F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Thank You For the Light”
12/26/2012 § 3 Comments
Originally rejected by The New Yorker in 1936, finally published in the August 6, 2012 issue.
Normally, this is the sort of posthumous trifle that I’d say got published (like much of Roberto Bolano’s work) only on account of the author’s clout. And yet, while I still believe this belongs more in, say, Harper‘s READINGS section than as a full-fledged release as the story of the week, I found there to be a charm about this one-page vignette that made me glad to have read the piece. A tired, middle-aged traveling saleswoman (of corsets and girdles) has just transferred from the more urbane Chicago territory to the more religious and stricter folk of the Iowa-Kansas-Missouri district. No more is she offered “a drink or a cigarette in the buyer’s office after business was concluded”; instead, her habit is looked down on so much — especially by those “who weren’t in the war” (and we’re talking the first one) — that she even briefly wonders if she’s a “drug fiend” to be so desperate to find a private, unoffensive place to smoke.
Smoking, for the record, is described here as “an important punctuation mark in the long sentence of a day on the road” — a comma, or pause, in which this woman can relax outside of herself. I’ve never considered this, or the modern “coffee” break, to be so necessary before, but I can empathize with the weariness this is meant to stave off. So, too, in the apparent twist ending of the story, does God, for after Mrs. Hanson — who is not a Catholic — finds herself entering a church one late afternoon to perhaps smoke in the vestibule, she ends up somewhat shamed by the sexton into praying instead (“She scarcely knew what to pray for, so she prayed for her employer, and for the clients in Des Moines and Kansas City”). And this is a relief of sorts, too, for as she sinks down into a pew and sleeps for a few minutes or so, resting those weary feet and that toiling seller’s mind, she finds that “something had changed” and realizes that “the cigarette she held in her hand was alight.” This is the most infinitesimal of miracles, and yet this one act of kindness is the sort that’s enough to sustain a person for life, and so Mrs. Hanson gets down on her knees and ends the story: “‘Thank you very much for the light,’ she said.”
Read this as a parable for faith, if you like, or just read it as a quirky one-off about the diaphanous nature of kindness; it won’t take much of your time, and may ease your burdens for a moment.