[Post #4 on Guroian, Tending the Heart of Virtue, chapters 2-4]
In our last post on Guroian’s great book, we discussed the difference between virtues and values, and how classical stories narrate the transformation of the human person through the acquisition and sustenance of virtue. Values have a place, but a subordinate one to virtue. In today’s post, which will be the penultimate reflection on Guroian’s Tending the Heart of Virtue, I will offer a summary of chapters 2-4, and Guroian’s interpretations of the various stories he explores there.
In chapter 2, Guroian focuses on Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. The puppet-protagonist of this story yearns to be a good, faithful, real son to Gepetto, his father. As is true of all good literature, fiction can speak truth through metaphor and symbol. Noting that “being a young child is very much like being a marionette,” i.e. subject primarily to “the notion that who I am is mostly what is done to me and what happens to me,” Guroian goes on to draw a further analogy: “the wood [of which he is made] is Pinocchio’s own recalcitrant nature, that is, a nature affected by a will turned against that nature’s own good” (49).
In the story, Pinocchio’s dishonesty and susceptibility to cheap thrills represent ways in which he turns his will against his own – and others’ – good. At the story’s culmination, however, Pinocchio comes to learn that being a real child brings with it a certain accountability to others. To his credit, at the story’s end Pinocchio “embraces the moral obligations and responsibilities that connect him vitally to father, mother, sister, neighbors, and even strangers” (54). He has attained, and been adopted, to the status of sonship.
In chapter 3, Guroian turns his attention to two other well-known stories, The Velveteen Rabbit and Hans Christian Andersen’s version of The Little Mermaid. The former, much like Pinocchio, puts forth the idea that relationships founded in love are the basis for a person’s real identity. Being beloved of others, or even a single other person, establishes the self in a confidence that nonetheless calls forth acts of selflessness, given freely. The story conveys this figuratively inasmuch as the effect of the boy’s love transforms (via a good fairy) the velveteen rabbit into a real rabbit, thus freeing him from the objective status of toy. For to the Boy who owned him, he was never just a toy-object, but much more.
In Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, similar themes of love and immortality are explored. Significantly different than the sanitized Disney film character, Andersen’s mermaid is concerned less with gaining legs to live on land and more with acquiring an immortal soul. Insofar as a human man falls in love with her, she learns, such a hope may be fulfilled. Romantic love is thus affirmed, but not put forward as the ultimate purpose of existence. It is a good aspect of human life that nonetheless points toward eternity.
However, because of a mistake she makes in agreeing to a pact with a sea-witch, the mermaid must ultimately make a radical decision at the story’s end: to either kill her beloved and live as a mermaid for three more centuries, or to die at sunrise and surrender her hopes for immortality, but in doing so spare the life of her beloved. Because she chose the latter, and sacrificed herself for the life of another, the greater celestial powers benevolently grant her the immortality she had initially desired.
The message of such a powerful eucatastrophe (unexpected happy turn) expands the reader’s moral imagination, disposing it toward virtuous selflessness rather than craven selfishness. When the mermaid’s sacrifice is seen rightly within Andersen’s deeply Christian story, there is a vital Christian lesson for adults as well as children: “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26). The mermaid’s choice exemplifies the difficult path of renouncing the world’s promise of mere happiness in the hope of a greater promise.
Chapter 4 explores three different stories, each about animals, in which friendships across species play a significant role: The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte’s Web, and Bambi. Children relate well to stories about animals, also known as apologues, especially because episodes of danger and risk are sufficiently externalized in them to be embarked upon and enjoyed.
But apologues can also show forth models for wholesome human interaction to which young readers come to aspire. Play, risk, cleverness in self-defense, compassion, reconciliation, and worship are all activities that characterize and reorient the real depth and potential of friendship, as seen in these stories.
In them, the reader learns that “complementarity and not uniformity is the spice that adds flavor to good friendships, with special needs and unique gifts mixed and matched to create strong bonds of companionship” (88). Whether Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad from Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, or Wilbur the pig and Charlotte the spider in White’s Charlotte’s Web – friendships across species emphasize the importance of differences in temperament or mindset.
Such differences can, admittedly, introduce tension. Yet put to their proper purpose of mutual edification, differences of personality or perspective can augment the vitality of a friendship and the growth in virtue that it encourages: “friends with real virtues […] in combination contribute to the moral growth of all the friends” (97).
This is the high calling of friendship defined initially by Aristotle in Book VIII of his Nicomachean Ethics, and transcended rather unfathomably through God’s gracious befriending of humankind in His Incarnation: “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). And there is no greater paradigm for the self-sacrifice and love of true friendship than what is taught and exemplified by our Lord Jesus Himself: “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). In how many of our friendships could such love apply?
(In the next post, we’ll survey chapters 5-6 and the conclusion to Guroian’s Tending the Heart of Virtue. See you then…)