Moral Complexities and Good and Bad Characters


12618f13Suzie and the Monsters - a fairytale of blood, sex and inhumanity...Robert_Lovelace_Preparing_to_Abduct_Clarissa_HarloweFrancis Franklin’s intriguing and disturbing book ‘’Suzy and the Monsters’, which is about a predatory bi sexuaol vampire who routinely abuses women as well as men , and her war on a far worse group of abusers, human traffickers, examines the moral complexities in this vendetta where Suzy displays ‘the rage of Artemis’. No punches are pulled in describing Suzy’s own awareness of her particular capacity for cruelty, or that of her hateful opponents.

This contrasted strikingly with the book I was previously reading where the moral boundaries between good and bad people are generally clearly if simplistically, drawn and where notions of good and evil, abuse and abuser are clear-cut – that is in Samuel Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’.

As I don’ t  myself share Richardson’s orthodox religious views, with hellfire and damnation awaiting the wicked and eternal bliss for the virtuous, or  his system of morality, it might be seem surprising that I agree with his definition of Lovelace as a man given to indulging remorselessly his taste for wickedness. However, I do, because he is a rapist., and not only that, but a serial abuser of women who thinks that their moral worth can be equated with their so-called physical virtue.

Richardson, it seems, took the view that if the repentant Belford and the incorrigibly scheming and immoral Lovelace had not been ostensibly believers, then their correspondence would have been ‘truly demonic’.

I’m far from believing this myself – it seems to me that Lovelace’s hypocritical refusal to listen to blasphemy, whist showing no mercy to so many of his fellow creatures, makes him seem far worse. He also comes across as a fool, for if he believes in damnation but works diligently for his admission to hell, he seems to me almost to suffer from some mental condition in which the sufferer can’t relate cause and effect.

Another writer whose attitude towards moral conflict is within the straightforward one of Christian morality is Elizabeth Gaskell. As such, one would rather expect her moral scheme to include a scenario where the wicked flourish in this world and the good and morally scrupulous lose out, looking forward to a reward in the next.

Sometimes in her stories, as in various short stories, for instance, ‘The Sexton’s Hero’ and ‘Half a Lifetime Ago’ this is clearly her thinking on this point, but in some of her novels she seems to be distracted by the conventional novelists’ need for a happy ending in this world, regardless of theology; for instance, in ‘North and South’ the happy reconciliation of the hero and heroine seems contrived to say the least, and comes about through a whole series of people conveniently dying or changing their accustomed patterns of behaviour.

In ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ as I have often said before in this blog, the author gets into difficulties of another sort, caused through her softness towards a morally questionable main character. She ends up by having two out of three very faulty characters suffer a dismal fate in this world, while the third seems to have an improbably charmed life.

The dishonest Philip Hepburn, who conceals from his idol Sylvia Robson that he knows that her preferred admirer Charley Kinraid has been taken by a press gang rather than having been drowned, suffers a miserable fate (and it is hard not to believe, deservedly). Rejected by Sylvia in front of the returned Kinraid, he goes to expiate his sins by enlisting as a marine. Horribly disfigured in an explosion, he comes home a beggar and finally dies dramatically in the arms of a repentant Sylvia, whose punishment as surely follows; tormented by guilt at her godless rejection of the man she married, she drags on a few more years before dying early herself.

Meanwhile, the thoughtless womanizer Charley Kinrad (who is blamed by Hepburn’s business partner William Coulson for causing the death through a broken heart of Coulson’s sister Annie, whom he once courted for a couple of years, and who has beguiled his cousin Bessy into believing that she is engaged to him at the same time that he is courting Sylvia) makes a brilliant match with a pretty heiress only months after he finds out that he has come back to find Sylvia married. As he does this after having solemnly sworn that he’ll have Sylvia for his wife or nobody, she is understandably peeved.

Not only that, but he has a glowing career in the Royal Navy open to him.
In the gun battle on his whaler through which he becomes Sylvia’s hero, he has shot dead two press-gang members, and it is only through being shot down and mistaken for dead himself that he escapes what would have been his punishment had it been known he had survived – hanging for mutiny.

This opposition to press gangs doesn’t prevent him from going in for heroics – this time on the Royal Navy’s side – when he is later captured by a press-gang. This is turn leads to his promotion to officer rank, and after some more heroics being promoted again to Captain.

As an officer, this shameless opportunist would be expected to use press gangs routinely to get enough men (never mind the regulations governing impressments) but we don’t hear about this sordid side to his glittering career as a Naval hero and we may assume that he and the woman who has replaced the unlucky Sylvia in his gadfly affections go on from strength to strength. Kinraid, who has survived yet another shooting through a fortuitous rescue at the hands of his old enemy Hepburn, doesn’t even have so much as limp following a broken leg as we leave him in Portsmouth, walking along vigorously with his adoring wife clinging to his arm.

As I have also said elsewhere, I think this strange contrast between the dismal fates of two of the three main characters in this novel, and the improbable luck of the third, is very likely due to Elizabeth Gaskell’s identifying all her sailor characters with her beloved lost brother John . The theme of the Returning Sailor is one of the landmarks of her work, and while she probably planned a less glowing fate for the caddish Charley Kinraid, sisterly affection must have taken over from authorial detachment.

Of course, I may be wrong. Elizabeth Gaskell was as frequently as subtle a writer as she could be one given to melodrama and even sentimentality, and it is possible that Kinraid’s good luck (the whaler on which we first encounter him is called the ‘Good Fortune’) is intended as a lesson on how the emotionally superficial and unscrupulous flourish in this world. One of the reasons this novel is one that I find particularly intriguing is because the moral lessons are far from as clear-cut as perhaps Elizabeth Gaskell intended them to be. Some people, for instance, read this and assume that Kinraid is meant to be regarded uncritically as a hero – but given the author was he devout wife of a minister I find this hard to believe.

This unintentional ambiguity in the moral message of this novel, where two characters are punished for their wrong doings in this world and another comes up smelling of roses,  makes me less amazed at the absurd amount of time that Richardson devoted to writing appendices and footnotes to his works – and to ‘Clarissa’ in particular – explaining to his readers exactly what moral point he wished to make, exactly how he was trying to portray a character.

But from Richardson’s day to ours, unfortunately, there are those who continue to admire Lovelace and despise Clarissa. Whatever our spiritual beliefs, whatever point, moral or otherwise, we may wish to make in telling our story and portraying our characters in a certain way, once we publish the reader is free to make up her own mind.

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4 thoughts on “Moral Complexities and Good and Bad Characters

  1. Interesting post, Lucinda. I often get impatient with literature that presents the reader with straightforwardly “good” or “bad” characters, which seems to me to ignore the complexity of human psychology and motivation. I’m in agreement with philosopher Thomas Nagel on this: “Most people are not basically good or bad. Most people are basically complicated.”

  2. That is so true, Mari. I always try and remember, with regard to characters in fiction as well as real people in life, Graham Green’s comment ‘Hatred is a failure of imagination’ as something I find invaluable. I abhor Heathcliff’s bullying of women and children and condemn it out of hand, but I feel sorry for him, just the same (adjusts halo). A lot of other readers on the WH discussion thread I started a while ago on Goodreads find that idea complicated, but I find it very soothing.

  3. Many thanks again for the review – however, I do feel compelled to defend Suzie a little: while she does have a preference for women, she is nonetheless bisexual, and her routines (abusive or not) are not restricted to any one gender… 🙂

  4. You’re right, Frank – and I’ll change the post a bit to reflect that. In fact, she was as I recall,
    more savage to men. Lol, that shows my tendency to notice abuse of women more…

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