Morals: Purpose Through Conflict

Morals – some may see them as guidelines, fostering an understanding of what is right and what is wrong. Others may interpret society’s code of conduct as a wall, preventing the self-expression of individual values. Everyday people are confronted with situations in which they have to make a conscious choice to do one thing or the other: to run the red light or not, to return the extra change received at the checkout counter or not, “to be or not to be.” These are all choices which ultimately have a positive or negative outcome based upon the actor’s conscious decision to make the choice. The struggle for balance between that which has been deemed “good” by society contrasted with that which has been labeled “bad” or “evil” continues, even in today’s modern society. Morals have always existed among the people of the world, and they will continue to evolve and change (Landis 75) at the expense of those who commit to rise up and confront them, either directly or through written verse.

It is human instinct to desire a sense of security from all of nature’s beasts (Weiten 384). One of the ways morals facilitate that need is by creating an unwritten societal handbook that dictates right from wrong as deemed appropriate by a circle of peers working and living in that society. As people interact socially, they begin to develop their own rulebook according to personal values and beliefs (Landis 72). When societal morals and individual values are similar and agreed upon, there exists a harmonious exchange of understanding between the people living in that particular society. Morals exist for many reasons; in Kate Chopin’s, The Awakening, it would appear as though the author calls attention to morals having a purpose to serve as a guideline, for which Edna is to follow, but not question. Are the guidelines these morals lay down definitive or can they be reorganized to reflect the changes in thinking society often goes through? Infidelity to ones marriage partner, questioning authority (specifically husbands), and acting on ones free will were all very much discouraged and frowned upon with harsh scrutiny during the 1890’s. Some of these principles have staying power, but others have been reconstructed to portray the equality rights that prevailed through the “modern” early-twentieth century. By assuming the role of wife and homemaker, Edna’s status in society has already been determined. Edna understands this as she reflects on her marriage; “She felt she would take her place with a certain dignity in the world of reality, closing the portals forever behind her upon the realm of romance and dreams” (Chopin 33). However, Edna chose to defy the moral code of conduct through a rebellious act because of the unfair chains she feels society has placed upon her.

The expectation of individuals to comprehend right from wrong, according to societal rule, is both evident in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”, as well as “The Birthmark”. The moral presented in both these stories is the universal question of what is right. That moral is also present throughout The Awakening as Edna must choose between what is socially accepted versus what she believes to be right, according to her personal values. The unwritten rules that accompany the morals in selected societies are often delineated by traditional thinking rich white males whose supremacy has been strongly cast through the community in which they live. Thus, the rules have a tendency to be slanted toward male dominance and respect for the white male. While Chopin takes the liberty of challenging traditionalist thinking head-on, Hawthorne merely questions the mindless acceptance of life’s sphere of influence as it is presented everyday. Commenting on the moral connection in “Young Goodman Brown,” Fogle writes, “Hawthorne does not wish to propose flatly that man is primarily evil; rather he has a gnawing fear that this might be true” (16). Hawthorne uses the ambiguity of Goodman Brown’s situation to foster thought in his readers’ mind. Hawthorne writes, “Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting” (318)? Are people inherently evil, or do they just inherently make evil decisions when confronted with multiple choices? How can Goodman Brown effectively make a socially correct decision when everything he has learned has been taught by participants in a supposedly evil society.

The breakdown of mutual feelings relating to these morals cultivates a discrepancy between how one is expected to act, according to the societal code, and how one actually chooses to live and carry out their lives. This conflict is prominently apparent in Kate Chopin’s, The Awakening. Edna is expected to live a certain way without straying from the societal boundaries put in place for her. This is often the case; people are to remain complacent in their environment, living life not as individuals but as mechanical cogs that serve but one purpose. When the cog asks questions, the machine breaks down. Edna can be likened to the cog in that once she begins to question authority, her husband, and live her life according to her own terms, her familiarity with the societal machine around her begins to break down. “The beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing” (Chopin 25). Her awakening leads her to the principles of “…[doing] as she liked and to feel as she liked” (95), “…[drifting] whithersoever she chose” (58), and “…[not wanting] anything but [her] own way” (184). Edna’s personal values are conflicting directly with the beliefs of society’s majority paving the way for tribulations and ultimately her sacrifice for the ultimate prize – freedom. Many times sacrifice serves as a catalyst to promote moral conflict.

Goodman Brown sacrificed all who were familiar to him by choosing to believe there is no good in the world and that he lived among evil. By his recognition of seemingly ever-present evil in the world, he consciously chose to disagree with society’s beliefs, which state otherwise, (thereby eliciting conflict), and live according to his own cognizance. In Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” Aylmer forgoes his wife at the expense of “his experimental methods essential to human progress” (Grant 150). Mr. Grant continues, “His obsession with perfection, his drive to achieve some ultimate and transcendental effect through science, and his personal ambition are Faustian qualities that doom him morally” (151).

Such is the case in today’s modern society where genetic research is attempting and succeeding at creating clones of living creatures. There rages a heated debate at how far these scientists should push the moral envelope. How far is too far? At what expense will the human race have to endure the quest for worldly knowledge in exchange for spiritual value? Hawthorne is, perhaps, enlightening his readers to some of these universal questions. While God has bequeathed onto His people the mental capacity for logic and reasoning, He has also entrusted them to utilize the knowledge for the common good and not as a replacement for spirituality. As science begins to unravel the mysteries of the unexplained, man runs the risk of running the gamut for control and supremacy. Man will stop at nothing to acquire the understanding needed to create the perfect creature from the mold of his own vision, as Aylmer attempts and fails in “The Birthmark”.

Hawthorne uses the written word, specifically “The Birthmark” to serve as a messenger, voicing his concerns “that science should exercise great caution before plunging into experiments, the results of which could not be anticipated” (Grant 160). The masterful scientists conducting genetic research may soon realize their inept ability to control the monster they so desire to create. The Awakening can be interpreted not only as Edna’s fundamental understanding of her individuality but also as enlightenment for readers to rise up against the hypocrisy of a society which preaches conformity to the morals believed to be the “common voice” of all who breathe air through their lungs. It is not until this common voice of society is breached that its existence is recognized, and when the normative system breaks down, it disrupts the social harmony of society (Landis 72, 74). Goodman Brown resides to a life of solitarian existence and Léonce Pontellier consults the wisdom of a mindful doctor in his efforts to discover what ails his wife – both resulting from the dismantlement of the societal machine that is familiar to them.

Living a life without questioning ones own actions and the worlds around one is not living; morals exist to serve as a guideline not as a definitive guide for living. They will continue to evolve and change (Landis 75) at the expense of those who commit to rise up and confront them, either directly or through written verse. For, it is the natural progression of man to seek knowledge, and what fosters a better comprehension of the world around him than to ask questions and challenge that which is unfair, unpleasant, or unruly?

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: Avon 1899, 1972.
Fogle, Richard Harter. Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Light & the Dark. Norman: U Oklahoma P, 1964.
Grant, William E. Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Short-Story Writers Before 1880. The Gale Group, 1988. 143-63.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark.” Meyer 329-40.
—. “Young Goodman Brown.” Meyer 310-19.
Landis, Judson R. Sociology: Concepts and Characteristics. 11th ed. Sacramento: California State University, 2001.
Meyer, Michael, ed. The Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing. 5th ed. New York: Bedford, 1999.
Weiten, Wayne. Psychology: Themes & Variations. 4th ed. Santa Clara: Santa Clara University, 1998.

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