SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 23 (2003) 117-135
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"The Gulf of Dislike" Between Reality and Resemblance in Bernard Shaw's "The Black Girl in Search of God"1
Frank C. Manista
To many readers, Bernard Shaw's "The Black Girl in Search of God" is as strange a tale as one may find among his oeuvre. Shaw's use of the short-story format, for one, makes it distinct, but its central character makes it significant even among his other short stories, those "lesser tales." Leon Hugo, in "The Black Girl and Some Lesser Quests: 1932-1934," comments that this story is "a sport in Shaw's work; there is nothing else like it, no religious or other fable, no parable, no black or other girl setting out on any picaresque adventure, anywhere." 2 Shaw himself called it "a most frightfully blasphemous religious story." 3 Even though "The Black Girl" harshly critiques forms of religious usury, or what Shaw called "the commercial theory of the atonement," the story is not in fact a denigration of any particular religious faith or its followers. As Shaw explained in a letter to Clara Kennedy, "The Black Girl is in no sense an attack on missionaries as such . . . I am myself a missionary. . . . The black girl's search led her to this goal [the rejection of the commercial theory of the Atonement]; and her search is the subject of the book, not an attack on anybody." 4 Obvious themes include religious convictions as well as philosophical institutions' modes of proselytizing and control. However, the Girl's inspiration to begin her quest, her ability to confront the four major belief systems of the modern, Western world—Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Science—and her outcome, replete with marriage and children, allude to an idea that all quests and passionate convictions are always already problematic once subjected to an intense dialectic, a dialectic that, more often than not, posits variability and multiplicity over singularity and unity.
A portion of my title, "the gulf of dislike," is taken from Shaw's Man and Superman and speaks directly to these significant multiples. The phrase is [End Page 117] spoken by the Devil, who argues that there can be no absolutes because an absolute implies a single truth. Like Ishmael at the close of Moby Dick, the survivor of any experience is one who can see and understand the meaning and important necessity of multiplicity: Ishmael survives because he perceives the raft within the coffin. The theme of multiplicity works as well with the retreat sermon from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where Father Arnall warned that those who are in hell perceive their sins, not in the singular but "in all their foulness," something the young artist will come to value: "as Saint Augustine points out, God will impart to them His own knowledge of sin so that sin will appear to them in all its malice as it appears to the eyes of God Himself (emphasis mine)." 5 As the Devil states in Man and Superman, "The gulf is the difference between the angelic and diabolic temperament. What more impassable gulf could you have? . . . [only] the gulf of dislike is impassable and eternal. And that is the only gulf that separates my friends here from those who are invidiously called the blest." 6 Those in hell perceive in excess, or as Voltaire warns the Girl near the story's close, "in full panoply of [God's] divinity"—a curse that prevents the ultimate theological reunification (67).
Although Shaw had not made a black person so central a character prior to this work, "blackness" does have a particularly significant symbolic resonance in three of Shaw's most well-known plays—John Bull's Other Island,Heartbreak House, and Back to Methuselah—that helps explain the reasons for Shaw's use and centralization of blackness in "The Black Girl." Blackness signifies a power that allows this young seeker to...