“Redemption” also belongs to this group of stories which describe and explore the vulnerary function of art. The theme of this story differs somewhat from that of the other three, but the subject matter is the same: the protagonist seeks consolation in the world of music after the death of his brother. Jack Hawthorne, the protagonist, was driving a tractor when his younger brother, David, fell off and was run over and killed by the cultipacker the tractor was hauling. Driven by guilt and self-hatred, the young boy tries to deal with his confusion caused by the accident by perfecting his skills on the French horn; he uses the horn as a means of escape into self-imposed isolation, withdrawing from his family and any other company.
He is brought out of his isolation when he suddenly realizes that he will never reach the level of mastery of his teacher Yegudkin, a seventy-year-old Russian exile who has played with famous orchestras around the world. Yegudkin now teaches music but also has a set of arrogant values, constantly deriding “the herd” for failing to appreciate music at his own level. When Jack asks Yegudkin if he thinks that he, the student, will ever be able to play like the great master, the Russian scoffs at this foolish presumption. Thus, John Howell points out, Yegudkin, ‘”beatific and demonic at once,’ has paradoxically saved [Jack] from the artistic selfabsorption and isolation he has chosen.” After the crucial lesson in which he is forced to recognize his own limitations, Jack’s reintegration into society is described in symbolic terms. Rushing to catch his bus back home, he finds that’ ‘the crowd opened for him and, with the horn cradled under his right arm, his music under his left, he plunged in, starting home.” The young boy has to recognize his own limits; that is, he has to reconcile himself to the fact that the ideal (his aspirations of becoming a great musician) and the real do not always match up. Only by accepting his own fallibility and imperfections can he deal with his own guilt, become reintegrated into the community and be reunited with his family. Jack’s clutching of the instrument and musical score in that symbolical final scene suggests that music will still be an important part of his life, but now more in the manner of the other three stories we have been discussing, and not as a means of alienating himself from the community.
“Redemption” warrants close attention for several reasons. The early pages in particular contain some of the most gripping lines that Gardner ever committed. The opening paragraph, describing the accident which killed Jack’s brother, is unique in its control and vividness. The ensuing study of the boy’s self-loathing and his estrangement from his family moves as if by its own momentum, wholly logical and with considerable intellectual and emotional authority. Part of the story’s attraction, then, lies in the sheer force of the writing that went into it. But even more important are the ways in which it suggests a key to some of the chief motivating factors behind the thematic direction of Gardner’s fiction. The story also helps to explain why art has become such an all-encompassing concern for this writer. These points need to be elaborated on at some length.
The centrality of’ ‘Redemption” has to do with the fact that it is one of Gardner’s most strongly autobiographical pieces of writing, exploring artistically an event which left an indelible mark on him as a person and as a writer. The key event—the accident—is lifted straight from Gardner’s personal history, with only a few changes of incident and names. The scene was to play itself over and over again in his mind several times a day up to the writing of the story. (It was first published in the Atlantic Monthly in May 1977; the accident involving the death of Gardner’s brother took place in 1947.) After he had written about the accident, Gardner stopped having the flashbacks, he says, confirming D. H. Lawrence’s dictum that one sheds one’s illnesses in art. The suicidal feelings Jack develops in the story are also true to Gardner’s own experience, as witnessed, for instance, by the strongly autobiographical “Stillness” section of the posthumous work Stillness and Shadows, and the reason that the boy’s father gives for not taking his own life—”the damage his suicide would do to his wife and the children remaining”—is the same one Gardner himself has offered for not giving in to his own suicidal inclinations. Like Jack, Gardner played the French horn, and the Eastman School of Music that Jack attends on Saturday afternoons is the one Gardner went to for his music lessons.
But the main impulse behind “Redemption” is not strictly autobiographical. We know that Gardner used writing much the same way that Jack Hawthorne used his horn, as a means of escape and as a way to combat confusion and despair. Art “made my life,” Gardner has said, “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.” It seems obvious, therefore, that when Gardner claims that art has the power to console, his prime authority is his own personal history; one of his chief purposes in writing these stories must clearly have been to awaken others to the potentially beneficial effects of art.
