Is it possible to tell a story in which a character changes for the better?
There are two ways to answer this question. The first is to answer it in the negative. This position can be found in the works of Ernest Hemingway and Albert Camus. The second way is to answer this question in the affirmative. This position can be found in the works of Charles Dickens. In the comparison between these two positions, we will see that there is truth to acknowledge in both positions. As we consider both answers, it will allow us to zero in on the true position, the Christian position, concerning redemption. The Christian position, what I will call deep redemption, holds these two positions together.
The first position, that characters cannot be redeemed or changed, is most common in stories written by modern authors. Examples of this position can be seen in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and in Camus’s The Stranger.
In The Sun Also Rises, the two main characters, Jake and Brett, end up together but in an unfulfilled relationship. Jake cannot give Brett what she wants—an intimate relationship—because Jake was injured in the war and is not able to be physically intimate. So they are destined to be together but always frustrated because they cannot have each other. The story ends with them pondering the life they could have had. Jake says, “Yes, isn’t pretty to think so?” There is no real growth or change in this story. They are back where they started.
In The Stranger, the main character Meursault ends up in prison after shooting a man. He is condemned for this action and sentenced to death. Throughout the book Meursault insists that things don’t really matter. When his girlfriend, Marie, asks if he loves her, he responds saying, “I told her it didn’t mean anything but that I didn’t think so.” Later at the end of the story, Meursault is about to be executed. He says, “I felt ready to live it all again…I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again.” In the end, Meursault does not regret his actions or his life. He accepts and embraces it for what it is. He chooses this terrible life that he has lived and he insists that this choice makes him happy. There is no need for him to change. In fact, he is ready to live it all again.
In both of these stories, redemption is ignored or denied. These characters are what they are and there is no need to change. The characters might have an epiphany of sorts in these stories but they do not really move beyond their old ways. At the end, they are in the same place where they started and these characters are fine with that.
In the other position, which is exemplified in the work of Charles Dickens, characters can change. A key example is the famous A Christmas Carol and the character Ebenezer Scrooge. By the end of the story, Scrooge has seen how his life has gone and he sees what might happen in the future. Given this knowledge, he turns from his ways of oppression and he becomes generous and kind, caring for those around him, including the Cratchits.
In this view, it is not that people are evil but that circumstances corrupt people or that people need to be taught more. Scrooge’s redemption is founded on the need to see his past and future and learn from it. He tells the Ghost of Christmas Future: “I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” Scrooge has been taught a lesson and he resolves to try harder and do better. The change that occurs here is one of ignorance being overcome by knowledge. There is good and evil at war in Scrooge and he needs to gain a better understanding of the good so he can be good.
To summarize the two positions. In the worldview of Dickens, people can be redeemed because there is something good in them to start with. In the worldview of Hemingway and Camus, people cannot change; people are what they are. People just choose to be happy and that is enough. No real change is needed.
While I appreciate the redemptive arc that Dickens puts in his works–and I believe that it is better than the other position–Dickens still doesn’t really address the true nature of Man.
This is where Hemingway and Camus get it more right than Dickens. People really have problems. They do not really change that much.
This then brings us to the Christian position: people really are evil and they really can be changed. The Christian worldview does justice to the darkness and despair in human nature but it also says that there is a way out. This deep redemption does not sugarcoat the world but it also doesn’t leave us in a static universe destined to always be what we are.
Now how much can a story show of this deep redemption?
Some might think the solution is for every story to have an altar call where the main character “prays the prayer”. Or others might think that a truly Christian story is one where an axe-murderer is redeemed from his evil. I do think you can tell those kinds of stories–they do happen in the real world–but I think we also have to recognize that reality is multifaceted. Most people are not axe-murderers.
The reality is that redemption happens to all sorts of people: some when they are young and do not have the time to do terrible evil and some when they are axe-murderers. In this way, we see that some redemption stories are more like the stories that Dickens tells. Some people really do wake up one morning like Scrooge, having learned that they are misers and now they want to be generous to others. This does not undermine the true darkness in the human heart because different stories can tell different arcs of redemption. Even in real life, not everyone acts out all the evil of their heart. Some are changed before they reach their full evil potential. That often happens.
On the other hand, there are plenty of people in the world who are wretched and who do not change, like in the examples from Hemingway and Camus. Some people are set in their ways and continue in that way until the end. Those stories can also be true in that they reveal the depravity of the human heart without redemption.
To conclude this discussion, there are a variety of story arcs that can and should be told. In this discussion, we have highlighted three: non-redemption (Hemingway, Camus), light redemption (Dickens), and then what I have called deep redemption. Since literature is made as an imitation of life, stories do not have to represent all the intricacies that life has. Much of literature can work through and deal with the first two kinds of story arcs: non-redemption and light redemption. However, Christian artists should also seek to explore the last one: deep redemption.
This is where it is helpful to consider what Christian literature can offer. There are many sentimental ways to portray deep redemption in a story and we should avoid those. But I am not ready to give up on the effort at portraying deep redemption. To rework a thought from Thomas Edison: we have not failed as stories tellers; we have just discovered all the ways not to do deep redemption stories. There is still much work before the Christian writer. Stories about deep redemption need to be told. The solution then is not for Christian authors to shy away from these kinds of stories; instead, they need to get to work on their craft and do the hard work of writing real and compelling redemption stories. Only then will we learn how to tell these stories well.