. From a Christian point of view, I am afraid our narrator is wrong about the value of the man of faith; his value does not reside in himself but in Jesus Christ who radiates his glory through the humble and weak instrument. Let us continue to hear the narrator:
But what do these men and women have faith in?
They are slow to give words to the object of their faith. To them it is self-evident and the self-evident is not easily described. But men and women without faith, they are articulate. They are constantly and loudly expatiating on it: it is “faith in life,” in the “meaning of life,” in God, in progress, in humanity — all those whipped words, those twisted signposts, that borrowed finery, all that traitor’s eloquence. (107)
Here again, the Christian reader is likely to object to this depiction because a disciple should not be slow to give words to the object of his faith. He must be “bold to speak the word without fear” (Phil. 1:14). While faith in Christ cannot be fully described, the essence of the Gospel is “easily described,” as St. Paul puts it in a single verse of Scripture: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23). Faith that shies away from articulation may just be cowardice. The narrator proceeds:
There is no creation without faith and hope.
There is no faith and hope that does not express itself in creation. These men and women work. The spectacle that most discourages them is not error or ignorance or cruelty, but sloth. This work that they do may often seem to be all but imperceptible. That is characteristic of activity that never for a moment envisages an audience. (107)
There is a strong echo here of what the apostle James insists upon: “Faith apart from works is dead” (Jas. 2:14). But where James conceives of “works” as the fruit of faith, the narrator of The Eighth Day seems to conceive of “work” as the tree of faith —a distinction with a damnable difference because Christian orthodoxy affirms that man is not saved by work but by faith alone (sola fide). John Ashley may only be admirable if you subscribe to the Gospel of Work. If, however, you subscribe to the Gospel of Christ, then whatever righteous deeds Ashley does apart from Him is “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). The narrator concludes his portrait:
John Ashley was of this breed. No historic demands were laid upon him and we do not know how he would have met them. He was late-maturing and little given to reflection. He was almost invisible. For a time many tried to catch a glimpse of him through his children. He was a link in a chain, a stitch in the tapestry, a planter of trees, a breaker of stones on an old road to a not yet clearly marked destination. (107-108)
Whatever this says about our fictional man of faith, it bears little resemblance to the biblical man of faith, who has been entrusted with the “historic demands” of orthodox Christianity and who walks upon ancient paths that unmistakably lead to the kingdom of heaven.
- Bensonian: The Eighth Day: Prologue
- Bensonian: The Eighth Day: I. “The Elms” 1885-1905
- 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