To read about F's and my London trip, start here and click "newer post" to continue the story.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Poor F has had to submit to Lectures from me all her life. If I had had a blog while she was growing up I would have posted them too, because they are always about things I feel strongly about. The meaning of success, which I posted about earlier, was the subject of one of those lectures.

F said something the other day that reminded me of a screed that I subjected her to when she was in the 9th grade. She had to read several books for English, among them Jane Eyre and The Good Earth. Her English teacher, who I think had no sense at all (ask me sometime about the research paper assignment) asked this question about The Good Earth: Was Wang Lung a moral person? She asked this on a test, and the only acceptable answer was "Yes". I blew my stack when F told me this, and I told her that Wang Lung was not a moral person!

F thought that it was because he kept concubines in his later life. It turned out that she thought morals always have to do with sex, a notion I was glad to find out that she had so I could disabuse her of it. Morals have to do with judging that a particular behavior is right or wrong, independently of how we feel about it, whether we want to engage in it or not, what other people will think of it, or whether or not we will benefit from it. A moral person will not always do the right thing. He may try to find ways to rationalize what he does and convince himself that he's not in the wrong. But mostly he'll feel remorse when he leaves the path, and he'll try to straighten up, make restitution if possible, and resolve never to repeat the error.

Wang Lung, if you recall, had a daughter who was profoundly retarded. This was possibly due to the wretched famine that his family had to endure while she was in the womb and in the months following her birth. Wang Lung loved his daughter and felt compassion for her, so he made sure that she was taken care of. No one else cared whether she lived or died, not even her mother or her brothers, and certainly not the servants whose job it was to look after her physical needs. It's clear throughout the book that Wang Lung is a nice person who cares about others' feelings. He's obviously a warm-hearted, loving man. But if he had not loved his daughter, he would not have thought twice about letting her die from neglect. He regretted his family's lack of concern for her, but he didn't think they were bad people because they would have let this helpless innocent suffer. Right and wrong just didn't enter into it.

In contrast, Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre hated his wife. He felt that he had been tricked into marrying her and that she had ruined his life. He began hating her even before her descent into madness. But he continued to see that she was cared for because it was the right thing to do. He made sure little Adele was taken care of for the same reason - he didn't spend a lot of time with her, so it was clear that he took little pleasure from her company, but he saw to it that she was well-clothed and fed and educated by people who were kind to her because he felt a sense of responsibility toward her. It was wrong of him to try to marry Jane without her knowing that it couldn't have been a legal marriage, and he knew that. But the thing is, no one would have known if he had walked away from his responsibilities. No one knew about his wife (except his brother-in-law) or would have known about Adele, who IIRC wasn't even his child. He didn't come across as a particularly religious person, so he didn't do what he did from fear of hellfire. So there wasn't a single reason for him to do these responsible things, up to and including risking his life in an attempt to save his wife when his house burned up, except that he felt that he should. And that makes Mr. Rochester a moral person.

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