Freezing Repetitions and the Spirit of Play in Thornton Wilder’s Theophilus North

A number of people have asked about the quotes from Thornton Wilder’s novel Theophilus North […]

SZ / 5.4.10

A number of people have asked about the quotes from Thornton Wilder’s novel Theophilus North that I used in my talk at the 2009 Mockingbird Conference in New York [embedded at the bottom of the post]. The first comes at the end of the chapter ‘Diana Bell’, in which a woman who is trying to elope slowly realizes she is not really in love with the man whom she is trying to marry. She discovers instead that she is playing out once again an old story in her life, without realizing it; one which has repeated itself before and has more to do with trying to escape her difficult parents than with love or marriage or who she really is. I talked about how this moment towards the end, this ‘freezing realization of the repetitions in her life’, is a kind of experience of the Spirit of God.

I carried her suitcases up to the darkened entrance [of her house]. She said, ‘Hold me a minute.’ I put my arms around her. It was not an embrace; our faces did not touch. She wanted to cling for a moment to something less frozen than the lofty structure under which we stood; she was trembling after the freezing realization of the repetitions in her life. ‘Good night,’ she said. ‘Good night, Miss Bell.’

The second quotation comes from the first chapter of the novel, just after the main character, Theophilus, quits his unhappy job teaching at a boarding school. I talked about how this little sequence, which sets up much of the later action in the book, can be read as a kind of moment of being filled with the Spirit. It captures somewhat, by way of analogy, how a truly unconditional picture of God’s grace in human lives – of the life that is justified by faith – manifests in a spirit of humor, freedom, wonder, and childlike play. Not entirely unlike this blog!

From the moment I resigned, two days before leaving the school, I discovered that several things were happening to me in my new state of freedom. I was recapturing the spirit of play – not the play of youth which is games (aggression under the restraint of rules), but the play of childhood which is all imagination, which improvises. I became light-headed. The spirit of play swept away the cynicism and indifference into which I had fallen. Moreover, a readiness for adventure re-awoke in me – for risk, for intruding myself into the lives of others, for extracting fun from danger.

To see the touching and hilarious ways this ‘anointing’ works itself out, you must read the rest of this extraordinary novel. Or, to listen to the talk in question, simply click play: