A Better Place Than Paradise

Good Will, a novella by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley, is about that longing in all of us for a sense of wholeness or completion. Reviewed by Dolores E. Brien


Good Will, a novella by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley, is about that longing in all of us for a sense of wholeness or completion. We want to experience that wholeness as an affirmation that we are living our lives in the best possible way. In Good Will, however, Smiley seems to be saying maybe wholeness isn't everything, at least, not what we imagine it to be or try to make it out to be. This is especially true if we strive after a wholeness which does not recognize or make room for the impulses in us which do not come from our conscious "good will" but from something that is deeper, darker, less conscious and often characterized by "bad will." If this shadow side remains unacknowledged and unaccepted as part of one's life, it can be disruptive and even destructive. But it will sometimes act so, not as a blow struck against life, but on behalf of that part of life which is being ignored and suppressed.

Good Will begins with the narrator, Bob Miller, being interviewed for a book about innovative gardening. What really surprises his interviewer is not so much the well laid out beds of flowers and vegetables, but the fact that the Millers managed to live that year on only $343.97, most of which went to pay property taxes. A Vietnam veteran, Bob, together with his wife Liz and seven-year-old son Tom, lives three miles outside Moreton, a small village not far from State College in Pennsylvania. The land was bought cheap at an estate sale and everything—house, barns, workshop—has been built by his own labor. The tools and equipment, the furnishings in the house, the clothes on their backs, the bedding and linens have all been made by Bob and Liz or inherited, acquired by barter, or found in other people's trash, or purchased for next to nothing at Goodwill. They eat tasty, wholesome food grown in their garden and supplied by the few animals they raise. They have no electricity and therefore no telephone and no TV. They do not own an automobile, but either walk the three miles into town or ski there in the dead of winter. Tom goes to elementary school in Moreton, but Liz and Bob are considering taking him out of school and teaching him at home. In a word, they are as self-sufficient as it is possible to be.

Bob never gives a reason for having chosen the life he has. He is no ideologue and certainly no introvert. Rather, explains Bob, "imagination is the key." He saw it all as he wanted it to be and then built it accordingly. The interviewer is impressed. "Your lives are so completely of a piece," she says. "This spot is paradise, isn't it?" The Millers seem to have achieved a kind of enviable wholeness which compensates for whatever conveniences they have given up. But for Bob at least there is no sense of having given up anything. On the contrary, he is often overwhelmed by wonder and gratitude for the beautiful life he enjoys.

The idea of containment has been associated with the feminine. But in this story it is Bob, husband and father, who does the containing, who craves a contained world. "We're self-contained," Bob tells the interviewer, "not isolated and hostile." Their friends in town seem to play no significant role in their lives. Bob, Liz, and Tom are the only company they need. The land provides the physical container. Most of it, he tells us, runs up the hillsides "in a bowl shape"; he loves "this bowl of a valley" in which he has built his home, which is "soothingly beautiful, safe, and self-contained." Tom's room, in which everything was made by Bob or Liz—his toys as well as the bed and the quilts—Bob describes as a "lovely sea, I think, tiny, enclosed, friendly, all his, and his alone."

In January when their pond is frozen solid, the Millers go skating. Liz and Tom skate-separately, but in some kind of secret communication with each other. Always slightly jealous of the bond between the son and his mother, Bob begins to skate around Tom. The phrase, he tells us, popped into his head: "running rings around him." And so he does, looping around the boy again and again. The play between them is exhilarating, but there is at the same time a subtle sense of menace. "I am a fence," Bob exults, "a palisade, a moat, enclosing him." Finally, the play is over, but Bob wants "to skate rings around the two of them, slow, lazy orbits lasting days, a ritual of discreet containment."

