Now, Sarah describes the problem with too much virtue

Yesterday evening I finally finished Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway.  (Thank you, Bibi.)  Previously, I blogged about Sally Ransom’s speech on “unnecessary kindness,” and how much it reminded me of Ikonnikov’s “senseless kindness” in Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate.

My curiosity about whether Towles had been influenced by Grossman was further piqued towards the end of The Lincoln Highway.  Sarah Whitney is trying to explain to Emmett, whose thwarted plans to drive to California set off this picaresque tale, Sarah is speculating why her brother Woolly has caused so much trouble.  Woolly comes from a very wealthy family who’ve lived on the upper East Side of Manhattan for generations.  Sarah has just explained how Woolly ended up in the reform school in Kansas where he met Emmett.  Woolly thought he was helping some people, but his actions had horrific consequences for which he was sent to prison despite his privileged background.  Sarah continues:

When we’re young, so much time is spent teaching us the importance of keeping our vices in check.  Our anger, our envy, our pride.  But when I look around, it seems to me that so many in our lives end up being hampered by a virtue instead.  If you take a trait that by all appearances is a merit … and you give it to some poor soul in abundance, it will almost certainly prove an obstacle to their happiness.  Just as someone can be too smart for their own good, there are those who are too patient for their own good, or too hardworking.

It seems to me that Sarah translates to the level of the individual Ikonnikov’s view that imposing the Good can lead to evil on the social level.  As Emmett notes, Sarah may be glimpsing at the good trait she has in too much abundance: patient forgiveness.

Second thought about Sally on “unnecessary kindness.”  When I first read Sally’s list of all the good things she was doing for Emmett “just because,” it seemed to me that perhaps she wasn’t being honest with herself about an interest in marrying Emmett.  Late in the novel, when Emmett alludes to such a motive, Sally sets him straight.  She wants no more to do with taking care of a man.  She wants to live on her own, thank you.  I guess I was a typical male, just like Emmett.


One Comment

  1. Yep, in my profession, we call too much patience, tolerance, etc. enabling, and that leads to no end of lack of virtue, if not evil. Another way of saying something similar,is were i the “good Christian” if the church of my youth, I would have enabled no end of suffering and misery, not the least of which would be my own.

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