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A Descriptive Annotation

The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists (Ralph C. Wood, 1988)

Annotated by Michael DiResto

Wood, Ralph C. The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and Comic Vision in Four American Novelists. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988. xiii, 310 pp.

Wood states in his introduction to this study of Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, John Updike, and Peter De Vries that he looks upon tragedy and comedy "as theological no less than as literary categories" (2), and the opening chapters explore their relationship to Christian faith. Throughout the book Wood seeks to demonstrate that "Christian faith has an indissoluble connection with comic vision" (1). Against theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's contention that "there is no comedy in the redemption wrought at Calvary," Wood argues, with the aid of theologian Karl Barth, that "Jesus' death and resurrection render human existence comic in both its roots and its ramifications. Christian faith is comic . . . in the profoundest sense of the word" (1). This discussion forms the backdrop for Wood's treatment of these novelists as "comic artists in the theological sense of the term" (2).

In the first of the two chapters devoted specifically to Percy, Wood examines the Christian comedic roots of Percy's satiric vision, which developed, Wood argues, "in response to the two chief influences on his life: his adoptive father, William Alexander Percy; and his adopted philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard" (133-34). According to Wood, although Percy greatly admired his "Uncle" Will's heroic Stoicism and what it afforded one in the ethical question of how to live, he ultimately rejected it for what it could not say about the metaphysical question "why live?" Wood stresses the similarities between Will's vision of the world and that of Aunt Emily Cutrer in The Moviegoer, claiming that Binx Bolling's renunciation of the latter parallels Percy's dissatisfaction with the pessimism of the former. In fact, Wood describes Will Percy's vision as being less a Stoicism than a Catonism, an exaltation of "austere aristocratic virtues" (139) coupled with a pessimistic scorn for the modern democratic forces that undermine them. Percy's own struggle with his noble yet self-destructive patrimony Wood sees reflected in Will Barrett's memories of his forefathers in The Last Gentleman.

Percy's desire for "a more liberating vision of life than a venerable past can itself supply" (143) is what led to his belief in and conversion to the Roman Catholic faith. According to Wood, Percy revolted even more against a modern scientific reductionist premise "that the human and physical worlds are alike in being utterly self-contained" (145). Percy sensed that scientific humanism says nothing about the individual or what it is to be human, yet he was able to attain, in Kierkegaard's critique of Hegel's "uninhabitable system of existence," a rediscovery of "the unique individual" and "the redemptive God" (146). Percy's quest to find the essence of the human as more than mere "anthropoid," Wood claims, further led him to declare that "we are 'hearers of the Word'" (150), claiming speech to be the essential human feature, and sparked his interest in the semiotic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce (151).

The second chapter more closely examines The Moviegoer and the relationship between Binx Bolling and the novel's other characters, suggesting that the central scheme of the novel consists in Binx's ranking of his acquaintances on an "ascending hierarchy of self-consciousness" (163). There are those, like Binx's Uncle Jules, who occupy "the lowest rung on the ladder of oblivious despair" (163), and those at "the apex of self-conscious hopelessness" (164), like his Aunt Emily. Binx does not exclude himself from this hierarchy, however, and he honestly gauges that he too occupies the highest level of self-conscious despair. In what Wood calls Percy's most autobiographical novel, Binx's satire of himself equals the author's own self-castigation. And, for both, the only escape from stultifying self-consciousness is the comic hope of Christian faith, which Wood finds pervasive in the climactic Dostoevskian "hurrah" of the novel's final scene (176).

There is no bibliography, but the notes to the chapters are clear and thorough. The index includes proper names and references to the works of the four novelists.

Graduate Seminar (Spring 1997)
John R. May, Professor
Department of English
Louisiana State University