Charity – A True Act of Kindness?

In Mary Douglas’s article she discussed how charity is supposed to be a good thing, a spontaneous act of kindness, but in reality is nothing near it. She explains how no gift is given without some selfish

reason, usually for the giver to reimburse the receiver or for the giver to display some sort of self-prestige to an audience. In a society with only selfish intentions, Douglas goes on to use Marcel Mauss’s ideas on gifts to explain how charity inevitably leads to solidarity. In his reasoning, the receiver does not like the giver and thus they lose communication. They then become separated from each other and eventually, with more “charity,” solidarity is achieved. In Lisa See’s book, an underdeveloped girl who will be married to a man she has never before seen elaborately puts together a shoe for this man out of her own charity. However, given Douglas’s idea that charity does not exist, it must be assumed that the girl in See’s book is doing the intricate shoe-making out of self satisfaction.

The society discussed in See’s book is a society in which marriages are arranged and the highest bidding family receives a bride for one of the family’s young boys. The bride has no input for the entire arrangement and goes into the marriage blindly, never having seen her groom before. The narrator of See’s book, the underdeveloped girl previously mentioned, is worth more than the average girl in her society and is therefore rightly engaged to a boy in a wealthy family. When the arrangements are made for her future husband, his family sends a gift to the girl, fine silk. The gift is not a gift though because it is meant to be used by the girl to make a quilt for the boy’s family and a pair of shoes for the boy himself. She knows and accepts this, so she begins on the gift making. Nothing elaborate is required yet she wants to show her new family how grateful she is and wants to make her fiancée happy. She then decides to stitch together an intricate quilt and some fancy shoes.

The girl does not do this out of charity but rather out of personal gain. She exemplifies Douglas’s original idea that there is no good in charity and that everything in society is done out of self satisfaction. She clearly illustrates the two ideas Douglas proposes for charity, that it is done to impress an audience and that it is done for remuneration of an original “charity.” She wants to show the family her gratitude and at the same time impress them, so she decides to do more than just the average stitching. Not only does she try to impress the family with the nicely stitched quilt, but she also tries to impress her future husband with his nicely stitched shoes. She tries to gain his love, his approval, before ever meeting him and only makes him nice shoes to assure that their marriage will be perfect. She is a selfish person and wants nothing more in life than her own satisfaction. This goes on to show that not only are gifts fake, but so too is love and that false gifts are supposed to somehow invoke a false sense of love. It is impossible to love someone before meeting the person, yet the girl in See’s story tries to gain her husband’s love with her fancy gifts. Furthermore, she is not an artist and does not have any concern about an artistic achievement yet she still tries to be an artist. She, being false in her artistry, tries to falsely achieve an end that will result in her false happiness and her false love. The shoes seem to signify nothing to her except her hopes of false love.