"How are these characters redeemed?" is a question I often get. I feel as if I'd just slapped a puppy when I have to reply, "They aren't. They come to realizations, but they are not made pure or whole again. Damage has been done." The frequency with which I'm confronted with the search for redemption in my writing and the reaction I get to its literal absence suggests that it's become expected, like genuflection at the altar. The question becomes "at the altar of what?"
The Help is a blockbuster that doesn't just redeem its white heroine -- it redeems all of white America right along with her. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. Such historical/personal wish fulfillment is a templated part of the socially conscious Hollywood and publishing blockbuster. And for good reason. It works! The technique of using a mainstream identification figure to "save" members of a downtrodden minority lets writers and directors tap the gravitas of great historical tragedies while absolving the audience of any potential complicity. "You," these works tell us, "would have been one of the good ones."
But this ideal of literary redemption has become so prevalent that, just as we react to its presence like bees to nectar, we react to its absence as we would a loud, malodorous fart--as if our gentility has been punctured, as if an unwelcome reminder of the animal-in-us that we text and google our days away forgetting--the one that will die someday too soon and heaven forfend that in this most Christian of countries, we should do so without redemption and therefore in a state of sin.
The interesting and exasperating literary critic Harold Bloom once wrote, "Sin and redemption are theological categories, not literary themes." And our deference to literary redemption does seem quasi-religious. That's what made the whole James Frey/Oprah spectacle so mesmerizing. Redemptive spirituality is Oprah's brand. The Oprah's Book Club books provided a surfeit of it. But here we had the high-priestess of redemption-in-all-things being duped by her own obsession with it--the stuff of tragedy. So appalled was she by falling victim to tragedy as opposed to being elevated by redemption that she publicly flogged the author and publisher who had supposedly engineered her fall. Her reaction was the antithesis of redemption. She did not recognize that her reliance on redemption may have become sufficiently facile to be easily exploited or parodied. She lashed out against any such realization. She laid blame elsewhere as opposed to recognizing a potential flaw in her system.
Bloom suggested alternatives to "sin" and "redemption" as thematic literary categories. "I suggest that error, not sin, is an authentic literary concept," Bloom wrote, "and that recognition, rather than redemption, is the inevitable literary theme that emanates from error." What a liberating concept. Sin can emanate from our own prejudices and preconceptions, thereby encouraging lazy writing that relies on them. Error seems more likely to emanate from the character's point of view. Whereas error relies on understanding the viewpoint of a thoroughly shaded character; sin asks only that we impose our existing value system, cart and horse, on the book. The characters needn't be fully formed, we simply fill them up with... ourselves.
I fear that the altar at which we genuflect in our demand for redemption is a mirror. We insist on redemption so that we can view ourselves as perfectible, reflecting our fear at the prospect that we may not be. Relying on themes of sin and redemption allow us to bask in literary reflections of our own judgments and preconceptions and consistently have them reflected back at us as right and good. There is narcissism in the reliance and insistence upon them -- and narcissism may, depending on your point of view, be a... sin.