Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Reader

If you think Trifles presents an ethical dilemma (see previous post), consider this 1995 novel by Bernhard Schlink, later made into an Academy Award nominated film, starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes.

What if you loved a criminal? What if that criminal may have taken advantage of your youthful vulnerability for her own pleasure, yet you love her? What if that criminal was somehow extremely vulnerable and disadvantaged during the commission of the crime? What if the criminal was doing what she was hired and paid to do during the commission of the crime? What if the criminal used her victims for her own pleasure during the commission of the crime? What if during the criminal’s trial she was unable to understand the written charge, the indictment or the written evidence against her? What if the criminal confessed to a false charge rather than reveal her illiteracy? What if the criminal, while incarcerated, attempted to better understand the crime she had committed and to make amends for the wrongs she had done to others?

If you loved that criminal, how would you weigh her guilt, her extenuating circumstances, and her efforts at self-redemption? If you loved that criminal, how would you judge yourself? If you loved her victims, how would you judge her?

These are the unresolved questions that emerge from a story that is told in a much simpler and more direct style than the troubling moral ambiguities with which it concerns itself.

I saw the film before reading the book and was troubled, not only by the moral ambiguity of a WW II concentration camp guard, forced to take jobs that did not require literacy, since she could neither read nor write, but also by her sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy, who loved her and benefitted, in self-esteem and self-confidence, from his relationship with her, but who also learned at an early age how to keep secrets that alienated him from his family and his peers and who never succeeded in an intimate relationship during adulthood.

Reading the book only increased the moral complexity, the emotional disturbance, and the troubling unresolved questions.

At one level Michael’s relationship with Hanna can be viewed in Freudian terms as an Oedipal dilemma, in which the young man never frees himself from attachment to a mother figure who betrays him, as mother and as lover, though he feels his own guilt of having betrayed her as intensely as he feels he could not stop loving her.

At another level this Oedipal complex is analogous to the dilemma of a whole generation of post-WW II Germans who loved their parents, who they also felt were criminals for their complicity with the Third Reich, were somehow themselves victims of extenuating circumstances, were guilty and yet not guilty, were betrayers of their children and yet victims of betrayal by their children.

All this is complicated by the theme of literacy and the huge incapacitating effect of illiteracy, the urgent need for literacy, and the overwhelming, life-changing shame of illiteracy. Does deception become such a way of life for the illiterate that they lose all capacity for the naked honesty of true intimacy? Does deception as a way of life destroy one’s ability to engage in a fully human relationship, whether it be with those under one’s power or with those that have power over one, with one’s family, one’s peers, one’s lover, or even with oneself?

Is it the deception over illiteracy or illiteracy itself or both that condemns one to a life of isolation, of misunderstanding, of unresolved anger and cruelty, of indifference, of self-protection?

And if one is literate and can enable the literacy of others, as Michael does for Hanna during her incarceration, does one have even less excuse for failure in human relationships?

And what of Hanna’s suicide? And the role of Michael’s judgment of her and distance from her in that suicide?

And what if one is a Jewish reader of this novel? Is it possible to transcend one’s own sense of historical horror and unjust victimization to sympathize with one’s oppressor? Can the oppressor be oppressed? If the lover or child of the oppressor cannot forgive, how can it be possible for the oppressed to forgive?

Can the oppressed be an oppressor?

Can one, indeed, “love the sinner and hate the sin”?

Such questions are typical of a work designed to unsettle all us “readers.”


Susan Glaspell’s 1916 play was later rewritten as a short story, “A Jury of Her Peers.” Part detective story, part realistic drama, part feminist critique, the story raises serious ethical issues about domestic abuse, justifiable homicide, mental illness as a criminal defense, the withholding of evidence, and the protection of a murderer, not to mention male supremacy.

In an isolated farmhouse, John Wright is found dead, having been strangled to death in his bed with a rope. The only other person present at the scene is his wife, Minnie. The sheriff, county attorney, and the neighbor who discovered the crime search the farmhouse for evidence to confirm that Minnie murdered her husband. The wives of the sheriff and the neighbor are brought along to gather personal belongings to take to Minnie in jail.

The men overhear the women discussing Minnie’s domestic items, including her sewing project, wondering if she was going to “quilt it or knot it.” They mock the women for concerning themselves with “trifles” at a murder scene and fail to search the kitchen, which they dismiss as too unimportant a part of the house to contain any evidence.

While they search more important sites, like the barn, the women discover evidence in the kitchen that enables them to piece together a theory of how Minnie’s cold and heartless husband killed (by strangulation) her beloved pet songbird, causing Minnie to become unhinged.

Knowing Minnie’s history of loneliness in a loveless marriage with a cold, distant, possibly abusive husband, the women struggle over revealing the evidence to the men. In the end they conceal it, even as the men continue to dismiss their concern with “trifles.”

