Casual Vacancy 15: A Telling Re-Take on ‘The Good Samaritan’

In response to HogwartsProfessor Casual Vacancy post 4 on Literary Narcissism, Kelly first raised the possibility that Ms. Rowling’s  post Hogwarts Saga debut was a postmodern re-telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Lavonne Neff at Christianity Today spoke to this possibility as well, while denying a Christian allegory. I urged a reader who wrote me with thoughts along the Good Samaritan lines to write them up as a Guest Post for your consideration.

The Casual Vacancy and the Good Samaritan by B. Waisanen

There are some obvious parallels between Casual Vacancy and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

As you well know, a lawyer asks Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus prompts the lawyer, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer answers with a quote, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself,” and Jesus says, “You have answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.” But the lawyer, “….willing to justify himself,” asks, “…And who is my neighbor?”

This seems to be a fundamental question of The Casual Vacancy, and it comes with a rather obvious answer. However, is Rowling really that obvious? Something has to be going on under the surface. Connecting the dots between the central parable and the book’s title provides a key to the deeper meaning of the book; that the casual vacancy,  of England’s Christian heritage leads to the inevitable tragedy of the ending.

While I’m sure Good Samaritans abound in the book, Barry Fairbrother is the obvious first choice candidate, dealing out help and healing all round. Not only is he the main tether keeping Krystal on track, Barry supports Gavin, Cubby, Parminder, and the Fields in general.

Later on, as Miles and Samantha arrive for dinner, Rowling slides in another reference, “Here they are, the good Samaritans,” boomed Howard.” Unfortunately, he seems to be making an over the top double entendre towards Samantha.

The real acting out of the parable happens at the end of the story.

A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho….

The journey took Krystal back to her childhood. She had made this trip daily to St. Thomas’s all on her own, on the bus.

It is not a man, but a girl and her brother. I think it is not accidental, that Krystal and Robbie journey up from the Fields to Pagford. She makes a journey, but it is in reverse direction.  The man in the parable journeys from Jerusalem, the city of God, to Jericho. If it Rowling meant this to be a direct parallel, she would have had the journey reversed, from Pagford down to the Fields.

She knew when the abbey would come into sight, and she pointed it out to Robbie.

“See the big ruin’ castle?”

Does Krystal even realize what the Abbey is? She calls it a castle. She doesn’t seem know its former cultural and spiritual role in the region. Does anyone else even bring up the idea? Certainly, Rowling is doing something very specific with this symbol. I think it is the biggest idea within the meaning of her title.

….and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.

Krystal is not attacked. Not on the surface. But, she is trapped. Who are the robbers and thieves? Krystal bares it all. But, without Barry Fairbrother, the first Good Samaritan there to help her, in her desperation, she feels trapped. At the very least, she leaves the scene wounded in soul and spirit, and with the death of Robbie, there is the connection to half dead. Also, in despair, Krystal herself is half dead already, with no hope left.

The order of events is not perfect. But the connections are still so strong.

And by chance there came down a certain priest that way; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.

Gavin: “….he crossed the bridge on foot. There was a small boy sitting by himself on a bench eating sweets, below him.

After leaving Mary’s: “He saw the boy, chocolate stained, ill-kempt and unappealing, and walked past,….

And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.

Samantha: “She glanced up and her eyes met Robbie’s. Children often wriggled through the hole in the hedge to play in the field at weekends. Her own girls had done it when they were younger.

She climbed over the gate and turned away from the river toward the square.”

Shirley: “ A woman with short silver hair glanced at him, frowning, as she trotted briskly along the opposite pavement.

Shirley had left Lexie at the Copper Kettle, where she seemed happy, but a short way across the Square she had caught the glimpse of Samantha, who was the very last person she wanted to meet, so she had taken off in the opposite direction.

The boy’s wails and squawks echoed behind her as she hurried along. She would not be a dirty joke. She wanted to be pure and pitied, like Mary Fairbrother. her rage was so enormous, so dangerous, that she could not think coherently: she wanted to act, to punish, to finish.

Just before the old stone bridge, a patch of bushes shivered to Shirley’s left. She glanced down and caught a disgusting glimpse of something sordid and vile, and it drove her on.”

Shirley’s harsh judgments cast her clearly in the role of Pharisee as she runs off intending to commit murder.

But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,

Sukhvinder: “She was on the river road…..Sukhvinder caught sight of something in the river below.

Her hands were already on the hot stone ledge before she had thought about what she was doing, and then she had hoisted herself onto the edge of the bridge; she yelled, “He’s in the river, Krys!” and dropped, feet first, into the water.