This container, this "wholeness," has been created by Bob with love and "good will," but it is a container, nonetheless, which keeps Liz and Tom virtual prisoners, forcing them to repress energies and instincts which would be unacceptable to Bob, who wants, above all, their well-being but on his own terms. He is a benevolent patriarch who values the family and loving relationships, but he is blind to the drive for personal growth which, at some point, may become so urgent that it will literally shatter the container which has become too small to hold it any longer. As the story makes clear, it is the shadow side which is required to do the breaking.

According to Jung's typology, Bob might be seen as an extraverted sensate type, indicated by his loving, sensuous descriptions of his land, his house and its furnishings, his workshop, the animals. He is pleased that the interviewer praises his work with the garden, not by words but in "the sensuality and pleasure of her gestures, the way she lingers over each bed." This is something he understands. His wife observes that Bob "only pretends to have opinions, but the real truth about him is that his senses are about three times sharper than normal." A reason for following this way of life is superfluous; it is more than enough that it exists, really, palpably, that it can be seen, touched, tasted, felt, enjoyed, and embraced.

Bob is genuinely a man of good will. His love for his wife and child is unquestionable. He rejoices and delights in them. Every time Liz leaves his presence, he admits, his eyes follow her with longing. He reflects frequently about his role as Tom's father and works conscientiously at being the best possible father to the boy. He plans for Tom's "molding and guidance." "All his life," he says, "we have been devising things for his benefit; he has been our experimental subject, and I admit he has been a good one, receptive, appreciative, flexible about ideas."

As the story unfolds, it becomes evident that he does not know who his wife or child really are and what is going on inside them. For all his love, he seems surprisingly incurious about their inner lives. What Bob seems to care about more than anything else is to ensure the safety and serenity of their self-made paradise.

It becomes clear to the reader, although not to Bob, that Liz and Tom want out of paradise. They don't have words for it, and indeed don't appear to be conscious of their feeling of entrapment. On the surface they seem to be content with their situation as is Bob. Liz initiates, however, conflicting messages, suggesting some ambivalence. (She wants Tom to continue going to Moreton to school; Bob doesn't.) In time, however, the psyche, forced by the shadow, will find its way out. Docile, grateful to Bob, loving him as they do, they nevertheless become the agents which eventually destroy this paradise.

Liz's gesture of rebellion is a modest one, but Bob finds it threatening nonetheless. She turns to religion, as women have traditionally done. Inexplicably to Bob, she has begun to pray each night by the side of the bed. Bob hates her doing it: "That, both the unfailing regularity of it, and the awkwardness of its insertion in our nightly routine, is the real bone of contention." Obviously, their nightly routine cannot include Liz's desire to pray.

To make matters worse, Liz decides she wants to go to church. She explores the various possibilities Moreton offers, including the Catholic, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian churches, but to Bob's shock, she chooses a Pentecostal sect, "The Bright Light Fellowship." (And she a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania! ) Is it because she craves "fellowship" other than that of her son and husband? Or did she want to shock Bob with her choice? Bob does not stop her but makes it evident by his behavior that he is displeased. When Tom asks one Sunday to go along with Liz to church, Bob, refusing to change his schedule, makes Tom choose between taking out his beloved foal for practice or going with Liz. Tom stays home.

But it is the good, mild-mannered, obliging child, Tom, who is the catalyst that brings the catastrophe to their paradise. One day, Bob and Liz are informed that Tom had taken and torn apart two dolls belonging to Annabel Harris, the only African American child in the school. They are understandably upset and punish him accordingly. Tom's continued acts of vandalism, each one increasingly violent, are a mystery to his mother and father, and worsened because they seem provoked by racism-an attitude that would not have been tolerated. When it dawns on Bob and Liz that Annabel was the first black person Tom had ever seen, Bob feels uneasy, even shocked. "'It's weird to think that this is all he's ever known.' Liz's glance is sly. 'Wasn't that the point?'"

