In 1993 I published a novel called The Magic Circle. Readers wrote to me with the full range of predictable questions (“Where do you get your ideas from?” “Are any of the characters based on people you know?” “How much of this is based on real events?” “What happened next?” And the question I find the most disturbing (because I believe it is founded on a societal lie): “What inspires you to write?”). But I also got some fabulous questions (as I always do on any book), the kind of question that made me wonder how I felt about a giant issue. In that book there’s a pious woman who works as a healer for the Lord and winds up being tricked by the Devil so that she has to work for evil; that is, she becomes a witch. A reader asked, “Are you a witch?”
I’m not a witch. That I know. I don’t even have the ordinary powers most people have. My children taught me that long ago. In advanced classes I tell my students, “Do this assignment, unless you can think of something better to do,” which allows me the illusion of control, since they pretty much are going to do whatever they want anyway. But I never can really forget that it’s an illusion (ah, the games I play with myself).
The larger issue behind that question, though, is far more perplexing: Do I believe there are evil forces? In The Wager the main character, Don Giovanni, is wealthy at the start, and then loses everything he has except his own person—his youth, health, beauty. What remains sustains him better than it might many others, since vanity has found purchase in his soul. He’s still a stud, after all. But the Devil, insidiously clever and eternally bored, challenges Don Giovanni: for a fixed period of time he has to give up his beauty and health to such an extreme degree that he also loses the semblance of youth, and in return he’ll have immeasurable wealth. If he loses… well, you know how the Devil is; the guy never changes.
Most of us don’t face this question: Immeasurable wealth is a dream we might never even indulge in, or, if we do, it’s a simple fantasy, not a true goal. And for many of us risking eternal damnation for money ranges from despicable to simply silly. I wouldn’t have even been interested in Don Giovanni’s wager if he hadn’t turned out to be a man of surprising conscience, a real stand-up kind of guy, so that his wager takes on a spiritual significance that clamped around my core.
But we do face other dilemmas all the time, from our playground days till we die. With enough frequency that it can hurt, we face what I consider to be a central question of life: How much are we willing to give up in order to be a decent person? When the other kid has a great truck with a digger on the front, what do we do when he rebuffs our attempts to join in his play? If he runs off to the bathroom for a moment, do we bury the truck in the sandbox so he’ll think he lost it and we can come back later and dig it up and take it home? That would be easy enough to do. Or do we work on controlling our envy, because we know he’ll be sad if he loses it? And what if he’s got lots of trucks, and even though he might throw a tantrum at losing this one, we know he’ll just play with his others or, the spoiled brat, get his dad to buy him another? Does that give us license to bury the truck? And what if he doesn’t even really like the truck, he just doesn’t want us to play with it—out of pure spite? What if he’s a real piece of work? Then can we bury the truck?
Do we decide what’s the right thing to do based on some absolute (Stealing is wrong) or based on some combination of beliefs that allows leeway for judgment (Hurting is wrong—so stealing is no problem if the other guy won’t get hurt)? Does the old rule about not coveting what others have (extrapolating from the biblical wives to any other thing they might have) find footing in some evilness associated with envy itself? When we want what someone else has and they don’t even know we want it, are we hurting anyone? Are we degrading ourselves, maybe?
I’m not asking others for answers; and I’m not offering my own answers to others. But I’m drawn to these questions because I think that in answering them we are choosing the kind of people we are, we are forming our characters, or, if the word character is too undefined (or indefinable), we are forming that part of our selves that allows us to enter into friendships and love relationships with some people and not others. Recognizing the character (if you’ll allow me the word, in the absence of a better one) of another person is of crucial importance, if we can judge from how betrayed or disgusted at the other person or, alternatively, embarrassed or ashamed of ourselves we feel when we realize we’ve misjudged it. (Witness divorces, sisters who refuse to talk to each other for years, children estranged from their parents …)
So is evil always tempting us, because without it we couldn’t form our character? When I was doing the research for my book Song of the Magdalene, a rabbi told me the questions I posed to her were essentially Catholic; she said, “You can take the girl out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the girl.” But I reject her claim. I don’t think it’s necessary to personify evil and good in order to recognize them. It’s impossible for me to know if I’d even comprehend the notion of evil if I hadn’t been exposed to religion at a young age. Still, I trust in my rationality, and I believe that the world is more interesting with (the notion of) evil. I might wish for a world with no evil—where everyone could live happily without even the consideration of strife, a world without pain—but I admit freely that I wouldn’t want to exist in that world; it wouldn’t interest me. Choice interests me, profoundly wrenching choice. I understand Don Giovanni’s Devil; if I were the Devil I’d be offering wagers right and left. Who knows what help I’d be giving others as they develop themselves? Who knows what unexpected good those people I beleaguer might do—a good that comes snapping back like a plucked string, slapping me in the face so hard my jaw breaks?
But I’m not the Devil. I’m just a writer. Grateful for the dilemmas of this world.
Donna Jo Napoli is an award-winning author of over fifty childrens and young adult books. Her most recent novel, The Wager, is forthcoming from Henry Holt books.