In his 2007 short story “Good People,” the late novelist David Foster Wallace shows us the tormented conscience of a Christian whose fidelity to the Gospel is compromised by his reverence for autonomy. Wittingly or not, Wallace gives real presence to the deep damage caused by the idea of perfectly liberated choice—the dogma of absolute consent.
The protagonists of “Good People” are college kids of considerable good will. They cannot shake the sense that, in plotting to abort the child they’ve unintentionally conceived, they’ve staged themselves as antagonists of Christ. Though nursed under the regime of self-sovereignty—what Patrick Deneen describes as one of the “most damaging fictions” of our day—they recognize the violent, suctioning vacuum at the center of their decision. And they cannot chant the therapeutic newspeak of “reproductive rights” or “my body, my choice.”
The story opens with teeming silence. Atop a foodless lakeside picnic table, stuck in frigid quiet, neither Lane A. Dean, Jr. nor his girlfriend, Sheri, names the procedure she has scheduled for later in the day. But all the objects surrounding them—be it the “torn up hole in the ground” or the “downed elm” that “shed cells into the water”—pulse with their soon-to-be-decimated child. More tortuous than all else is Lane’s heart, for though he “knew it was wrong, knew something was required of him,” he remains mum about what is “right and true,” pretending that he does so for the sake of “her needs and feelings.”
Lane is painfully wary of coercion; at his community college, he has imbibed some watered-down version of Jean-François Lyotard’s assertion that “persuasion is also violence and suppression.” Typically when Lane turns a matter “over to Jesus Christ in prayer” he finds himself “putting his fist in his palm and turning it slightly as if still playing and pounding his glove to stay sharp and alert in center.” On this day by the lake, though, this prayerful gesture feels “cruel and indecent”—apparently he worries that the slightest hint of a fist would imply coercion.
He temporarily calms his conscience with the promise of accompaniment: he “reassures her again that he’d go with her and be there with her,” construing this as the only “safe or decent” thing he could really say. But Sheri laughs in an “unhappy way that was more just air out her nose,” sobering him with the fact that he couldn’t possibly accompany her during the abortion since he’d be in the waiting room.
Through Lane’s tormented lens, Sheri appears “serious in her faith and values,” a trait he once found admirable and attractive but is now “afraid of.” This fear has kept Lane from seeking their pastor’s counsel. The avoidance convinces him that what he and Sheri did, far from having the “consecration of its own” claimed by Hawthorne’s Hester and Dimmesdale, instead “was a true sin and not just a leftover rule from past society.”
St. John Henry Newman notes that liberalism’s own first principles tame, transvalue, or exile the faith’s first principles. Liberalized souls claim “rights of conscience such that every one may lawfully advance a claim to profess and teach what is false and wrong in matters religious, social, and moral, provided that to his private conscience it seems absolutely true and right.” If the latter were true, Newman explains, it would logically follow that “individuals have the right to preach and practice fornication”—or to kill the fruits of fornication.
Ruled till now by his own unfettered choice, Lane starts to see—almost too late—that limits to his autonomy are actually salvific. Unchosen truths begin to intrude on Lane’s conscience, liberating him from the fiction of self-mastery that he wears like a straitjacket. At that moment, the possibility of perpetual separation from God appears in his private crucible.
Contrasting Sheri’s goodness with his own corruption, he begins to ruminate on hell and damnation; previously, when the topic came up in worship service he had “tuned himself out and tolerated hell when it came up, the same way you tolerate the job you’ve got to have to save up for what it is you want.” But now, realizing how easily he lies to someone so full of faith and trust, he sees himself as the hypocrite of I Timothy who “disputeth over words.” He even wonders how he can even claim to pray. Stripped of smooth talk, he begins to feel a “taste of the reality of what might be meant by Hell.” Hell, he sees, would be extended alienation both from Sheri and from God, however close he has fashioned himself to both.
Wallace juxtaposes Lane’s frozenness with hell’s “burning lake of fire,” which until now Lane had thought incompatible with a “God of compassion.” Like Dante, Lane begins to see the core of hell as frigidity, not fire; as an immobile stalemate that could stretch into eternity:
motionless, looking across at each other, and seeing therein something so different and alien from themselves that they could not understand, could not hear each other’s speech as even words or read anything from what their face looked like, frozen like that, opposed and uncomprehending, for all human time.
But then it is as if this hellish horror itself ushers in a thaw, though one flush with ambiguities. Immediately after Lane attempts to downplay the “reality of what might be meant by Hell,” a “part of the lake further out flashed with sun.” By the sunlight, “you could see into the shallows”—a shallowness that seems more than literal.
Alone, Lane can do no more than see “just under the shallows’ surface,” and at this precise point he experiences “a type of vision” he later will call a “moment of grace.” If the story is the site of a conscience caught between a culture of “choice” and a Christian ethic of self-transcending, then this moment of grace is somewhat suspect.
Near the story’s end, Lane dreams of Sheri saying she “searched inside herself and decided” that she “cannot do it”—she cannot undo their child. This conclusion comes off as a fantasy founded more on the fiction of consent than on the Gospel’s uncompromising demands. Lane’s imagined Sheri insists that “this is her own decision and obliges him to nothing.” She encourages him to pursue his own happiness and repeatedly reassures the father of her child that she “make[s] no claim on Lane” except “respecting what she has to do.” What Lane receives as “grace” seems to be freedom from any obligation. That is, he cooks up a scenario in which choice—untethered from duty or innate goodness—is the first and final measure of his acceptance of Sheri and their child. True, neither grace nor natural law overrides will, but the goods of our burdens are not good insofar as they are free.
For a conscience coddled by a culture of self-definition and consent, choice cloaked as grace will always be preferable to real, unchosen burdens. Still, Lane is conscientious enough to see that his fantasized Sheri is “lying” when she releases him from all responsibility to her and their child. Lane can be brought to embrace the natural content of fatherhood’s burden, a responsibility that he has until now “pretended . . . had no name.”
Such a hard, engraved truth offers rescue from the hell of interminable deliberation—which, as Alasdair MacIntyre has argued, is the hallmark of modern moral theory. Should we rejoice or suspend hope when such a soul as Lane, seeing that the mother of his child “has no other options or choice,” concludes by wondering, for the first time, “why is he so sure he doesn’t love her?” Should we be critical of Lane’s interminable questioning, or thrilled that he can ask at all, in language true to his shallow devotion yet reaching beyond what his immature heart can fully grasp: “What would even Jesus do?”