Right: An Unspoken Sermon

This one comes to us from Alan Jacobs. Anthony Trollope’s novel He Knew He Was […]

This one comes to us from Alan Jacobs.

Anthony Trollope’s novel He Knew He Was Right is, like Shakespeare’s Othello, a story of jealousy. But not really. Its true subject is something far worse, and far more common, than jealousy. And if we understand the real point of the story, we’ll understand something about Christian marriage.

The central conflict of the story may be easily described: a man named Louis Trevelyan thinks that his new wife Emily is too friendly with one Colonel Osborne, an old friend of her father. Emily is dismayed at his lack of trust in her, and insists that she loves him wholeheartedly and exclusively and that her behavior is scrupulously correct. But he becomes more and more convinced that she rebels against his husbandly authority, that she is unfaithful in her heart and perhaps in deed, and that she is therefore unfit to raise their son. And so the lives of the whole family spiral into a deep pit of misery.

Trollope later believed that the novel was a failure: “I do not know that in any literary effort I ever fell more completely short of my own intention than in this story… I look upon the story as being nearly altogether bad.” What’s especially interesting here, apart from the unusual frankness with which Trollope could assess his own work, is the reason he thinks it failed. “It was my purpose,” he wrote, “to create sympathy for the unfortunate man,” but very few readers feel much sympathy for Louis Trevelyan. And we can get a sense of why that is by looking at the whole of the sentence I have just quoted from: “It was my purpose to create sympathy for the unfortunate man who, while endeavouring to do his duty to all around him, should be led constantly astray by his unwillingness to submit his own judgment to the opinion of others.”

That’s the key: his unwillingness to submit his own judgment to the opinion of others. Everyone he knew, including those he trusted most in all other matters, told him that his wife was faithful, that her behavior was impeccable, that he had nothing to fear; yet he scornfully rejected their judgment because, well, because he knew he was right. It was not jealousy that damned Louis Trevelyan. Jealousy is a feeling, and we can’t often control our feelings. But what Trevelyan did was to erect a massive edifice of arrogance to defend that feeling.

You can see how that works by looking at this passage, from an especially dark point in the story, after Trevelyan has banished Emily from his presence. I will highlight the essential phrases:

Trevelyan, when he was left alone, sat for above a couple of hours contemplating the misery of his position, and endeavouring to teach himself by thinking what ought to be his future conduct. It never occurred to him during these thoughts that it would be well that he should at once take back his wife, either as a matter of duty, or of welfare, for himself or for her. He had taught himself to believe that she had disgraced him; and, though this feeling of disgrace made him so wretched that he wished that he were dead, he would allow himself to make no attempt at questioning the correctness of his conviction. Though he were to be shipwrecked for ever, even that seemed to be preferable to supposing that he had been wrong. Nevertheless, he loved his wife dearly, and, in the white heat of his anger endeavoured to be merciful to her. When Stanbury accused him of severity, he would not condescend to defend himself; but he told himself then of his great mercy.

Trollope shows us with terrifying acuity how Trevelyan has gotten himself to this point: First, he had a suspicion; then, in his pride, he “taught himself to believe” that his suspicion was unquestionably true. After that, whenever doubts of his rightness started to arise in his mind, he forcibly suppressed them: “he would allow himself to make no attempt at questioning the correctness of his conviction.” And then, having built and reinforced his great Shrine To His Own Correctness — which is as strong as Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, but it’s the kind of thing that, once you’ve built it around you, you can’t get out of — he then tells himself that anything short of abject cruelty to Emily is a token “of his great mercy,” though in fact he has denied her the comfort and security of her husband’s presence in her life.

And now I want to take this one step further than Trollope takes it: Trevelyan knows that he’s right, and has built his Shrine to justify that belief, but — this is my message in a nutshell — he would still be imprisoned even if he were right. The heart of the matter is not being right or wrong; it is making your own narrative of events your Precious.

That’s why I call Trevelyan’s edifice not a Fortress but an Altar: he worships his own Rightness.

We should think here of Saul of Tarsus. Now, that guy had an unshakable narrative: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” And you don’t get the point of this unless you understand that Saul’s self-understanding was correct: he knew he was right, and he was. But what he came to see, under some rather violent circumstances involving a Voice from the sky, a collision with the ground, and temporary blindness was that his elaborate tuxedo of right(eous)ness was nothing more than “filthy rags”; his great Shrine to His Own Correctness was a ramshackle structure built with popsicle sticks and used chewing gum.

Louis Trevelyan was a maniac — Trollope actually uses that word — while Saul of Tarsus was a righteous man and a learned rabbi. It amounts to the same thing. And it amounts to the same thing because to worship at the Shrine of Your Own Correctness is to worship a false god who will leave you dead. For all that differentiates them, Louis Trevelyan and Saul of Tarsus were both dead, and dead for the same reason.

My wife and I have had some tremendous fights over the years, and when that happens, I don’t know what goes on in her mind and heart, but I know what goes on in mine: I am fighting to preserve and protect my belief that I am right, which is to say, my Precious. Basically I’m Gollum at the Cracks of Doom — or Frodo: it amounts to the same thing.


But one of the most beautiful intrusions of grace into my life, into my carefully-constructed popsicle-stick Shrine To My Correctness, came, some years ago, when Teri and I were arguing intensely about something and I suddenly remembered a great scene from the movie High Noon.

When Gary Cooper, the sheriff, explains to his Quaker fiancée Grace Kelly why he has to fight the bad guys before the two of them can go off to get married, she replies in exasperation, “I don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong, there has to be some better way for people to live.” Now, to be sure, when she later sees how bad the bad guys really are, she’s ready to fight them too. But here’s the thing: my wife isn’t a bad guy. Not even when she’s wrong. And I’m not the good guy. Not even when I’m right.

The fact that the actress’s name is Grace is way too on-the-nose, but still: I count that day when her character’s words came to me as one of the most important days of my life, because that was when I realized that I wanted to be reconciled with my beloved more than I wanted to be right. Like Louis Trevelyan, I had taught myself to love my own beliefs about our marriage, about whose fault it is when things go wonky, more than I loved love itself; but unlike Louis Trevelyan, I was granted, through no effort of my own, a sudden ability to see that teaching for the lie it was, and to receive a superior teaching from outside myself — an awareness that love “does not insist on its own way” and that I and everyone around me are better off when I can let go of that insistence.

Teri and I still fight, of course. But increasingly often, now, I hear those words again — “I don’t care who’s right and who’s wrong, there has to be some better way for people to live” — and start to readjust my priorities. Maybe I don’t immediately tear down that popsicle-stick house, but I stop trying to prop it up with more chewing gum. And whenever I think of Louis Trevelyan, I think: There but for the grace of God go I.

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6 responses to “Right: An Unspoken Sermon”

  1. Susan C says:

    My parents were married over 60 years, and my father often said the secret to a long and happy marriage was three little words – “I was wrong.”

  2. Benjamin Self says:

    This is most excellent. Thanks Alan!! Can’t help but have that silly Billy Joel song in my head… “You May be right, I may be crazy, but it just might be a lunatic you’re looking for…”

  3. CJ Green says:

    What you say here seems…right. 🙂 Thanks, Alan

  4. Pierre says:

    I was one of those brainy know-it-all kids who could absorb information and facts like a sponge. I very quickly learned that other kids didn’t really like it when I would point out how they were wrong and correct them. It was maybe the most important step in my social development as a kid. It doesn’t mean that right and wrong don’t have value; it means, as Alan said here, that there’s a better way to live than worshiping your own presumed rightness.

  5. Verity3 says:

    And then there are those of us who have been gaslighted so many times, that what we need to learn is to trust ourselves, whom God also created.

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