Some damage could not be undone and so atonement was a delusion.
—Mary Gordon, Payback
An era of reckoning, in so many different forms, has arrived, and with it intense public debate over how individuals and nations should address past wrongdoing and treat its traumatic hold on the present. A wider swath of Americans than ever before confronted such questions with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, intensified by George Floyd’s death in 2020, and the #MeToo movement in 2017, intensified by the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearing in 2018, little knowing how matters of accountability and redress would come to dominate nearly all public discourse by the end of the Trump administration.
Perhaps there is some comfort in knowing that for over 150 years, novelists have focused on such difficult relations between the past and the present, rendering dramas of structural injustice up close, often in interpersonal terms. When wrongs have been done, is investigating the past and prosecuting those responsible a necessary act of belated justice, or simply revenge? Is there such a thing as “healing” and binding up wounds that were barely allowed to feel the air of day? Or do those wounds need to be made public in all their ugliness and redescribed by those who incurred them? As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” Novelists’ medium is time; the best of them can help us see how the past inhabits the present, shapes it, and can misshape it too.
Into our troubled moment of reckoning Mary Gordon’s new novel, Payback, enters with timely grace. Payback tells the story of a woman’s life as shaped by one fateful act of misspeaking. Agnes, a young teacher of art history at a private girls’ high school in 1972, takes on the project of encouraging one of her least likable but most talented students, singling her out for attention she gets nowhere else. When Agnes sends Heidi off to the city for an art lecture, she intends only good. But Heidi encounters a man at the museum who invites her home with him. Seduced by his manners and worldliness, flattered by an older person who offers her attention and validation she craves, Heidi returns with him to his apartment, where he rapes her. Somehow, Heidi manages to get herself out of the city and back to Agnes’s home, where a sleepy Agnes meets her at the door and instead of taking her in and tending to her, blames the victim: “How could you have done that? How could you have let that happen?”
By the novel’s end, readers in the #MeToo moment are asked to return in time and to confront the fact that in 1972, even a young, self-identified feminist did not have words at the ready to hold a man entirely responsible for the crime of rape. Living in a world where a woman’s word meant nearly nothing to the men in charge, Agnes too failed to believe and thus substantiate a woman’s claim of injury to body and self. Gordon suggests that Agnes’s semiconscious reaction, and her immediate but still-too-late horror at her own reaction, proves that there was no culture of belief, solidarity, and protection for women who had suffered sexual assault at the time.
Yet if readers are meant to accept that, Gordon’s protagonist does not let herself off the hook with any sort of historical perspective. Agnes spends her entire life wondering how and where Heidi survives after she disappears that terrible night, never to resurface. Agnes moves to Rome, her guilt having eaten her into a shadow of herself. Over time, she does move on with her life. But she never forgets Heidi and she never forgives herself.
How can novels help us think about making amends in real life?
If the memory of Heidi has shaped Agnes’s life, the memory of Agnes has also shaped Heidi’s. We are first introduced to Heidi in 2019, in America, where she has reinvented herself as Quin Archer, the grim reaper of Payback, a superpopular reality TV show in which those who have done wrong to others are found and made to pay for it, even after decades. Reality TV, apparently, can set balances straight. Those who have suffered (Quin does not want to call them “victims” but the “owed,” the “payees”) can be recompensed. Those who have inflicted suffering can be made to suffer. When this ritual transaction, including its public shaming, has come to a close, the TV episode is over, and its (largely Republican female) watchers can experience a happy catharsis and return to their unwittingly complicit lives. Quin moves on, hunting down her next object.
A novel about reality TV and the cover-up of rape may seem particularly contemporary. Yet Gordon, having grown up in the Catholic church and devoted a full, increasingly rich career to writing novels built on the insolubility of moral problems in an age where religious resolution is no longer imaginable, is writing in a tradition that comes straight out of the mid-19th century, when the great English novelist George Eliot and her contemporaries confronted for the first time that existential challenge. In 1859, George Eliot published her first, immensely successful novel, Adam Bede, whose more canny reviewers at the time understood it immediately to be both obsessed with moral life and godless. Like its heir, Payback, Adam Bede cannot stop worrying about what happens when people do wrong. How, if at all, does the world get set right again? And how can novels like these help us think about making amends in real life?
