"Does anyone have a guess what the fruit of Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil might symbolize?"
He looked expectantly at Jeremy. Jeremy, however, was still watching Miss Simple, who was the only one in the room raising a tentative hand.
The professor sighed.
"Knowing about good and evil? I mean, knowing what's good and what's bad?"
"That's certainly the obvious conclusion, I grant you. But it hardly makes sense that it could be wrong to know right from wrong, does it? So the meaning must be more subtle. Anyone else?"
He knew better than to look to any of the male students—none of them were willing to make Miss. Simple look bad. He raised an eyebrow at Paulette. She gave it a try.
"Could it have something to do with disobeying God?"
The professor noted the cross1 hanging on a chain around her neck with approval.
"Good point, Paulette. They were ordered by God not to eat of the tree, and so to eat of it would be to come to know evil. This is, in fact, one traditional interpretation of this text, and probably the most coherent one. Thus, the "knowledge" referred to in the name of the tree would not be intellectual knowledge, but the knowledge of experience—an experience the main characters could not have had prior to breaking God's command. Yes, Miss Simple?"
"I don't understand."
The professor took a deep breath.
"That is not a question, Miss. Simple."
A chuckle ran through the girls in the class. Miss. Simple turned slightly red, and bent over to pick up her pencil. The professor noticed that she was not wearing a bra.
A sudden breeze rustled the autumn leaves outside the window. It brought the autumn smoke to his nostrils again, and the sense that something was missing.
"Do you have a question?" he asked.
She balanced the pencil on one tanned knee.
"A question," he said, "do you have a question?"
She decided the pencil was not going to stay there, either, and picked it up again.
"Well?" he said.
She pulled her hair back and stuck the pencil behind her ear.
She looked up at him, expectantly.
"What is your question?" he asked.
"Oh," she said, "I don't und… Why is it called The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, instead of The Tree of the Knowledge of Evil?"
"I don't understand."
Jeremy laughed out loud, for no apparent reason.
Miss Simple pulled the string of hair from her mouth.
"Eating the fruit is evil because God told them not to, right? And so they eat the fruit, and because they weren't supposed to, it's wrong, and that means they're doing evil, so they have experience of evil, and that's the fruit of the tree, right? The knowledge it's symoligiz…
"Yeah. So they already experienced good, right? I mean the garden and the fruit of all the trees and everything, so the tree has nothing to do with that. So shouldn't it just be The Tree of the Knowledge of Evil? I mean, if that's what it's supposed to symol… to mean?"
The professor glanced at his watch2.
"Jeremy. Would you like to answer Miss Simple's question?"
"It's Sophia." She mumbled it, but too loudly for him to ignore.
"What did you say, Miss Simple?"
"You call him Jeremy, you call her Paulette, you should call me Sophia—not 'Miss Simple'."
"Excuse me. Jeremy, do you think you could contain yourself long enough to answer Miss… to answer Sophia's question?"
"You can't contain yourself, or…"
"I can't answer her question. I don't know."
"Miss Trent—Paulette, could you answer Sophia's question?"
Paulette turned in her chair to face Sophia.
"It's called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil because you can't really know good unless you know evil too. It's like light and darkness; if everything were always light you wouldn't know it, because there wouldn't be any darkness to compare it to."
The professor smiled.
"So, to sum up, we have Human and Giver of Life in a garden with The Tree of Life and The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They have been forbidden to eat of the second tree. The Serpent then makes his appearance, and convinces the woman to eat. She does. She then gets the man to eat. Thus both of them break the commandment and come to experience evil. Their punishment is to be cast out of the Garden, into a world of pain and suffering and hard work."
"How does God do evil?"
"How does God do evil?"
"He doesn't. That is, if you are talking about the concept of God referred to in this passage, it would be impossible."
"That's what I thought. I mean, if evil means disobeying God, God couldn't disobey himself."
"That's true. I'm not quite sure what your question is."
"It says…" Sofia shuffled through the pages of the text, losing one, which drifted to the floor. She made a grab for it, missed, then let it go and found the page she was looking for.
"See? Here, at the beginning—it says 'God knows that when you eat it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.'"
1The cross hanging around her neck was a symbol of Christianity, worn by adherents to celebrate the death by torture of the faith's reputed founder. The professor is probably deducing that Paulette learned what she has just said in a "church"—a regular gathering (depending on the particular sect, regular means anywhere from weekly to three or four times a week) of adherents to the religion. Typically, such gatherings would consist of singing and ritual to induce a trance state, followed by an indoctrination in the belief system of the sect conducted by a speaker, who often used a delivery style calculated to deepen the trance. Sometimes this would be accompanied by symbolic cannibalism. Although some sects insisted that the cannibalism was literal rather than symbolic, there is no real evidence that it was, and in fact the insistence was probably more a matter of philosophical distinctions than actual experience, even given the trance states under which the ritual took place. It is not clear whether P intends for us to assume that the professor himself is a member of this religion.
2A watch was a small clock which was worn strapped to the wrist. The culture of the time was rooted in a complex system of time schedules, in which a variation of a few minutes (some scholars argue seconds) could have serious social impact, thus these devices were essential to survival. In this case, P seems to be implying that the professor considers Miss Simple’s question to be an interruption, costing valuable time. Since the class is a discussion class, his reasons for feeling that way are not completely clear. –ed.