God and Religion
Gardner chooses God and religion as one of his central themes in “Redemption.” More specifically, Gardner chooses to explore theodicy, the defense of God’s omnipotence and goodness in the face of evil. The central question of theodicy is, of course, if God is good and all-powerful, why does God allow evil in the world? How is it that a beneficent and omnipotent God would allow a small child to be crushed to death under the wheels of a cultipacker?
Dale Hawthorne represents the paradox of God’s goodness and God’s omnipotence in his response to David’s death. His mind “swung violently at this time, reversing itself almost hour by hour, from desperate faith to the most savage, black-hearted atheism…. He was unable to decide, one moment full of rage at God’s injustice, the next moment wracked by doubt of his existence.” Often, when presented with unbearable pain, a human will either blame God or deny God’s existence. Before the accident, Dale is “aloof from the timid-eyed flock, Christ’s sheep.” However, after returning to the family after an absence of three weeks, Dale begs for forgiveness. It is as if he finds redemption in bending to what he sees as God’s will. Jack feels scorn for his father, now “some mere suffering sheep among sheep….”
Betty Hawthorne represents a different response to the tragedy. She neither blames nor questions God. Rather, it is through her religious faith as well as the support of her friends that she is able to survive the disaster. This is vitally important for the family, because ultimately, she is the one who “keep[s] her family from wreck.”
The character of Phoebe Hawthorne provides another insight into God’s role in disaster. When she brings the lunch to Jack and he refuses to say grace, she is upset. To placate her, Jack lies and tells her that he has already said grace. He realizes later that Phoebe must depend on her religious faith; her survival requires the belief that God will heal her father and her brother, and that her family will be reunited in heaven. Phoebe finds solace in serving others; in many ways she is reminiscent of the “suffering servant” of Christian iconography.
Art and Experience
Certainly the most important theme in this story is that of art and its role in understanding life’s experiences. Kent Thompson in his review in Books In Canada writes that virtually ”every story in the collection is equally concerned with the various relationships between life and art.” Gardner often claimed that art ”made my life, and it made my life when I was a kid, when I was incapable of finding any other sustenance, any other thing to lean on, any other comfort during times of great unhappiness.” Art, for Gardner, had great redemptive powers. Indeed, only after writing the story did Gardner stop having flashback memories of his brother’s death. Likewise, the story ends with the hope that Jack has found redemption through his music.
Furthermore, Gardner maintains that art has an important role to play in human experience. Literature should be moral, providing models for the way life should be lived. For example, although the characters in the story contemplate suicide, they all reject it as an appropriate response to their grief. Rather, each character finds a way to redeem him or herself through God, through work, or through art. As Thompson writes, for Gardner,”art is first of all an act of love.”
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, John Gardner, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.