The Unbought Grace of Life

“The unbought grace of life”, a phrase used by Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France, refers to the priceless treasures of custom and tradition that transform human existence from barbaric and primitive to human and civilized. The unbought grace of life elevates human experience and gladdens the heart with gratitude and joy for the goodness of life’s exquisite pleasures. Several portraits of the home in literature also depict it as an unbought grace of life—a precious gift that epitomizes something heavenly that blesses and enriches human existence.

In Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Rat and Mole, who have traveled far from their homes, are returning from their journey when they pass through a village at dusk. They glimpse an inviting domestic scene as they approach a house with open curtains that beckons their casual notice: “Most of the low latticed windows were innocent of blinds, and to the lookers-in from outside, the inmates gathered round the tea-table, absorbed in handiwork, or talking with laughter and gesture, had each that happy grace which is the last thing the skilled actor shall capture—the natural grace which goes with perfect unconsciousness of observation.” The picture of a family gathered around the table hints of the essence of “home, sweet home”, and the members of the household give the impression of professional actors on the stage performing their parts flawlessly. Without rehearsals or memorized parts, all the characters communicate perfectly the unbought grace of life–the exquisite pleasure of the simple enjoyments a happy home offers to one and all: the quiet activity of women sewing, leisurely conversation, “a cat being stroked, a sleepy child picked up and huddled off to bed, or a tired man stretch and knock out his pipe on the end of a smouldering log.”

willows-shepard2The simple scene of a family’s relaxation in the evening around the table and by the fire strikes the travelers as not only a masterful play with the best of actors and a captivating setting (“the little curtained world within walls”), but also as a framed painting in which the artist has captured a sense of human happiness at its purest. The home is not just a house or a shelter, but a world or cosmos that has room for all of life from the youngest to the oldest, a place to rest, talk, play, sit, or sleep according to the person’s pleasure. As G.K. Chesterton remarked, only in one’s home does a person exercise the freedom of a sovereign: “. . . the home is the only place of liberty . . . the only place on earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim.” In a home “the mother of a family makes her own rules and regulations.” The scene that Rat and Mole witness in passing is so enticing that it makes them homesick and longing to be settled again in their domestic kingdom. It is an unbought grace of life, a prize that cannot be purchased.

A similar incident occurs in Alcott’s Little Women. Laurie Laurence, the lonely orphaned neighbor boy who lives with his affluent grandfather and has no siblings, frequently casts a glance at the March household that abounds with the lively activity of four daughters whose capacity for fun and imaginative play seem inexhaustible. He confesses to one of the daughters, Jo, “I can’t help looking over at your house, you always seem to be having such good times.” He observes that when the curtains are not always drawn at night and the lamps brighten the room, “it’s like looking at a picture to see the fire, and you all round the table with your mother; . . . I can’t help watching it.” Because Laurie laments the absence of a mother in his life, he feels a longing to fill the void. The evenings at the March household he compares to a beautiful painting that inspires contemplation—a loving glance that wants to rest its attention and behold the lovely scene that speaks so much to the deepest desires of the heart. Such happiness is the unsought grace of life.

In both of these episodes, the members of a home enjoy a typical evening gathered around a familiar place without any sense of attracting attention or performing before an audience. To a passerby, however, who glances or notices, this scene in the home is classic, comparable to a scene from a play or a painting of a master. It is naturally attractive and heartwarming. It reminds the observers of something essential for happiness they are missing at the moment. It stirs in them the longing of homesickness and a sense of belonging to a family that encompasses a large world, a rich variety, and a source of vitality and exuberance. Laurie’s life of luxury in his grandfather’s mansion cannot offer anything as priceless as this deep contentment of the hearth and home.

These pictures of contentment in the home offer nothing lavish or elaborate, but something simple and uncomplicated: people enjoying their favorite pastimes, families sharing in life’s simple pleasures, everyone delighting in each other’s company. No one is watching television, using an electronic device, or engaging in some solitary, unsociable activity. Without family interaction in the form of playing games, telling stories, hearing conversation, enjoying music, or sitting in one common room, the unbought grace of life is not present. When a guest comes into a home and notices sheet music on a piano, a chess game in progress on the table, a game of Risk spread out on the floor, and an open book on a chair, the reaction is always the same as Rat and Mole’s nostalgia for home and Laurie’s desire to be a part of something so naturally human and good.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
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