An Analysis of John Gardner's
John Gardner's "Redemption"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Readers familiar with John Gardner's biography cannot help but be struck by the similarity between the story
line of "Redemption" and the facts of the author's own life. When Gardner was eleven, he was towing a cultipacker
(a farm vehicle used for compressing soil prior to seeding), holding his little sister on his lap as his younger
brother, Gilbert, hung onto the back of the tractor. Gilbert fell off and was crushed beneath the cultipacker's
ridged roller. Gardner was never able to forgive himself for an accident that was almost certainly unavoidable, and
he sought a sense of redemption in vain. It is little surprise that he would seek to express his anguish through
art. In the end, Gardner tells us in his short story collection The Art of Living, art may be all the
redemption we have -- if we have any at all.
In "Redemption," the main character is twelve-year-old Jack Hawthorne, and the facts of the story are very
similar to the real events – with one very significant difference. In Gardner's story, there is an awful moment
when Jack could have stopped the machine before it crushed little David's skull, and he doesn't stop; he keeps
right on going, pushing David's body into the earth. Gardner infers that Jack knows that David is already as good
as dead, and finishing the job is actually merciful, like shooting a wounded deer. But this does not in any way
assuage Jack's intense feelings of guilt over his brother's death.
Jack's family is devastated, as any family would be. His father wears his anguish on the outside; he engages in
meaningless affairs and storms across the countryside on his motorcycle, not returning for extended periods of
time. Jack's mother internalizes her grief, covering for her husband's erratic behavior and pretending to the
children that nothing is wrong. She signs Jack's little sister up for piano and Jack for French horn lessons, as if
behaving normally makes things normal. When Jack's father finally buries his ghosts and returns to the family for
good, she tells Jack, "It's all over. Your dad's come home." But of course it's not over, because David is still
dead and Jack has not found his own way back from hell.
As Jack develops a passion for the French horn and the music it produces, we are clearly intended to see his
artistic life as the "other half" of the story: if the accident is Jack's fall, then music is his redemption. Yet
the solution is unconvincing. Is Gardner arguing that art overcomes death because art is itself deathless? Or is he
arguing that if David had to die, then Jack has to become better than either of them would have been had the
accident never occurred? If so, Jack's got a long way to go; when he asks his music teacher, the Russian virtuoso
Yegudkin, whether he will ever play as well as his mentor, Yegudkin essentially laughs in his face. Where, exactly,
is Jack's redemption?
One of the most eerie things about "Redemption" – the second story in Gardner's collection The Art of
Living – is the woodcut on the cover of the book. It is reminiscent of Jack Hawthorne's father Dale barreling
blindly into the night on his motorcycle; but it bears a disturbing resemblance to the author himself, who the
following year would meet death on a motorcycle, barreling into a night of his own.
John Gardner's "Redemption" can be found in his collection "The Art of Living and Other
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