Death and goodness
George MacDonald’s ‘The Gifts of the Christ Child’

Can the senseless death of an innocent child ever be “good”? Can literature make it so?

Emma Salgard Cunha and Jessica Lim ask how far we can accept an aestheticization of loss.

When (or if) we speak about a “good death”, it is often in terms related to the experience of the dying person him or herself. Death is an event which happens to us, or perhaps an action undertaken by us – and a good death is understood in the same person-centric way. Yet death is also something witnessed and shared, if not experienced, by others – family, loved ones, those supporting the dying person, those left behind. In this way, the death of an individual could be said to be fundamentally a social phenomenon.

We might well be able to accept that a death can create ripples of good in a family or a community. “I wanted some good to come from my tragedy”, said the bereaved mother of a 15 year old boy explaining her decision to donate his heart to save the life of another young man – a stranger who would have died without it. This very literal act of “good”, which affects the direct beneficiary and also seems to aid the mourner, does not evaporate the pain or the tragedy of her son’s death. Her words and actions transform that death into a story of healing, memorial, and personal sacrifice in the face of a shared human tragedy.

Literature – storytelling – has always attempted to make beauty from tragedy. It provides us with a place to test out our ideas about goodness and humanity in extreme situations and under extreme pressures. George MacDonald’s 1882 short story, The Gifts of the Child Christ, provides us with a study of the beauty and goodness which, in his tale, emerges as a result of the death of an innocent child.

The Gifts of the Child Christ recounts the reconciliation of a fragmented family. It suggests that death can indeed produce good, when grieving family members are able to recognise one another’s grief and build closer relationships with one another. Initially, the Greatorex family is disparate: Augustus has little respect for daughter Phosy, nor for his first wife, deeming her a woman of ‘little individuality – not enough to reflect the individuality of the husband.’ We are told that he married his current wife, Letty, because he looked ‘into the pond of her being […] he saw the reflection of himself and was satisfied.’ Beauty and goodness are not a part of the Greatorex family’s experience of living. The turning point of the story is the death of Letty’s son during childbirth:

Doctor and nurse were sent for in hot haste; hansom cabs came and went throughout the night, like noisy moths to the one lighted house in the street; there were soft steps within, and doors were gently opened and shut.

Time stands still, or rather it collapses in futility as the “hot haste” combines with the detachment and finality of the shut doors. The drama of the failure to save the infant is reduced to an image of ‘noisy moths’, a paradoxical image suggesting the insufficiency of words to articulate the tragedy of an infant’s death.

Nevertheless, it is a twining of sorrow and sweetness which prevails on Phosy’s discovery of her dead baby brother on Christmas morning. She describes the ‘very essence of loveliness’ when she sees the child in its long nightgown; not understanding that the child is already dressed for its funereal rites. Phosy’s subsequent desolation as she realises that the infant is dead is heartfelt and unutterable. She ‘pored on the little face until she knew death.’ By the time the household discovers her holding her brother, she is ‘half shrouded in blue […] a speechless mother of sorrow’.

Yet Phosy’s expressions of grief generate a space of familial mourning in which the broken familial relationships find commonality in a shared loss. At Phosy’s cry, ‘her father raised the little mother and clasped her to his bosom.’ Phosy’s grief shows her father that Phosy is capable of deep fellow feeling and requires his tenderness and respect. Similarly, when Augustus sees his wife’s grief and guilt over the death of their child, he perceives ‘such a light in her face as he had never dreamed of there before.’ The grief generated by the death of the Greatorex infant produces a space of communal sorrow, and enables Augustus to see his living family members with greater clarity.

As the title suggests, MacDonald’s perspective is informed by his committed Christian faith, and this gives us one way to make sense of the story’s message that even this greatest sorrow is a ‘gift’ to those left in its wake. The narrative reflects the Biblical Easter Story in which innocence is sacrificed for greater good; the image of the “mother or sorrow” clutching the dead child evoking the iconic Pieta of Christian art. MacDonald’s Christian convictions provide him with a lens from which to make sense from something as senseless as infant death. It is not just beauty but a real “gift” of goodness which the family receive through the “sacrifice” of an innocent child.

It would be an understatement to say that this is a hard message for any reader to swallow, now or in the 19th century. Even though MacDonald wrote from a place of personal grief, having recently buried his daughter Mary, The Gifts of the Child Christ cannot write out the grief and loss of the infant’s death. Despite the beauty and the humanity in the healing of the family through the experience of tragedy, we are left with a glaring disparity in the fate of the baby, excluded from this beautiful scene of family healing.

Should we resist MacDonald’s heartwrenching attempts to bring beauty out of heartbreak – to balance social good against individual loss? Can the senseless death of an innocent baby ever be “good”? Can – or should – literature ever attempt to make it so?

Posted: 22nd July 2019

Categories: Reflections