Absolution is a short story written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of America’s best known authors of the twentieth century. Even though it was included in the author’s 1926 collection of short stories titled “All the Sad Young Men”, it was first published two years earlier in 1924. Receiving generally positive reviews upon its release, it gained even more interest when Fitzgerald later released his best known novel, The Great Gatsby, because of the perceived connection of the two works.
The story focuses on Rudolph Miller, an eleven-year old son of Carl Miller, a freight agent. Rudolph visits Father Adolphus Schwartz, a Catholic parish priest in America’s mid-west. The purpose of the visit is to confess about a lie that he had made when making a confession three days earlier. As a Catholic, Rudolph is required to regularly confess his sins to the priest and seek repentance. Any lie made during this confession is considered mortal sin. Unfortunately, that is exactly what Rudolph had done. After confessing about some of his sins he had bragged that he never tells a lie which was untruthful. His lying during confession made him so guilty that not even the alter ego that he had created for himself, Blatchford Sarnemington, could make him feel better about himself.
According to Catholic doctrine, one cannot receive the Holy Sacrament when they are in a state of sin. Having lied during a confession and, therefore, committed mortal sin, Rudolph could not receive Sunday’s Holy Sacrament. Not receiving the Holy Communion would indicate to his watchful father that he had sinned. So he plans to ‘accidentally’ take some drink or food before going to Church because Catholic doctrine also does not allow people who have drunk or eaten anything before coming to Church to take the Holy Sacrament. Unfortunately, the father catches him before he could take any water. Rudolph, therefore, is forced to take the Holy Sacrament despite having sinned by making false confession.
After telling Father Schwartz his story and expressing his profound sense of guilt, the priest begins talking incoherently. He soon collapses on his knees. The priest’s incoherence and collapse so shocks Rudolph that he runs away in panic from the priest’s study room.
The three main characters in the story are Rudolph, his father Carl, and the priest, Adolphus Schwartz. Rudolph is a young boy tortured by guilt resulting from his inability to live up to the very high standards that his Catholic religion requires of him. His situation is made even more difficult by his strict father who forces him to live by the impossibly high religious standards.
Carl Miller, Rudolph’s father is a very strict man who is conscious of his inadequacies. For instance, we are told that he had ‘mystical worship of James Hill, the empire builder’. Perhaps his strictness with Rudolph is meant to make him feel worthy and respectable. He is also a hypocritical figure. He forces Rudolph to go for confessions and take the Holy Sacrament while he himself avoids both of them. It is clear that he uses religion as a tool to exert authority over his son.
The third main character is the priest, Adolphus Schwartz. Like Rudolph, Father Schwartz struggles with the need to live without sin in an environment seemingly surrounded by evil. He tries to avoid anything that may cause him to sin such as trying not to take notice of the laughing Swedish girls outside his window and avoiding Romberg’s Drug Store.
The title of the story, absolution, means seeking forgiveness of sins and, therefore, avoiding any ecclesiastical penalties associated with the sins. In Catholic faith absolution is received from a religious authority. The story highlights the difficulty of living a religiously perfect life in an imperfect world full of temptations for sin. The very high religious standards also make living such a life practically impossible. The struggles of the priest and Rudolph highlight this difficulty of trying to live a life devoid of sin. The inability to live a perfectly religious life leads to extreme guilt, especially among children, and hypocrisy among adults. Carl, Rudolph’s father typifies this hypocrisy. He forces his son to make confessions and partake in Holy Communion while avoiding the same standard himself. At the end of the story the priest collapses before Rudolph receives absolution from him. This end shows that in an imperfect world such as the one we live in, there is no man who is holy enough to perform absolution because everyone falls short of the high standards of conduct set by religion.
Fitzgerald’s Absolution provides a short but clear criticism of the Catholic church’s doctrine of absolution. The crux of the author’s argument is that the impossibly high standards of conduct set by the Catholic church in particular and religion in general results in hypocrisy and creates unnecessary guilt among its adherents.