Victorians called moral wrong “sin” and “evil,” because at the time, most of them believed that sin and evil had an answer, called atonement. Christ had died for their sins, and this vicarious payment covered their debt. If they repented of their sins and accepted Christ, grace was the miracle that could make up the difference. The doctrine wasn’t simple, and the 1850s marked the high point of intense theological debate over its intricacies.
For George Eliot, who had come in her 20s to understand Christ in historical and human rather than divine terms, no form of the atonement doctrine could suffice. But sin and evil were still everywhere visible. If the moral universe was limited to human relations, and this world was not held to be followed by a perfectly ordained apportioning of reward and punishment, then what could possibly replace one inimitable act of vicarious and efficacious suffering that transformed and purified through faith?
It is fair to say that this very problem troubled George Eliot into the novel form itself, pushing her in Adam Bede to transform a stock sensational plotline into an unforgettable exploration of sin and evil, and its reckoning. Remarkably, much like Gordon so much later, Eliot targeted privilege—landed, white, male privilege—and its tendency to do harm to the many more unprivileged, all the while imagining its own innocence and impunity. When things go wrong, the privileged believe that they can compensate for any harm. But then, surprise: in a world controlled by a novelist, the privileged can be taught a lesson. They can be made to see, forced to see, that there is harm that cannot be undone. Still, even the realist novel cannot roll back the harm.
The plotline is simple: a wealthy rake seduces a pretty dairy farm girl who subsequently gets pregnant and is eventually brought to trial for infanticide, found guilty, but saved at the last minute by a sentence commuted to transportation to the colonies.
Yet in Eliot’s more complex world of character, the rake is not really a rake. He is just a wealthy and undisciplined boy turned man. Arthur, born to wealth, grows up knowing he will eventually inherit his grandfather’s estate. From his own largesse and an innately kind disposition, Arthur has been happy to dispense whatever is at his disposal to others. But his wealth prevents him from understanding what the poorer man knows: that not everything can be bought for money. There is some damage that no money can fix, and there are some exceptions to the rule of fungibility.
In a single paragraph of description, George Eliot hands us this character: “Arthur’s, as you know, was a loving nature. Deeds of kindness were as easy to him as a bad habit: they were the common issue of his weaknesses and his good qualities. … When he was a lad of seven, he one day kicked down an old gardener’s pitcher of broth, from no motive but a kicking impulse, not reflecting that it was the old man’s dinner; but on learning that sad fact, he took his favourite pencil-case and a silver-hafted knife out of his pocket and offered them as compensation. He had been the same Arthur ever since, trying to make all offences forgotten in benefits.” Unfortunately, the gardener cannot eat the pencil case or knife for dinner.
It is a real question whether victims get compensation and what sort of compensation might even be imaginable or relevant.
When Arthur befriends and then seduces Hetty, the lovely daughter of his grandfather’s longtime tenants, he tries to tell himself nothing is irrevocable. Yet Arthur’s attentions and his status steal Hetty’s heart, making it impossible for any simple working man to compete with her newly great expectations. By the time she is pregnant, he has ruined her life.
At the same time, Arthur has blighted the life of the novel’s hero, Adam Bede. Adam, having worked honestly for everything he owns, has loved Hetty for years, and eventually proposes to her. Just when he hopes to realize his dreams, Hetty runs. Soon after, word comes of a baby, the accusation of infanticide, and then Hetty’s trial for the crime. By the time she reaches the courtroom, she is a changed woman. The first Hetty has, quite simply, died. The second one is shattered; she is “that (first) Hetty’s corpse.” Adam too is but a “spectre of himself.”
In peering into the wreck of Hetty’s life, the novel comes to that silent spot where atonement once dwelled. It is up to Adam to fire upon Arthur for trying to deny the truth that “Evil’s evil and sorrow’s sorrow, and you can’t alter its nature wrapping it up in other words. Other folks were not created for my sake, that I should think all square when things turn out well for me.” When Arthur tries to explain, to justify, and most of all, to offer help, and when others philosophize about the cost-benefit balance of one fallen girl, Adam refuses it all:
Good come out of it! … That doesn’t alter th’ evil; her ruin can’t be undone. I hate that talk o’ people, as if there was a way o making amends for everything. They’d more need be brought to see as the wrong they do can never be altered. When a man’s spoiled his fellow creature’s life, he’s no right to comfort himself with thinking good may come out of it: somebody else’s good doesn’t alter her shame and misery.
