Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Although Faith and the Good Thing is rich in allusions to philosophy, to literature, and to the major elements in the black experience, and although it has elements of the folktale, essentially it falls into the genre of the philosophical novel. The pattern is familiar. A young person, discontented with his surroundings, travels in search of the secret of happiness. On the way he has various adventures, but, more important, he meets a number of people. Generally, none of them has found the secret. At the end of the story, the seeker may, like Rasselas, still be uncertain of the answer. Faith has at least redefined the Good Thing as being composed of fragments, but then, she has had to pass through death in order to attain the wisdom of the Swamp Woman.

Among the other elements of the traditional philosophical novel which are evident in Faith and the Good Thing are the lost-paradise motif and the acquisition of a companion in the quest. While sometimes the companion (or several companions) is with the quester throughout the story, on occasion he accompanies the quester only part of the way. In this novel, Dr. Richard M. Barrett offers to search with Faith, and she thinks that a coworker would be helpful. For some time, they explore the philosophical world together, and even after his death, Barrett returns to haunt—and presumably, to help—Faith. When she decides on the marriage to Maxwell, Faith must reject her ghostly companion, who is trying to dissuade her.

Finally, there is a lost-paradise motif in the novel. Even though the sharecropper’s farm in Georgia is no Happy Valley of princely luxury, when she looks in the Doomsday Book of Dr. Barrett, Faith sees all of the beauty of her lost childhood—a beauty that is perfect, she realizes, because she can never return to it. That experience of fragmentary memories, which create a paradise from what was in reality a mixture of happiness and misery, suggests the wisdom at which Faith will arrive at the end of the novel.