A Good Deed: A Small Mustard Seed with a Fruitful Harvest

Hans Christian Andersen’s children’s story “Something” especially reveals the mysterious, fruitful nature of goodness in its purest form — a simple act of kindness, a humble good deed, a small favor for a poor old woman with no motive of recognition or reward, and a work of mercy.  In the story four of the five brothers all have worldly ambitions to leave behind a legacy of fame and distinction as evidence of their prosperous rise to success and honor that will distinguish them as “Something” rather than a Nobody. In their rivalry to exceed each other’s accomplishments and gain prestigious recognition for their expertise, wealth, and social status, the four enterprising, aspiring younger brothers who strive for greatness assume airs of prideful superiority that mock their oldest brother’s humble work of brick maker.

The second brother scorns the oldest brother’s honest manual labor as beneath his own dignity: “Something very little, though,” he replies sarcastically. “Why it is as good as nothing! Better be a mason, as I intend to be.” In the second brother’s eyes, a mason’s expertise surpasses the manual labor of his older brother and improves his social and economic position.  The third brother, contemptuous of the lowly rank of a mason, boasts that he will claim a higher profession and gain the title of an architect. He strives to rise higher in life than his two older brothers and congratulates himself for his distinguished career and respectable profession that put to shame the lowly work of the older brothers.

The fourth son, also fiercely competitive and not to be outdone by his older brothers, announces he will be the greatest of artists, a renowned genius, and a recognized innovator and inventor, thus separating the distance between his towering greatness and their meager lowliness. The fifth son, determined to be the most accomplished of the brothers and at the pinnacle of fashionable society, makes invidious comparisons between his esteemed rank and the unimpressive achievement of all his mediocre brothers. In his position of an astute critic without peer in his expertise, he will reach perfection and expose the failures and shortcomings of his brothers’ crafts as he boasts “that will be something.”  The idea of “Something,” then, is to compete, succeed, and win the first prize and bask in the glory of worldly success while depreciating the skill, profession, knowledge, wealth, fame, or accomplishments of other laborers and reduce them to virtually nothing.

During his lifetime the humble brick maker lived a simple life and earned a modest living, never competing to win the first prize of “Something.” Generously donating several bricks and many broken ones to Mother Margaret, a poor and lonely old woman, he helps her maintain a lowly dwelling of a home. The common brick maker dies as an obscure man without a great reputation or noteworthy acclaim, soon followed to the grave by the second, third, and fourth brother who all glorify their worldly ambitions of mason, architect, inventor, and genius. After the youngest brother, the critic, dies, he finds himself at the gates of heaven next to Mother Margaret. “And how did you leave the world?” the critic inquires, hoping to boast of his great name.

 

The old woman did not depart from this life as a famous celebrity or an image of success. Mother Margaret recalls the moment of her death when she narrates the episode of an ice skating party where the entire village was on the lake enjoying their winter sport. Noticing in the sky the approach of an impending storm threatening to melt the ice, Margaret yells to warn the skaters, but no one hears her saving words.  In a state of desperate panic and fear Mother Margaret thinks of another plan to get their attention: “I could set fire to my bed. Better let my house be burned to the ground than that so many should miserably perish.” Alerting the skaters by setting fire to her straw, Margaret saves them from falling in the ice and drowning in the lake. Dying herself from the fire, Margaret is welcomed into heaven, and the blade of straw from her bed is converted into dazzling gold—the treasure and splendor of her good deed.

The angel asks the critic what he brought with him to heaven, reprimanding the fifth brother: “Truly, I know that thou hast done nothing, not even made bricks.” As the angel denies the critic admission into heaven, Mother Margaret pleads for him, arguing that the critic’s oldest brother’s kindness extended her long life and preserved her long enough to save all who would have perished when the ice cracked. Her shelter, made from the fragments of bricks, blessed her with a ripe old age. Her long life, in turn, allowed her to save the townspeople. Therefore, her eternal gratitude to the brick maker moves her to ask for mercy for the critic who did nothing. The oldest son’s generosity to the old woman–his love of goodness for its own sake–gave long life to Margaret, who in turn saved the whole town from drowning and who won heaven for the youngest brother who brings no brick or no straw with him after death. No good deeds follow the critic to justify his entrance into heavenly life. The charitable heart of the brick maker who appeared to be useless and seemed “nothing” to his brothers and his kindness that went unrecognized by the world prove themselves invaluable spiritual treasure, truly “something.”

The kindness of the oldest brother who offered bricks to Mother Margaret diffused, disseminated, and communicated goodness to many others through the old woman’s warning to the skaters. Mother Margaret’s burning of her bed that lured the skaters off the breaking ice saved countless lives. In both cases the goodness of the brick maker and the old woman proceeded from the love of virtue for its own sake which then proliferated, reproduced, and overflowed into many other lives. Their goodness was practical, beneficial, and useful beyond limit—an incalculable gift, blessing, and treasure. The effects and aftereffects of goodness—no matter how small, hidden, or humble– can never be underestimated or foreseen. They transcend measurement and quantification and all worldly standards.

A Cardinal Newman writes in The Idea of a University , the good is always useful and powerfully prolific: “Good is not only good, but reproductive of good; this is one of its attributes; nothing is excellent, beautiful, perfect, desirable for its own sake, but it overflows, and spreads the likeness of itself all around it.”

Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian

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Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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