The story effectively exposes male superiority and prejudice against women and the domestic sphere as self-defeating bigotry. Yet it also appears to some readers to condone, not only the concealing of evidence, but also the commission of murder. By creating sympathy for Minnie and the women friends who understand her plight, does Glaspell also create sympathy for their actions, murder and the cover-up of murder?

Do Minnie’s friends have sufficient evidence that John Wright was abusive? That Minnie was “temporarily insane” and/or morally justified in taking her husband’s life? Can we be sure that John Wright killed the bird? Even if he did, does the killing of a bird justify the killing of a person? Or was the killing of the bird merely the last straw in a long marital history of cruelty that finally broke the camel’s back of Minnie’s mental health?

Given the textual evidence of the story, it is hard to imagine Minnie would not be convicted of the crime. There is no evidence of forced entry or of anyone else being in the house at the time of the murder. The manner of death would have ruled out suicide. Minnie clearly had the means and the opportunity. What is not clear is motive, and the women conceal the evidence for that.

However, it could be argued, they are also concealing evidence of John’s cruelty and Minnie’s mental instability, which could conceivably have been used in her defense. Perhaps this is splitting hairs. The story clearly creates sympathy for the murderer and the women who protect her.

So, our judgment may rest with whether we agree with the theory the women concoct based on their observations and whether, based on this theory, we agree the murder was either a justifiable homicide or a case of “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

If we disagree with that theory and that conclusion, then we might find the story to be morally disturbing, though it is worth asking if sympathy with a criminal equates with condoning their crime (see next blog post).

In any case, if we dwell on these questions, we may overlook what is, perhaps, the main point of the story—that the men who dismiss women’s work and women’s sphere as “trifles” make colossal fools of themselves in their efforts to build a complete criminal case.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

"At the Entering of the New Year"

Unlike Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (see Dec. 20 posts), Thomas Hardy’s New Year’s poem (see previous post) is one that few of us have ever read.

At one level it is a poem about how our attitudes toward the New Year change from youth to age. In youth we welcome the passing of time and gleefully join in celebration as we look forward to the “youth of Promise” that the New Year represents. In age we resist and shun the passing of time, having experienced the losses of “bereaved Humanity.”

Hardy includes the note, however, “December 31. During the War,” suggesting that he was not thinking only in universal terms but also in terms of World War I, which, at its beginning, may have been embraced with heroic hopes of military glory, but, after ravaging a generation of European youth, must have been lamented and greeted with a shudder.

A closer look reveals more ambiguity than might be apparent at first read. Part I contrasts the indoor revelry of a New Year’s celebration with loneliness (“home-gone husbandmen”), cold (“the white highway”), and darkness (“nighted farers,” “midnight lambings”) of outdoor working men, travelers and even “stealthy poachers.” Youth celebrates with music and dancing, oblivious to the impending doom that change and time will bring.

Part II, in turn, takes place outside at “dusk…in the gray,” where tolling bells are “muffled” and a “mantled ghost” seeks to hold off the New Year: “Thy entrance here is undesired.” Yet that New Year is “comely,” if “untasked, untried,” and “stars irradiate” around it. Age resists the passing of time, yet recognizes the appeal of the New Year and concedes the innocence of change and time: “Albeit the fault may not be thine.” Age mourns the ravages and losses that time brings, but cannot completely resist the charm of a fresh start or a new day.

Similarly, just as the popular enthusiasm for war’s first blush overlooks the inevitable suffering and death, so does war weariness and war resistance still admire the courage and valor and heroic feats of the battlefield. Even the pacifist and war protester give homage to those who have given life and limb and sometimes sanity in service to their country.

Thomas Hardy’s “At the Entering of the New Year” is no simple protest against time or change or war, but a reflection on the ambiguity of human experience, whether in youth or age, at war or at peace.

A Poem for the New Year

At the Entering of the New Year

Our songs went up and out the chimney,
And roused the home-gone husbandmen;
Our allemands, our heys, poussettings,
Our hands-across and back again,
Sent rhythmic throbbings through the casements
On to the white highway,
Where nighted farers paused and muttered,
"Keep it up well, do they!"

The contrabasso's measured booming
Sped at each bar to the parish bounds,
To shepherds at their midnight lambings,
To stealthy poachers on their rounds;
And everybody caught full duly
The notes of our delight,
As Time unrobed the Youth of Promise
Hailed by our sanguine sight.


We stand in the dusk of a pine-tree limb,
As if to give ear to the muffled peal,
Brought or withheld at the breeze's whim;
But our truest heed is to words that steal
From the mantled ghost that looms in the gray,
And seems, so far as our sense can see,
To feature bereaved Humanity,
As it sighs to the imminent year its say:—

"O stay without, O stay without,
Calm comely Youth, untasked, untired;
Though stars irradiate thee about
Thy entrance here is undesired.
Open the gate not, mystic one;
Must we avow what we would close confine?
With thee, good friend, we would have converse none,
Albeit the fault may not be thine."

December 31. During the War. --Thomas Hardy