Legendary philosopher, Socrates once said, “A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true.” With this statement, Socrates argues that there are few people in this world who possess an absolute morality within themselves whereas most others have a relative morality which they stand by. Absolute morality is the belief that something is always right or always wrong while relative morality is the belief that something is right or wrong depending on the circumstances. The crucial difference between absolute and relative morality lies in the viewpoints of the people who possess each one. However, Socrates’ belief is that relative morality is nothing more than a mere illusion because it really has no guidelines that it stands behind; it is solely based on opinion.
In his mind, it should not even be considered a morality. In essence, Socrates is arguing that you must believe in something to its extreme or not at all; there is no in-between. Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, tells the riveting story of a father and son’s survival in a post-apocalyptic world full of thieves and cannibals. The man and the boy travel the United States in search of food and shelter, while also attempting to flee from danger and the threat of death.
All through the story, they consistently struggle with issues concerning their own morality, character, and conscience. They are forced to make life altering-decisions that ultimately define who they are as people. Throughout the novel The Road, McCarthy uses nature symbolism and apocalyptic imagery to criticize that many people’s ethics dissipate and their immorality consequently rises when they are immersed in an evil world.
The desolate world that the boy, man, and others have to live in results in some people going to the extremes to survive. As the boy and man journey on the road, they encounter very few people along the way. However, one day, the man realizes there are people following him and the boy, so they hide out. Three men and a pregnant woman pass them on the road. A few minutes later they are met with a shocking sight, “Oh Papa, he said. He turned and looked again. What the boy had seen was a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit. He bent and picked the boy up and started for the road with him, holding him close. I’m sorry, he whispered. I’m sorry” (McCarthy 198).
The author deliberately describes the appearance of the burning baby using words that convey graphic imagery such as, “charred, human, infant, headless, gutted, and blackening,” eliciting a repulsive feeling and characterizing the ugliness of evil in the world. The sight traumatizes the boy evidenced when he gasps, “Oh, Papa,” and turns “and looked again [at the burning baby].” The man feels regretful for letting the boy experience such a horrendous sight and apologizes as he takes the boy back to the road.
This gruesome imagery reveals the absolute social breakdown in humanity and society. The morality of the people in this apocalyptic world has completely faded because there are no governing rules or laws to keep them in line. This results in total chaos and turmoil as seen when the weakest and most helpless of human beings – an infant – is preyed upon by a group of insane man-eaters. The cannibals clearly symbolize the end of civilization and this passage represents the extremes of violence, hunger, and cruelty within the apocalyptic world.
Every person in the story seems to be judged by the man and boy as either good and moral or evil and immoral. In his view, the man strongly believes he and the boy are moral and good because, as he tells the boy, “we’re carrying the fire” (McCarthy 83). This “fire” is symbolic of hope and human perseverance, despite the wicked world they are living in.
The man assures the boy that they are the “good guys” who “carry the fire” within themselves to never stop trying to survive in the horrible world even amongst “bad guys” who kill and even cannibalize people in order to survive. As the story unfolds, the boy and the man encounter many potential threats to their existence and make questionable decisions in order to survive which sometimes violate their self-professed “good guy” virtues.
Through his actions, the man subtly begins to show signs that he is heading towards immorality and evil. The man and the boy are awoken by the sound of a diesel truck not too far from them. They flee their camp site and listen quietly until the silence is broken by a guy stumbling through the woods. The guy wrestles the boy into his arms and the man fires his loaded pistol, “The man fell back instantly and lay with blood bubbling from the hole in his forehead. The boy was lying in his lap with no expression at all…covered with gore and mute as a stone” (McCarthy 66).
The man’s quick reaction to save his son represents the very rare love bonds that still exist in this apocalyptic world. The author compares the boy to a “mute stone” after he obviously experiences another life-changing moment. Sickening imagery is also used in this passage, as seen through the words, “bubbling, hole, and gore.” These words portray the man’s heroic act to save his son; however, it comes at the expense of the brutal murder he committed. The man shoots the guy who threatens his son with the intention of ensuring the boy’s safety, yet it contradicts his own moral virtues.
Because he did this out of love, the man can essentially justify the violent killing as being morally correct. Yet, what the man fails to realize, is what makes his choice more praiseworthy than the choices of the people who kill and even cannibalize others in order to survive. This clearly raises a contradiction which creates an ambiguity between immorality and morality. Although the man killed this guy to protect his son, his decision is still problematic because it only takes one bad decision like this to arouse the inner evil within himself and eventually drive him to immorality.
