True Grit part 1
I urge the reader to see the movie before reading further. Spoilers, of necessity, follow.
“The wicked flee when none pursueth,” states the epigram, then informs the viewer where to find the quote. If you look up the quote, there is another half to it. “But the righteous are as bold as a lion.”
What does this mean? It’s not about flight and boldness, exactly, but about wickedness and righteousness.
The wicked man, it seems, is in constant flight, even when none pursueth. Why? Because he knows that God sees his wickedness, and he cannot escape God. The righteous man, on the other hand, knows that God stands with him. He has no fear of anything, he is as bold as a lion.
Who, in True Grit, is wicked, and who is righteous? That is the subject of the movie, and the answers are much more complicated than it appears.
As True Grit begins, the elderly Mattie Ross (how elderly? A gentleman does not ask, but suffice to say, for now, that she is much older than she appears to be) recounts the story of how Tom Chaney, a hired hand, after a night of drinking, gambling and fighting, robbed and killed her father in the streets of Fort Smith, Arkansas, and then fled into the night, raced into the darkness, in spite of the fact that no one in Fort Smith was interested in chasing him.
So Tom Chaney, it would appear, is the very definition “the wicked.” He drinks, he gambles, he fights, he robs and kills, and then flees when none pursueth. He fits the literal definition of the proverb.
Is Mattie, then, the righteous? Well, she certainly believes she is. She is, in fact, quite convinced of her righteousness, to an alarming degree. No matter how many people criticize her, upbraid her, argue with her or slap her around, she is absolutely unwavering in her sense of righteousness, and therefore, she is bold, quite bold, about as bold as 14-year-old girls get.
Mattie’s problem, I think, is that she confuses cause and effect. Instead of her righteousness making her bold, she sees her boldness as a sign of her righteousness. The bolder she is, the more convinced she is of her own righteousness. Mattie is so convinced of her own righteousness that she is capable of lying, cheating, extorting, bullying, battering and killing in the name of it, all without ever questioning, for even a moment, her righteousness. She hires a drunken murderer to pursue her agenda, but never sees herself as wicked. Even when her bold actions threaten her life and lay her low in the most symbolically obvious way possible, she never, ever sees herself as wicked – she remains ever-confident of her righteousness. God is on her side, she is sure of it.
Mattie’s description of Tom Chaney’s crime ends with “You must pay for everything in this world, there is nothing free except the grace of God.” “Pay” is an important verb to Mattie, both the money kind of pay and the moral kind. Mattie pays money to various people and extracts payment from others, and is also filled with an Old Testament sort of sense of justice – killing is paid with killing in her mind. Money and Old-Testament justice insinuate themselves into every nook and cranny of the narrative of True Grit, in subtle and surprising ways.
(For more on “the grace of God” and its place in True Grit, here is Stanley Fish writing in the New York Times.)