The whole Jawanda family are outsiders. This seems a clear parallel to the Samaritans.  They are unlike all the rest in religion, culture, and skin color. But, interestingly, is it possible the Jawandas are on the same road toward secularization as the rest of the characters in the story? The family is driven more by the desire for ambition and success than for religious zeal. Parminder, the one character who shows some inner spirituality, constantly attacks her own daughter for her inability to measure up.

and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him: and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.

It is Sukhvinder who begins the collection for Krystal and Robbie’s funeral as well as  obtaining permission from Terri for the funeral to be held at St. Thomas’s.

Unlike the original parable, Sukhvinder does not save Robbie or Krystal. Robbie is drowned, and Krystal is left in despair. What’s going on? Why does Rowling use the parable if she isn’t really going to follow through?

Rowling gives us the Sikh parable of Guru Nanuk, another lens with which to view Sukhvinder’s heroism. Guru Nanak goes into the river, and then returns three days later with the message, there is no Hindu, there is no Moslem.

The Sikh parable has its own meaning for Sukhvinder. She comes out of the water with a new vision. She can see a clear beauty in Krystal that she didn’t see before. But, it doesn’t save Robbie or Krystal.

Is this it? Does Rowling just want us to see beyond cultural differences? I don’t think so. I think she wants us to compare the Sikh story to the Christian story. She has Sukhvinder herself connect the big obvious dots between Guru Nanak’s story and the story of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Rowling is determined to place the central Christian message in her books. And yet in this one, the message is so….vacant. I believe Rowling is, in her under-the-watchful-eyes-of-dragons way, showing us what happens when Christ is absent.

In the Potter books, we have a Christ figure in Harry. He lives, and therefore the world is saved. In The Casual Vacancy, Christ is absent; Barry Fairbrother, the book’s Christ figure, is dead. He has been removed from influence on society, and the vices, so abundant within the world, wreak havoc.


  1. Lavonne Neff, Christianity Today:

    Without offering any spoilers, I’ll just suggest that you consider the Good Samaritan, the story Jesus told when someone asked him who, exactly, was the neighbor he was supposed to love (Luke 10:25-37). Change it so that at least three priests or Levites pass the injured person on the road without helping. Have the charitable foreigner provide money for the funeral, not the hospital. Let everyone heap posthumous praises on the people they despise (“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ ” Matt. 23:29-30). And when presented with the most obvious example of their collective guilt, let everyone in the congregation avert their eyes.

  2. I agree that the story of the people passing Robbie by the river and the attempted rescue by Krystal appear to be a deliberated retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan

    I would like to suggest that there is a picture of another parable as well – the prodigal son and the grace filled father

    Fats has been adopted by a family who committed themselves to him in spite of the fact that he might (unknown to him) have had “abnormalities” as a result of the circumstances of his birth. He scorns his family especially his father, and humiliates them whenever he can. He sets off to the Fields in search of pleasure, “reality” and authenticity.

    When Robbie dies, he abruptly sees how cowardly and self centered he has been. This opens him to realize his cruelty and selfishness. He climbs into a womb like cave and cries, with “a soft piglet-like squeal”. He doesn’t want to go home. In a conversation with his mother he learns the circumstances of his birth so he must face even more, the love that he was given and the heartless way he has spurned it. At home, he confesses to his parents “everything he could think of” in hopes that they would “beat him or stab him or do to him all those things he knew he deserved. “

    His father Colin, who has been subjected to Fat’s abuse for years, does not reject or humiliate him. Instead he protects Fats from his mother’s anger and shields him from the shame of Robbie and Krystal’s funeral as he “put his hand gently on his son’s back and steered him away” from the window In Fat’s terrible brokenness he can finally recognize the depth of his father’s love.

    I found this picture of brokenness, acceptance and gracious forgiveness, one of the most moving pictures I have ever seen of the return of the prodigal.

  3. I think this retelling of the prodigal son and the grace filled father is even more painful to read than the biblical version. For page after page, we watch Colin struggle against his overwhelming fears while he tries to be a faithful father to a son who repeatedly mocks him. We watch Fats who throughout the book has complacently tormented Sukhvinder and used Krystal, suddenly implode when Robbie dies and he realizes who he really is. He doesn’t just feed pigs like the prodigal in the gospel of Luke, he becomes a pig, making piglet like sounds as he sobs in the cave. Because we have watched how hard Colin has struggled just to live as an adequate husband and father, his tender understanding of what Fats is experiencing is astonishing and overwhelming.

  4. Orly Halpern says

    This comparison to the parable was a fascinating illumination of the text! Thank you for sharing! It gave the story much more meaning.

    I wondered if anyone had any thoughts about what ‘guilt’ of Colin’s was Rowling referring to when she wrote in the last chapter about Tessa’s thoughts that she had failed for years in trying to reconcile her husband and her son, “… it had taken a dead child in Colin’s profound understanding of guilt to do it.”
    What was Colin feeling guilty about?

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