The dramatic action of grace is rooted in Christology: Christ descended into the world and passed through the particular in order to redeem. This movement is the model for writers with Christic imaginations; they strive to imitate it—or at least make legible its effects. The poet or writer needs to pass through the concrete in order to arrive at insight. Any storyteller worth her salt does this by discovering particulars—telling details, arresting images, revelatory actions, snatches of dialogue—that signify more than themselves “without becoming less actual in so doing,” as Father William F. Lynch contends in Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination. These symbols “make the imagination rise indeed, and yet keep the tang and density of that actuality into which imagination descends.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s posthumously published short story “Thank You for the Light” narrates an action of grace that, though comic, successfully captures how Christ transfigures the mundane and works miracles through the concrete particulars of this world.
Fitzgerald introduces the protagonist Mrs. Hanson as “a pretty, somewhat faded woman of forty, who sold corsets and girdles.” We find that “smoking meant a lot to her sometimes.” Mrs. Hanson is a widow without relatives, and her loneliness is exacerbated by her weak eyes’ inability to endure more than one moving picture per week. Since her reassignment to the Iowa-Kansas-Missouri sales circuit, she’d had difficulty drawing a pull of tobacco. Although “‘nobody who was in the war would ever object to anyone smoking,’” most are wary of a woman taking drags.
One day, Mrs. Hanson is condemning herself as “a drug fiend” and fretting over quitting smoking when she beholds a Catholic cathedral. Not Catholic herself, she amuses us with her musings. “If so much incense had gone up in the spires to God, a little smoke in the vestibule would make no difference,” she supposes, though “the thought offended her.” Reasoning that he wouldn’t mind because “in His days they hadn’t even discovered tobacco,” Mrs. Hanson steps inside only to come up empty when she digs for matches in her bag. Carried away, she decides to “go and get a light from one of their candles.” But as she enters the inner sanctum, she sees an old man striking out the last votive light.
Darkness erases all but the electric chandelier “high overhead” and “the ever-burning lamp in front of the Sacrament.” (The Catholic novelist Ron Hansen has pointed out that Fitzgerald’s choice of “Sacrament” instead of “tabernacle” here gives the story a deep strain of Catholicity.) When the departing sexton asks her if she came to pray, she says, “Yes, I did.” The reader feels the lie stretch into truth as she kneels down in the dim. Rifling through the spare change of her spirit, she “scarcely knew what to pray for.” She utters some pleas on behalf of her clients and employer, and in this moment we are bent over by her utter loneliness.
Mrs. Hanson nods into dreams of the Virgin taking her place on the sales circuit, and when she wakes she finds that “there was a familiar scent that was not incense in the air”—her cigarette is mysteriously alight. Too drowsy to think, she looks into the Madonna’s “vague niche” and thanks her twice, the second time from “on her knees, the smoke twisting up from the cigarette between her fingers.”
The grace that lights Mrs. Hanson's cigarette rings true because it doesn't summon an unbelievable epiphany or a cold call conversion. How hard it is to strike the right balance between what Lynch calls “the definite” (concrete particulars) and the “insights” that we can gain by passing through them. The Christic imaginer must guard against the greedy poetics of “[getting] as much as possible of heaven out of as little as possible of earth.” Mrs. Hanson has no grand transformation. Instead, during her brief sleep in the pew, she dreams of a Madonna who does things the Mother of God would never do: “In her imagination, the Virgin came down . . . and took her place and sold corsets and girdles for her and was tired, just as she was.” In answering her unspoken ask for a light, the miracle absolves her from fretting over at least the sin of smoking in church, and the action of grace solicits more from this sinner than from the nine lepers Christ cleansed: “Thank you very much for the light,” Mrs. Hanson says.
It can be tempting for Christian poets and writers to rush through the finite in order to “send the soul shooting up into some kind of absolute” (Lynch’s phrase). But the best Christic imaginers pass through the tang and density of actuality in their stories in order to work out the characters’ salvations or damnations, proceeding one insight at a time.
Fitzgerald possesses an affection for the real; he is never one to exploit particularities by making them epiphanies. Surely this comes at least in part from his Catholic sensibility; a sacramentality sometimes shimmers through his stories. The Beautiful and Damned begins when “irony,” “the Holy Ghost of this later day,” descends upon its protagonist as “the final polish of the shoe.” The short story “Absolution” unravels a young Jimmy Gatz abandoning the Church in favor of sucking “the pap of life,” of finding “something ineffably gorgeous somewhere that had nothing to do with God.” In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald gives us tragically restless characters who rush to force as much as possible of paradise out of the humble shirts of created things. In “Thank You for the Light,” by contrast, Fitzgerald gives us the widow’s mite, his incarnational imagination passing lovingly through the small, definite things of this world. At the story’s end, Mrs. Hanson remains earthbound, but the smoke of her lit cigarettes lifts our hearts like incense, curling through our brains the smoky, braided praise by which we will inch toward heaven.
Joshua Hren is Assistant Director of the Honors College at Belmont Abbey College and author of This Our Exile: Short Stories.