I surely expected more from a much-touted writer, even taking into consideration the fact that the prose is stilted by simple Puritan thought and its rigid adherence to certain concepts regarding the Divine and man’s mission on earth.
At twenty-eight, Charles Wentworth, originally from England, writes an account of his journey through rebellion to service and submission to God’s will in all things. From his home in England to the colony where he hopes to wed a like-minded and devout young lady, Charles is imbued with an awareness of the harsh judgment of his Creator and the infinite ways in which man exercises his baser nature. But even in his so-called revelry in the sins of the flesh, abandonment of faith and search for belief, the novel is so stark and joyless that it is hard to imagine this young man even comprehending the meaning of lust.
From Cambridge to Plymouth Colony, from the blight of smallpox that marks his face as surely as the doubt that wracks his soul to the encounters with Indians in the colonies, Wentworth personifies the burden imposed upon him from birth. No adventure, affection or fortune can assuage the cloud that shadows his existence, beating a solemn path to salvation. From his father’s words—“you have killed me” —to the humble confessions made to ministers of his failings, Wentworth’s spirit is trampled in guilt and remorse. Charles seeks only expiation from a God who demands absolute and unquestioning obedience to a worldview without joy: “Though He slay me, yet I will trust in Him.”
There is literally no page that isn’t riddled with reminders of God’s harsh judgment, no chapter of curiosity or adventure, even Wentworth’s love of grammar perceived as idolatrous. His every move examined and rejected by a wrathful and demanding God, Charles is as surely shackled to shame and sin as the most pious of men. Critics have called The Pilgrim “exuberant,” “moving and thought-provoking,” but I dispute any such description of this novel, one that consistently lectures, prods, shames and denies any semblance of celebration in the natural world or the bounty of nature. Every page is filled with a personal confession of weakness, of failure, humiliation and inadequacy.
I cannot fathom a character who trudges through life burdened by the doctrine of men who would deny any aspect of their humanity, pride or accomplishment that isn’t accompanied by the lash of God’s admonition, the slavish worship of a dry, brittle dogma limned with suffering and penance. If this novel is meant to inspire—even if only in the context of Puritanical society—I cannot think of a sufficient reason to devote my precious time to such condemnation, dread and despair. The glory of a person’s particular God should not be sullied with such a fearsome denial of life. I hope this novel is an anomaly for Nissenson.