Faith and the Good Thing

by Charles Johnson

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 348

Faith and the Good Thing works on several levels simultaneously. At times a realistic account of the experiences endured by African Americans moving from the rural South to the urban North, it is also a folk fable concerning mythic figures such as the Swamp Woman, a combination of philosopher and voodoo priestess. The novel is also, in part, a philosophical inquiry into the nature of physical and spiritual reality and human personality. Finally, it is an adventurous narrative that follows the travels and trials of its title character.

The novel begins when Faith Cross is commanded by her dying mother: “Girl, you get yourself a good thing.” Puzzled, Faith consults the Swamp Woman, incredibly ancient and eerie, who orders Faith to go to Chicago but refuses to reveal just what the good thing will be.

In fact, there seems to be little good in Chicago, where Faith quickly sinks into a life of prostitution and drugs, an episode that the novel describes in a surreal combination of reality and illusion. Here, Johnson displays his ability to combine black folk idioms with rich, evocative language.

Faith is rescued, after a fashion, through her marriage to Isaac Maxwell, a young black reporter for a Chicago newspaper. Maxwell, who speaks constantly of the will to power and who fancies himself a dominant personality, is a portrait of the ineffectual black intellectual cut off from his own heritage and not fully accepted by the white culture. Although Faith’s material wants are satisfied, Maxwell cannot meet her spiritual needs, and her life remains barren and unfulfilled. When she reveals her past to Maxwell, the marriage disintegrates, and Faith is eventually murdered by a former lover. In the novel’s ending, Faith’s spirit returns to Georgia, where it exchanges places with the Swamp Woman.

Faith and the Good Thing was Johnson’s first published novel, although he had written six others previously. He credits Gardner with providing him with much of the discipline and insight required to construct the work, but the themes, characters, and approach are clearly those of its author.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

Lavidia Cross, a black widow in rural Georgia, had little to leave her only daughter, Faith Cross, except a mysterious injunction: Faith must get herself a “Good Thing.” In Faith and the Good Thing, Faith Cross goes to Chicago, first to discover what this Good Thing is and then to acquire it.

Before her mother’s death, Faith had been “saved,” and for a time she had thought that God would bring her happiness, but the idea of the Good Thing supplants salvation as her guiding force. Puzzled, she consults a mysterious werewitch, the Swamp Woman, who sends her to Chicago.

In Chicago, Faith’s pursuit of the Good Thing does not begin auspiciously. A thief steals her money; when she turns to the friendly stranger Arnold T. Tippis for help, he takes her to a hotel, rapes her, and starts her in a career as a prostitute. Faith becomes increasingly dependent on drugs and gin in order to detach herself from the body which she is selling. When she realizes that, in telling the stories of her beloved father, Todd Cross, to her customers, she is also selling him, she knows that the Good Thing is receding beyond her reach. Yet Faith rejects the easy answers of the mission. The Good Thing, she insists, must be in the street, not in the Church.

At this point, the thief who stole her money reappears, identifying himself as Dr. Richard M. Barrett, a philosopher, who is also looking for the Good Thing. In his Doomsday Book, which is empty, Faith can see her own lost childhood, her own home, and all the good of the past, which is all the more precious because it can never be relived. Even after Barrett dies, he haunts Faith, a habit which seems rather a mixed blessing to her.

When Faith meets Isaac Maxwell, a young assistant news editor who is hardworking and ambitious, she thinks that he may be the Good Thing. After all, he is paid regularly and he will do whatever pleases her. Their marriage seems to be the end of her search. A year later, however, Faith feels that she is in bondage to her insecure, chauvinistic husband. When her girlhood love, Alpha Omega Holmes, an ex-convict and a painter, comes back into her life, Faith visits him regularly, supports him, and at last becomes pregnant by him. After Holmes refuses to give up his freedom to commit himself to Faith, and after Maxwell turns her out, Faith finds herself back in the cheap hotel where she had been a prostitute. There is a fire, and both her newborn baby and Faith herself die of burns. Returning to Georgia after her death, Faith tells the Swamp Woman that she is ready to give up her quest. The Swamp Woman convinces Faith that there are elements of the Good Thing in every part of life, and Faith becomes the Swamp Woman, while Faith’s story becomes a folktale.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 728