Each incident of vandalism follows an occasion in which Tom witnesses the death of an animal: the killing of the spring lambs, the killing of the turkey his father proudly shot for the Thanksgiving meal, and the death by drowning of his beloved foal. Tom had been a "miraculous child," open, obedient. But there are times when he gets what Bob and Liz call that "look," "when his face is too bright, his eyes too eager and a kind of rigidity takes over." Unknowingly the child seems to identify with these creatures, who have no control over their existence. Like them, Tom has nothing to say about his own life but is subject to his father's will. To turn his anger against his father would be unthinkable. Instead, he projects his anger onto Annabel.

Shortly after Liz had declared herself "saved," a condition Bob cannot understand or appreciate, Liz finally abandons going to church. She cannot live with two of them, she declares, two of them being God and Bob. She cannot bear any longer the fact that going to church is "one long departure from you and Tom and the place and the routine." At first she found it fun, a challenge, a subtle act of revenge. Seeing his shock at this last remark, she says to Bob, "You always think too well of me." She loves him because he sees beauty in everything but admits that "scares me too." When he says he sees beauty in her, she cries out, "Don't evade me," and lashes out at him: "There is something about each other that each of us has to see! If you come too close, it will go out of focus, and we won't see it." Their very intimacy, friendship, their love for one another, has become a barrier to their seeing each other as each really is and is a refusal to admit to a dark, repressed side. But when he asks her what it is they won't or can't see, she cannot explain. She's trying to work it out, she says, and she cries out in anguish: "I am trying to bring it up. I am literally trying to bring something up, as if I were choking on it, but I don't know what it is. Why don't you help me?" And she bursts into tears. Bob wants to give the appropriate response but cannot. His responses have always been "primitive ones, mostly sensuous" and aesthetic. The worst part of an argument for Bob is that it is "aesthetically jarring." But momentarily, he has a glimmer of what might be the matter: "A part of me that is undeveloped is being called upon to respond appropriately. The most I dare is a dramatic, annoyed sigh."

The interviewer sends Bob a draft of the chapter describing her visit. Bob is not flattered by her portrayal of him. "Miller's manner is not unlike that of some powerful and wealthy CEO. He does what he wants, the way he wants to do it. Surely this comes from rejecting the power of money, and from cultivating his ability to grow, build, catch, or find everything he not only needs, but wants." He may not have been flattered, but the observation is lost on him, for he continues to behave as the CEO of his own private corporation. Among his possessions that he has needed, wanted, and gotten are his wife and child.

The ominous and yet-for Bob-fascinating intrusion of the world is represented by the African American child Annabel and particularly by her mother, Lydia Harris, a mathematics professor at State College and a sophisticated, elegant, understanding woman, to whom Bob is sexually attracted. He admires her detachment toward her child, the fact, for instance, that she can watch her daughter in order to discover how she acts, whereas he watches Tom to be sure that he acts "properly."

An aside here—I wish that Smiley had not resorted to the use of an African American child and woman to represent the intruding "other." By now it is a cliche which should have exhausted itself. But it hasn't and probably never will, as Toni Morrison makes clear in her unflinching assessment of the white literary imagination. The white writer in America, she claims, needs this Africanist presence, this Africanist persona as a way of talking about the self and of probing the fears, desires, longings, terror, and shame of that self. And this is, of course, exactly the purpose Lydia and Annabel serve in this story.

For a time Tom's aggression toward Annabel seems to have resolved itself, so much so that Lydia and Annabel come to the pond to skate with the Millers. But unexpectedly Tom strikes one last and fatal time against these "niggers," by intentionally causing the Harris's house to burn to the ground. The result is not only disastrous for Lydia and Annabel but also for the Millers, who are forced to give up their farm, leave Moreton in disgrace, and move to State College to find employment. Liz takes a job as a secretary, Tom goes to the local school, and Bob works as a stone mason and carpenter at the college. Because their style of life seemed to the larger community (including social workers, lawyers, judges, and psychologists) to have been so extreme as to be negligent, Liz and Bob may even lose custody of Tom.

