Heaven's My Destination

by Thornton Wilder

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1880

First published: 1934

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: 1930-1931

Locale: Middle West

Principal Characters:

George Marvin Brush, a traveling salesman

Roberta, a farmer's daughter

George Burkin, a peeping Tom

Herb, a newspaper reporter

Elizabeth, his daughter

The Story

George Marvin Brush, a straitlaced, clean-living nonsmoker and nondrinker of twenty-three, was a salesman for the Caulkins Educational Press; his territory was the Middle West. He was the amusement and the despair of all the traveling salesmen in the same territory who knew him. One day, Doremus Blodgett, a hosiery salesman, caught George in the act of penning a Bible text on a hotel blotter and invited George up to his room to chaff him. The righteousness of George infuriated Blodgett, but the hosiery man was almost reconciled when George admitted to him that he had once wronged a farmer's daughter.

At another time, George withdrew all his savings from the bank. In his attempt to explain to the bank president his plan of voluntary poverty, he insulted that executive by saying that banks owed their existence only to man's fear of insecurity. Thought to be mad, George was jailed, but his ingenuousness confounded even his jailers. One of them, after hearing George propound his theories, withdrew his own savings from the bank.

In Oklahoma City, George again saw Blodgett and his "cousin," Mrs. Margie McCoy. There he talked of the injustice of his receiving raises in pay, to the utter confusion of Blodgett and Mrs. McCoy. He told them that he had gone through college and had had a religious conversion in order to be of an independent mind. All he wanted, he said, was a perfect girl for his wife, six children, and a real American home. He confessed that he was hindered in his quest for these ideals by having wronged a Kansas farm girl, Roberta, whose farm home he had been unable to find since he had left it.

George went from Oklahoma City to the Chautauqua at Camp Morgan, Oklahoma, to see Judge Corey, a state legislator who was interested in textbook contracts. There he was shocked by Jessie, a college girl who believed in evolution; he pestered a distraught businessman who wanted to be left alone; and he turned down Judge Corey's offer of thirty-five thousand dollars and a state job if he would marry the Judge's daughter, Mississippi.

From Camp Morgan, George went to Kansas City, where he stayed in Queenie's boardinghouse with his four wild friends, Herb and Morrie, reporters; Bat, a motion-picture mechanic; and Louie, a hospital orderly. Accord lasted between the four and George as long as George did not preach his antitobacco and antialcohol creeds. They, in turn, restrained their actions and their speech in his presence. Three of them and George, who had a beautiful voice, formed an expert barbershop quartet. In Kansas City, George became the victim of an elaborate practical joke arranged by his friends. After they had tricked him into drunkenness, the five went on a rampage. The second step in their plan to lead George to perdition came when Herb tricked George into going to dinner one Sunday at a brothel. Herb represented the house to George as an old mansion, its proprietor, Mrs. Crofut, as a pillar of Kansas City society, and the troop of prostitutes as her daughters. George, completely duped, was impressed by the graciousness of Mrs. Crofut and by the beauty of her daughters. He treated the girls to a neighborhood motion picture.

Back at Queenie's, George would not believe Herb when his friend told him the truth about Mrs. Crofut's genteel establishment. Irritated by George's priggishness and stupidity, his four friends beat him nearly to death. Later, at the hospital, Louie told George that he ought to live and let live.

Out of the hospital, George continued his bookselling. On a train, he met an evangelist who said that money did not matter; however, George gave the man money when he learned that the man's family was destitute. In Fort Worth, George exasperated a bawdy house proprietor posing as a medium, by telling her that she was a fake.

Having learned that Roberta had taken a job as a waitress in Kansas City, George went there and forced himself upon the girl, who wanted nothing to do with him. He adopted Elizabeth, the daughter of his friend Herb, who died with few illusions about life.

In Ozarkville, Missouri, George angered a father when he talked to the man's young daughter in the street. Then he went to a country store to buy a doll for the girl and became involved in a holdup. Carrying out one of his strange theories, he assisted the amazed burglar. The storekeeper, Mrs. Efrim, thought that George was out of his mind. Arrested, he was put in jail, where he met George Burkin, a film director who had been arrested as a peeping Tom. Burkin explained to George that he peeped only to observe unself-conscious human behavior.