Adam softens over time. Unlike Hetty, he goes on to rebuild his life, and the experience of suffering births in him a new consciousness of his connectedness to other fallible human beings; he learns humility before others’ weakness of will and before his own impulse to judge. In Eliot’s words, he emerges from the “baptism of fire with a soul full of new awe and new pity.” Eventually, he finds it in himself to forgive Arthur and to allow Arthur to do some small penance. But nothing can help Hetty. The sacrifice of this novel, she dies alone, exiled from England. Nothing can undo the damage committed upon her, through her. There is no #MeToo reckoning, no justice. Just a novel.
Back in 2021, it is a real question whether victims get compensation and what sort of compensation might even be imaginable or relevant, whether for ongoing, structural crimes like racist police brutality or isolated acts of violence so horrific that their victims are permanently traumatized. At what point is redress simply a deeply offensive suggestion that lost time and unimaginable suffering might be measured in cash or any other currency? Yet could it be, alongside necessary structural change, of some value?
So it is a comfort, however small, to face these questions in a contemporary novel like Gordon’s that spins out from the hard center of the moral problem of compensation at the end of the age of Trump, the era of both “ME,” privilege with impunity, and “#MeToo.”
In Rome, Agnes does not forget her guilt but bears it quietly. Eventually she marries. She lives well with her Italian husband and child for years, the guilt her secret sharer. Then one day, after the death of his beloved cousin from cancer, Agnes’s even-keeled, optimistic, good husband suddenly looks again at his family business, a luxury tobacco shop, and sees clearly. Tobacco kills.
Pietro goes away for “six weeks of sorrow, of grief, of penitence. And then, a clear sense of purpose. Action. Reparation. A new life.” He trains as a hospice worker and dedicates his cello playing as an act that will soothe the dying when they leave this life. He is not consumed by guilt. Pietro, writes Gordon, “had confessed, and was forgiven; he was willing to do his penance, make his atonement, and the atonement was clearly and fully made.”
Yet Agnes finds she can no longer love him as she once did, because she is certain, as he is not, that there is no absolution, there is no atonement for great wrong. “She wanted to tell Pietro that the people who had died because he sold them tobacco had died terrible deaths, and were permanently dead and that nothing he did for some other dying person had been or could be of any use to them … harm was not like coins, that could be passed from hand to hand, exchanged.” No doing good can wipe out harm done.
Agnes’s conviction is borne out much later, after Pietro’s death and her own return to America. When Heidi/Quin decides to rev up her show by locating Agnes, her own private evildoer, harm metastasizes. As Quin engineers payback for Agnes’s original sin against her, the novel’s plot picks up speed and sets us down, finally, at the failure of reality TV to capture the truth of reality. Faced with Agnes—a human being who did wrong and never forgot, and never forgave herself, and furthermore does not believe she can ever pay back Heidi—Quin loses balance. Agnes’s life has been spent puzzling the problem—the impossibility—of atonement. Quin, meanwhile, has left atonement behind for its flashier, insatiable alternative: human revenge. All Quin’s fury has no place to settle when confronted by human remorse and moral memory.
Life is not a chain, Gordon seems to be saying: there is no “paying it forward,” as sentimentalists want to claim. But there is no paying it back, either, because payment is the wrong metaphor. The currency is life and death, love and hatred, time and its disappearance, not money. Ever fungible, money is a habit of mind that makes powerful people think that anything and everything can be managed. And it allows some desperate, empty people to imagine that the representation and the real thing are close enough for exchange.
We are left in 2020, at the end of Payback’s plot, with human injustice. Adam Bede couldn’t do a thing about it in 1859, either. Where is the line between pursuing justice and feeding ourselves on fantasies of revenge? How do we testify to loss but move forward, especially when we ourselves bear guilt for a wrong that can never be righted? With affidavits? Novels? Genuine apologies that we do not wait to be asked for but initiate ourselves?
When regret or new effort cannot fully help victims of the wrongs we have wrought or witnessed, to what work do we consecrate ourselves? Is there a way to watch out for the next to be sacrificed? Or is the mark of modernity that deadly delay between sin and reparation? Novels can’t make amends. But, as Adam Bede in the 19th century and Payback today suggest, fictional narratives about wrongdoing and reckoning ask us to confront our lives as ethical dramas that run only once, and with great consequence.
This article was commissioned by Nicholas Dames.