Bob does not allow himself to mourn the past much. He is aware now that "even the love I had been so sure of—for Tommy, and Liz, for the valley, for this work, this soil, this air—was primarily self-inflating." Referring to his visits to the psychologist, he has what is, for him, a remarkable insight:

But it seems to me that what they want of me is to make another whole thing, the way I made a whole of my family, my farm, my time, a bubble, a work of art, a whole expression of my whole self. No, I say, though only to myself (the counselor has real power over our custody arrangement). Let us have fragments, I say. Let the racial hatred that has been expressed through us lie next to the longing I feel for Lydia Harris; let Tom's innocence lie next to his envious fury; let Liz's grief for the farm lie next to her blossoming in town; let my urge to govern and supply every element of my son's being lie next to our tenuous custody; let the poverty the welfare department sees lie next to the wealth I know was mine. If these things are allowed, if no wholes are made, then it seems to me that I can live in town well enough, and still, from time to time, close my eyes and feel a warm, wet breeze move up the valley, hear the jostling and lowing animals in the barn, smell the mixed scent of chamomile and wild roses and warm grassy manure and remember the vast, inhuman peace of the stars pouring across the night sky above the valley, as well as the smaller, nearer, but not too near, human peace of the lights of Moreton, scattered over the face of Snowy Top.

He had believed one could consciously create a whole life for oneself, without making room for the unexpected, for the unplanned, what will come whether or not we like it, are prepared for it or not. Throughout the story Bob tells us he likes to be prepared for everything, to plan for everything. He wanted to keep everything he loved—land, wife, and child—safe, secure, serene, contained. But the world will intrude, and it is not always for the worst, even though it may certainly seem so.

Now Bob not only accepts but welcomes the fragmentation of experience. Tom is adjusting well, he likes living in town, has made friends and is saving his money to buy a hipper bicycle. Liz cried over their loss and their shame, but Bob notices that she has made friends at work "and also does something I remember my mother doing—traveling around the kitchen, sink to stove to refrigerator, telephone receiver wedged between her cheek and shoulder." She also goes to the Episcopalian Church. She has finally become connected to a larger life than Bob was able to make for her. Despite their loss, which is real enough, they are happier now than they were in their self-made paradise.

Bob never bothered to find out what it was that Tom and Liz really wanted. They didn't know themselves, and so could not help him or themselves. They did not dare, could not ask themselves, did not dream of asking themselves is this really what I want, need. The cost would have been too great, for it would have meant betraying too great a love. There is poignancy in Liz, otherwise so smart, witty and articulate, in her inability to come up with what it was she found lacking in him and in each other and in their life together. For a fleeting moment, Bob realizes something is undeveloped in him that needs to come out. This is true of Liz and Tom as well. Not brought into consciousness, that undeveloped, unnourished, ignored side finally broke loose, violently, demanding to be recognized and accepted. It is the child, Tom, however-the most damaged, with no words at all to express his hurt-who becomes the necessary agent which shatters the container, which to Bob was paradise, but to his wife and son a prison, however beautiful, however "whole" it may have been.

In his newfound awareness, Bob, to his credit, does not disdain his former vision of paradise. There is no groveling guilt here about having once desired it, reached for it, and created it at least for a time. It is gone and yet it is also still vividly present, still providing its measure of grace and beauty.

Few of us will have the imagination and courage to invent quite literally our own container for a safe and whole life. But psychologically, we probably try to do it all the time with our assumptions about what is right and good for us and for others as well. We are never big enough to encompass all of life, and in pursuit of wholeness, therefore, we leave out what seems its very opposite, that which is not "all of a piece" but broken up, fragmented, disjointed, that which doesn't fit, doesn't seem right or "appropriate," or worse, that which is ugly, corrupt, dirty, evil. As a result, we fail to achieve the wholeness we long for, which is, somehow or other, to embrace it all.


Jane Smiley. Ordinary Love & Good Will. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1989.

Toni Morrison. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.


Copyright 1996 Dolores E. Brien.
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