Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Ethical Decisions of Imaginary Characters

I'm not afraid to ask students whether the fictional characters we encounter do "the right thing."  I do think sometimes this question can help us better understand the particular text.  But I also don't think a literature class is an inappropriate setting to challenge students about ethics and values.

In Susan Glaspell's play "Trifles," two women cover up evidence that would help convict a murderer.   I will ask: did the women do the right thing?  At the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Chief Bromden kills (the lobotomized) McMurphy.  Again I will ask: was Chief Bromden's action ethical?  Certainly the contexts of both these works push a read toward a particular answer, but I still find the discussion engaging and fruitful.  I think these may be the sort of questions students want to engage with; perhaps young adulthood is a time when people find themselves both open to exploring such questions and deeply invested in these questions.


  1. I'm glad you ask the students about the ethics involved in "Trifles." Understanding why she did it is easy, once they put the clues together; figuring out whether the two women should cover it up is more complicated.

    Also, even though the chief of police says something along the lines if "if only there were something to tie these things together" before they conceal the evidence, I'm not so sure he would have put the whole thing together even if they didn't conceal the evidence. It's an interesting question.

  2. I found I needed to address context to address the ethical question. If you read the story as if it occurs today, you might have a different answer to this question than if you read the story as if it takes place before women could even vote. Their "subversive" act takes on a different meaning.

    Some students also thought the investigating men were too oblivious to recognize the motive evidence. Considering the entire play takes place in the kitchen (where the evidence is), and the men spend most of the play off investigating elsewhere, I think that's reasonable. Of course, given that the characters are fictional, what matters is that the language of the play suggests the men might understand the evidence if they saw it, or at least that the women think they might.