Faith and the Good Thing is a half-philosophic, half-comic narrative that describes the metaphysical odyssey of young Faith Cross. That narrative is related by a voice that is familiar, folksy, and intrusive; it is a voice, moreover, that Charles Johnson favors in much of his fiction. As a result, readers are ever-conscious of listening to (as much as reading) a story being told by a highly self-conscious storyteller.

The very physical facts of her parents’ deaths have left Faith alone and suddenly dislocated, though there was tension enough in her world even when her parents were alive. Faith’s father, Todd, had been a man fond of the folk story and a believer in the magic of hoodoo and folk belief; he is a sort of Georgia griot who tries to sensitize his daughter to the mystical possibilities of her world and who tries to describe the often indescribable. At the same time, Faith’s mother, Lavidia, has pulled her daughter in the direction of a traditional, conservative Christianity, and from her deathbed leaves Faith with the legacy of the search for what she enigmatically calls “the good thing.”

Trying to identify and to locate that good thing becomes the essence of Faith’s quest. Faith’s first important step in that quest leads her to the Swamp Woman, who lectures Faith on the ambiguities of the good thing itself. Lectures are not enough, however, and after reading a hog’s entrails, the Swamp Woman tells Faith the story of the loss of the good thing (story, storytelling, and the proper “reading” of all sorts of stories figure largely in Johnson’s novel—readers, like Faith, must be able both to tell and to appreciate the telling of a good story). That particular story describes the mythical quest pursued by Kujichagulia—a man literally born with a question upon his tongue—for the good thing. Beaten back and down by the allied forces of nature, Kujichagulia, near death, is saved, nursed, and powerfully loved by a mountain girl named Imani; that love, though, proves less powerful than the need to discover the good thing, and Kujichagulia resumes his quest. Finally, Kujichagulia beholds the good thing and is bathed and warmed by its light, but the effect of his discovery is too great. He dies simultaneously knowing and losing the good thing.

The story, as Faith comes to learn, is as much the good thing as the subject of that story is. The good thing itself is a thing now hidden, a “wish deferred.” What truly matters, the Swamp Woman tells her, is that the story of the good thing be good and true and beautiful. That is Johnson’s aim in his novel, and that is the Swamp Woman’s aim in her tale. With the wisdom and music of the Swamp Woman’s voice ringing in her ears, Faith heads off in the direction of Chicago.

The alien landscape of Chicago, however, only heightens Faith’s dislocation, and a nature that is already precarious, fragile, and innocent suffers mightily on the mean streets. Robbery, rape, and prostitution, in quick succession, annihilate Faith’s personality, strip her of her essence, and turn her into a mere object. Her quest for the good thing veers radically off course and sends her into “West Hell.”

Temporary redemption presents itself in the form of a marriage to Isaac Maxwell, a marriage Faith manipulates into being. The marriage provides an immediate ascension into the material comforts of middle-class life, but it does not unlock the secret to the good thing. Indeed, nothing good really ever comes of this marriage, largely because of Faith’s failure to assert her own self and her own identity. When Faith asserts what she feels to be her own desire, her own will, and involves herself with Alpha Omega Holmes, that assertion leads to pregnancy, childbirth, abandonment, and fiery death.

Faith has little choice, finally, but to return to Georgia, where, coming full circle, she seeks and discovers the meaning of the good thing in the being of the Swamp Woman herself. Identities are there exchanged, as are the secrets and stories inherent in those identities. Faith relocates herself and discovers within that self the elements of the good, the true, and the beautiful. These elements, says Johnson, sustain us and are, in fact, always with us.

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