Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Good Thing was lost, said the Swamp Woman, when man no longer was content with the “modes” of the Good Thing but wanted its essence. Angered, the gods hid the Good Thing and darkened the world. The mission of humanity is clear to the Swamp Woman: Man should quest, not carp.

Before she sets off for Chicago, Faith Cross has already met two versions of the Good Thing: the conventional Christian notion of salvation, which she briefly accepted, and the carpe diem philosophy of her dead father, who unfortunately could not bring Lavidia into his magic world. Yet even Lavidia, who died criticizing, knew that Faith should set off on a quest; thus, though no quester herself, Lavidia somehow recognized the Swamp Woman’s view of life.

On her quest, Faith meets four men, each of whom represents a different definition of the Good Thing. Arnold T. Tippis believes that he will eventually find an object (a prostitute) which will satisfy him. Tippis, however, poisons the present by always dragging in his past miseries; nor can he live in a pleasant moment, which is always followed by feelings of dissatisfaction. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Mephistopheles would have no hope of capturing Tippis’s soul. Not only is his method faulty, but also Tippis’s object is inadequate.

Fleabitten, sickly, and old, Dr. Richard M. Barrett has dedicated his life to the search for the Good Thing. In hot pursuit of philosophical truth, he has...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

This novel overflows with philosophical content, largely because Charles Johnson himself is an academically trained philosopher. Faith’s search for the good thing almost naturally shapes itself as a search for the essence of the good life and for spiritual certainty in a world darkened by the ineluctable fact of death.

Johnson is certainly concerned with the establishment of self in such a world: How do we (or “I”) form relations with all that is not part of that “I”? How can Faith define an independent and coherent identity amidst a world crowded with imperious “others”? To what degree is “the good thing” linked to the nature of the self?

One of the places Faith looks for answers is in the art that is the story. Storytelling figures largely in this novel as a form that best expresses those qualities of goodness, beauty, and truth that have long been fundamental to the humane life. Unimaginable power resides in the story, in its magic, in its transforming potential; art and artful language shape the chaos of life into a kind of order that allows the self to emerge in full. To grasp the force of language is to discover the energy inherent in the “code,” that secret and subversive pattern of expression known to the surviving selves. That code may be structured upon silence as well as sound: What we hear in the gaps between words may bear as much meaning as the noise of the words themselves, and the code that describes our private selves becomes a language that demands public usage. What...

(The entire section is 625 words.)