What is of greater interest to us here, however, is the extent to which the excruciating experience of accidentally killing his brother has affected his own writings. One should tread cautiously here and resist the temptation to establish the kind of relationship between Gardner’s life and his art that Phillip Young sought to set up in the case of Hemingway, arguing that the direction of Hemingway’s art, in terms of theme as well as of artistic technique, was determined by his continuous struggle to cope with the psychic effect of the physical wounds he received in the course of a turbulent personal history. Nevertheless, there is surely a large degree of truth to Edmund Wilson’s claims about the relationship between the artist and his works:
“The real elements, of course, of any work of fiction, are the elements of the author’s personality: his imagination embodies in the images of characters, situations, and scenes the fundamental conflicts of his nature or the cycle of phases through which it habitually passes. His personages are personifications of the author’s various impulses and emotions: and the relations between them in his stories are really the relations between these.”
Gardner has himself insisted on the close relationship between the art product and the personality of the artist: “The tensions we find resolved or at least defined and dramatized in art are the objective release of tensions in the life of the artist.” One is therefore perhaps justified in pursuing the Hemingway parallel at least part of the way. The tensions that his childhood experiences engendered in Gardner evidently never lost their grip on him. As late as 1979 he stated: “You keep violently fighting for life, for what you think is good and wholesome, but you lose a lot. I think all my struggles toward anything worthwhile are pretty much undermined by psychological doubts. But you keep trying.” Thus Heraclitus’s old maxim—”the way up is the way down”—truly holds for Gardner. This is a fact to bear in mind when assessing the existential seriousness of his life affirmation. There is nothing facile about the basic optimism that controls his books. Gardner was intimately acquainted with personal despair, and as we shall see, his affirmations take into account a number of the major arguments that are traditionally advanced to support a pessimistic view of reality.
The paradigmatic nature of’ ‘Redemption” can hardly be exaggerated. Jack Hawthorne’s self-hatred is generalized into a hatred of the total creation, man and animal. This attraction toward an absurdist view of the world (the motivating force behind Jack Hawthorne’s and—presumably—Gardner’s suicidal inclinations) is explored again and again in Gardner’s fiction. It is usually yoked with an absolutist approach to man and life, a failure to reconcile the discrepancy between the real and the ideal, and the failure to accept human fallibility, which characterizes Jack Hawthorne’s initial response to the death of his brother. I am, of course, not suggesting that in everything Gardner writes lurk the shadows of his brother’s death. But the frequency with which Gardner returns to situations and characters which allow him to explore this kind of tension attests to the biblio-therapeutical nature of his writings, as well as to the formative importance of the accident described in “Redemption.” This is not to say that Gardner’s fiction is narrowly confessional, representing a constant and obsessive picking of the scab over the wound caused by his brother’s death; that would in the end have rendered his novels and stories trivial. What saves his fiction from triviality (in the sense of it being overly private) is the fact that in his personal traumas Gardner has discovered a paradigm, or a metaphor, for what he regards as the central illness of recent Western culture: the inclination to keep peering into the abyss, “counting skulls,” losing oneself in a fashionable attraction toward despair.
In these four stories the answer offered to this type of dilemma is of a very general kind: art has the power to console provided one is receptive. It is probably no coincidence that for his exploration of this very general idea Gardner chose to focus on music, an art form which is almost totally abstract, speaking primarily to our emotions rather than to our intellect. But any art will not do for Gardner. When art moves into the sphere of ideas, for instance in the form of literature, it has to meet certain requirements in order to have the life-giving effect that Gardner thinks it can and ought to have. This is where his concept of moral fiction comes in, and a central axiom of this theory is the idea that art instructs.
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.
Per Winther, “Life Follows Fiction”, in The Art of John Gardner: Introduction and Exploration, State University of New York Press, 1992, pp.9-30.