Narratives about prodigal children generally have reconciliation as their goal; this typically involves repentance followed by unconditional forgiveness. In Berriault’s hands, such forgiveness isn’t on the table. “What the hell else did you do with your life?” Eli’s father wants to know. “I wrecked it,” Eli replies. “Well now you see you got sick,” his father says. “Could be you’re being punished for wrecking your life.” He has nothing to offer his son, no comfort, no wisdom.
Later, dozing on a spare bunk on his father’s boat, Eli recalls the people he’s met over the years — social workers and parole officers and the like — and the explanations he’s given them for his troubles: “He’d blamed this old man on this rotting boat and he’d blamed his mother, wherever she was, for what had become of Eli. They had pried out his heart, those prying strangers, and the empty place left behind was where death got in.” Both father and son reach for a logic of blame and punishment to account for the wreckage of Eli’s life. But Berriault shows us that Eli’s suffering cannot be understood solely as punishment for sin or payment for debt; death got in through many fissures.
Eli seeks out his mother, who is institutionalized in Seattle, in a place of endless corridors and narrow beds, filled with old women like her. Here Berriault’s language summons the mystical: “He went along before their pale faces staring out at the last puzzling details of the world, himself a detail.” Eli finds her on a bench in a concrete courtyard. She does not seem to recognize him, or rather, his significance to her takes time to register. But oh, when it does! For years she’d wake in the night, she tells him, convinced that he was about to meet some harm, and to save him, she’d yell, “Run, Eli, run!” “I rescued you, every time,” she says. Eli pulls his overcoat over his head so that she won’t see him weep.
The scene is a little death before the final one we suspect is coming — Eli is likely not much longer for this world. Berriault doesn’t offer the clarity of epiphany, or even resolution. But there is mercy. By the end of the story, Eli is, in a sense, reconciled with his mother and father, seeing them as objects of love and sorrow. He enters a kind of apophatic state in which the whole foundation of his resentment toward his parents, their failures and his, and what he thought he knew about the whys of his life, is reduced to tiny fragments that together gesture toward something overwhelming and ineffable. “The Overcoat” ends: “They were baffled by what had gone on in their lives and by what was going on now and by whatever was to go on, and this was all they had to offer him, Eli, come back to them, baffled enough by his own life.” Forgiveness is re-envisioned here as mystical, intelligible only as a shared experience of woeful, baffled wonderment.
IN SOME CIRCUMSTANCES, bafflement leads not to transcendent wonder, but to bitter confusion and a mouth full of ash. No depth of mourning will suffice. Instead, vengeance presents itself as a viable option. Celie narrates “The Color Purple” through a series of letters, the first of which reads: “Dear God, I am 14 years old. ̶I̶ ̶a̶m̶ ̶ I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me.” As the novel progresses, we learn of years of abuse. Celie births two children, a result of repeated sexual assaults by her stepfather. The babies are taken from her, one in the dead of night. Then there is her marriage-sale to Mr.__, who continues the abuse. “He say, Celie, git the belt,” Celie writes. “It all I can do not to cry. I make myself wood. I say to myself, Celie, you a tree.” The misogyny, exacerbated by the racism of the Jim Crow South, is enfleshed in the figure of a young girl.