George's trial was a sensation in Ozarkville. The little girl and Mrs. Efrim lied in their testimony, and George attempted to explain his theories of life to a confounded court. When he explained what he called ahimsa, or the theory of reacting to every situation in a manner that was the exact opposite from what was expected, the bewildered judge released him, telling him to be cautious, however, because people were afraid of ideas.

After George and Burkin had left Ozarkville in Burkin's car, they picked up a hitchhiker who turned out to be the burglar whom George had tried to help. George attempted to work his radical theory for the treatment of criminals on the burglar, but the man only fled in confused anger. George and Burkin argued about George's theories, Burkin saying that George had never really grown up, and George claiming that Burkin had thought too much and had not lived enough.

Back in Kansas City, George met Roberta and her sister Lottie for the purpose of reaching a decision in his relationship with Roberta. Lottie suggested that the couple marry and get a divorce as soon as possible, so that Roberta could be accepted again by her family. George, however, could not countenance divorce. Being finally persuaded, Roberta married George and the couple moved into a flat over a drugstore. Their married life, however, grew more and more trying. George found himself taking notes for topics that he and Roberta could safely discuss. They competed for Elizabeth's affections. At last, Roberta decided to leave George and return to the farm.

George, unhappy, continued to sell books. He lost faith and began to lead what many people would call a normal life. At length, he fell sick and was hospitalized. In the hospital, he admitted to a Methodist pastor that he had broken all but two of the ten commandments but that he was glad he had broken them. He shocked the pastor by saying that one cannot get better and better. While in the hospital, he received a spoon which had been willed to him by a man whom he had never met but whom he had admired reciprocally through a mutual friend. He recovered, left the hospital, and reverted to his old ways. George Brush was incurable.

Critical Evaluation:

HEAVEN'S MY DESTINATION is structured around its main character, George Brush, and it is in many ways an involved and complicated study of an all-too-familiar comic hero. Brush is motivated by one outstanding desire, and that is to have a "fine American home." His exploits put him in contact with people and situations that thwart his search; but through these encounters, Thornton Wilder develops a George Brush whom readers look at humorously and sympathetically. The reader would probably find Brush's evangelism obnoxious if he thought Brush to be consciously hostile and aggravating. Yet it is clear from the beginning that George Brush is motivated by a sincere desire to do good. For this reason, he is pathetic. The causes of Brush's misery lie in his own method of reasoning and coming to conclusions. He bases his principles on Christian morality but tries to interpret them strictly and apply them to all people—there is no flexibility in the substance of Brush's ethics. He aspires by his example to change everyone with whom he comes in contact, and he is repeatedly shattered when people laughingly reject him. Yet the impact of their rejection never truly scars George Brush, for he bounces back for more, oblivious to the reasons why people think him such a fool.

This novel is quite different from any other Wilder literary work. In many ways, it is Wilder's approach to immortalizing his own belief that eternity is all-important to the activities of man and that heaven is truly man's destination. Wilder uses plain descriptive prose in this novel and remains fairly objective, allowing the reader to make his own inferences and observations. Wilder is not the philosopher he appears to be in other works. Rather, he attempts to reveal the influences upon him in his own youth and the results of his own religious upbringing. In HEAVEN'S MY DESTINATION, he tries to put these ideas into perspective in terms of a believable character. There are times in the novel when the thoughts and actions of George Brush are very funny, contemporary, and exceedingly familiar. His experiences cannot help but reinforce one's faith in goodness, no matter what the penalties are for trying to achieve it.

Brush is seen in the final pages of the novel as unchanged. Throughout, he has been at odds with what is considered "normal" behavior, and there is no reason to expect that anything will be different in his future life-style. He will continue his travels as a textbook salesman, probably never settling in that "fine American home." His failure is pathetic, and the routineness of his life and search are apparent. Yet it is difficult to put George Brush into a category and unequivocally say that readers like or dislike him. Wilder asserts that he has portrayed Brush with realism, not satire. It is not impossible, however, to see Brush in a highly satiric light in terms of religious enthusiasts and their programs for salvation. Brush, like many with missionary intent, demands a great deal of acceptance and understanding and offers very little in return.


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