The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Because Faith and the Good Thing is a philosophical novel with an element of folktale, the characters are less clearly developed than they might be in a realistic novel. Dr. Richard M. Barrett, Arnold T. Tippis, Isaac Maxwell, and Alpha Omega Holmes all represent different versions of the Good Thing, and therefore their personal qualities are subordinated to their almost allegorical significance.

Furthermore, the folktale element of the novel, which is the source of much of its charm, nevertheless permits characters to escape from the normal requirements of realism into unexplained motives and actions. Lavidia Cross is persuaded to die because she hears that a human being is permitted only a preordained number of breaths. Similarly, Dr. Richard M. Barrett, the thief and philosopher, rather surprisingly returns Faith’s money and stays to become, for a time, the center of her life, with his empty Doomsday Book, in which Faith can read the story of her childhood.

As for the Swamp Woman, whenever she appears, she delivers oracular truths and performs magic; one cannot, however, explore her motivations any more than one can those of Dr. Barrett. At the end of the novel, when the Swamp Woman delivers her identity to the dead Faith, it is clear that Johnson is making a philosophical point rather than revealing the psychology of a real character. The storyteller who reappears to speak the last sentences in the novel refuses to deal in truth. If it is good, and...

(The entire section is 607 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Faith Cross

Faith Cross, a beautiful young black woman in search of the “Good Thing” who undergoes a spiritual odyssey from the superstitions of backwoods Georgia to the harsh realities of urban Chicago. Initially sweet and naïve, she is rapidly stripped of the illusions nurtured in her by the sheltered environment of her youth. Soon after her arrival in the city, she is robbed and raped, and she progressively hardens in her life to become an alcoholic and a drug-addicted prostitute. Successively rejecting the religion of her youth and several philosophical theories to which she is introduced by her male acquaintances, she tries to find the Good Thing in a materialistic marriage to an ambitious newspaper writer, only to be disappointed once again. The deteriorating marriage finally dissolves after Faith becomes pregnant by another man. Faith is once again alone in resigned despair. Shortly after giving birth to a baby girl, Faith is fatally burned. At her death, she returns to her childhood home and is transformed into a witch who finally realizes the truth of the Good Thing.

The Swamp Woman

The Swamp Woman, a one-eyed, grotesquely misshapen witch who tells Faith that she must go to Chicago and to whom Faith returns at the novel’s end. She lives in a shack filled with books and objects associated with necromancy, including a magic urn in which Faith sees her fate. The Swamp Woman tells Faith the story of the legendary Kujichagulia, who pursued and finally discovered the Good Thing only to be killed by the gods for his forbidden knowledge; his wife, Imani, follows him in his quest but is instead pitied by the gods and initiated into the mysteries of essential truth. The Swamp Woman reveals herself to be Imani, still questioning, still exploring, but able to lead Faith to knowledge of the Good Thing. At the end of the novel, the Swamp Woman unzips her skin and steps out of...

(The entire section is 788 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Faith Cross bears the philosophical burden of her name: She searches for meaning, holding on to a faith that at times weighs her down. Competing modes of belief flow through her like the blood in her veins, feeding both heart and mind with the energies of spiritual desire. Her quest moves through descent and ascent, and at that quest’s end, Faith emerges resilient and reborn and literally reimagined.

Faith’s origins in the deep South implicate her in a complex web of belief: folk legend, African hoodoo, revivalist Christianity. Those varied strands work to entangle her in a philosophical crisis, although Faith, in her youth and innocence, hardly recognizes the extent of that crisis. Told by the Swamp Woman that she is a “Number One”—a good person, but one who must be directed on the right path to avert disaster—Faith elects a path that she hopes will lead her to the good thing her mother described in her dying breath. As she later learns, though, that path is but one of many to the good thing.

The characters she encounters along that path all figure as philosophical emblems—the quest becomes nearly allegorical—as well as flesh-and-blood eccentrics in an eccentric landscape. Each character who enters and disrupts Faith’s life has a story to tell, and usually that story ends up challenging Faith’s own slowly developing confidence in herself and in the good thing. Only Richard M. Barrett, the penitent robber and philosopher,...

(The entire section is 501 words.)