After living in such a malicious world for such a long time, it is nearly impossible for the man not to succumb to immorality and evil. The boy and the man enjoy a nice walk on the beach until they come back to find their camp completely raided. Their entire shopping cart full of food and other survival necessities had been stolen and as a result, they set out to find the thief. They follow the tracks of the shopping cart and finally find the thief in front of the cart with a butcher knife. The man is enraged and pulls his pistol out and threatens the crook,
“Take your clothes off. / What? / Take them off. Every goddamned stitch. / Come on. Don’t do this. / I’ll kill you where you stand. / He stripped slowly and piled his vile rags in the road. / Put the clothes in the shopping cart. / He bent and scooped the up the rags in his arms and piled them on top of the shoes. / Don’t do this, man. / You didn’t mind doing it to us. / You tried to kill us. / I’m starving, man. You’d have done the same. / You took everything. / Come on, man. I’ll die. / I’m going to leave you the way you left us” (McCarthy 256-257).
The man clearly displays immorality by the way he treated the thief and how he reacted to the situation at hand. It is obvious he is incapable of any empathy for the guy who is trying to survive in the same hellish world he is trying to live in. The fact that he wanted to punish the guy by stripping him suggests he wants to make the crook suffer a horrible death because the world is too cold to live without any sort of clothing. The thief in this passage symbolizes the deterioration of the human race because he embodies the ugliness that has emerged in this new world where formerly common things are now extremely valuable.
The man still believes he is a “good guy,” however, this controversial decision proves otherwise. Because the man is acting so cruelly in this scene, his viciousness can almost be compared to the brutality of the savages that roam the same barren world he lives in. Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, set in the Pre-Civil War period, tells the story of young boy named Huckleberry “Huck” Finn, who ventures throughout the Mississippi River Valley. Huck travels with a run-away slave named Jim, meets many new people, and encounters frequent obstacles along the way. Throughout the novel, Huck constantly struggles with complex circumstances affecting his own conscience and morality, but ends up making a big decision that reflects his true character in the end.
Due to the social environment in which Huck grew up, his racist outlook is displayed on occasion throughout the story. In one short exchange with Aunt Sally, Huck indicates that he doesn’t actually view blacks as real people. Huck tells his aunt that his boat ran ashore and she worriedly responds, “‘Good gracious! Anybody hurt?”‘ Huck replies, ‘”No’m. Killed a nigger,”‘ to which Aunt Sally answers, ‘”Well, it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt’” (Twain 167). Huck’s conversation with his aunt vividly illustrates the deeply embedded racism within society. Not only does this exchange exemplify Huck’s own beliefs about blacks’ inferiority, but also proves his prejudiced outlook is primarily derived from the racist society in which he lives.
The conversation suggests that both the aunt and Huck think of blacks only as “things” or “objects,” not actually human beings. When Huck informs his aunt that a “nigger” had died in the crash, she casually dismisses any loss of life. Instead, she responds by pointing out that “it’s lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt [in boat crashes],” therefore essentially revealing that she believes that blacks are not people. Both Aunt Sally and Huck offer no empathy or show any responsiveness to the death, which most people would do if another human had died.
Although Huck views slavery as morally correct, he only believes this because it is customary during this time period. In essence, Huck’s moral nature has been misguided and distorted throughout his childhood, causing him to believe slavery and white superiority is ethically right. Sadly, his morality has been skewed so he believes something not necessarily because he actually believes it in his heart, but possibly because it is just what is socially accepted at the time. Bennett Kravits, author of the critical essay “Reinventing the world and reinventing the self in Huck Finn” reveals his criticism regarding Twain’s portrayal of whites’ perceptions of blacks. He specifically deals with the phrase that Huck uses to describe Jim, “white inside” (Twain 345).”
He essentially explains that although that seems to be an overtly racist description, it actually has the potential to “undercut the prejudicial notions that whites held concerning blacks” (Kravits 6). It is clear Huck has a difficult time seeing Jim as an equal member of society, but he instead can view him as white inside. According to Kravits, the significance behind this depiction is that Huck discovers a way to see Jim as a fellow human being, just in an odd way. Huck’s morality has been molded throughout his childhood and he has an ingrained belief that blacks are just inhumane slaves that are property to white people; however, Kravits is actually arguing that Huck realizes black people deserve to be labeled as humans and not property.
While journeying down the Mississippi River together, Huck and Jim begin to bond in a unique way. A friendship between them starts to develop and Huck’s compassion for Jim grows despite him being a black slave. Huck is faced with the particularly difficult decision of either turning Jim in or rescuing himself from the Phelps’. He struggles between standing up for Jim and what he believes is right or surrendering to the embedded racism he has grown up around. With Jim’s fate on his hands, Huck decides to save Jim instead of himself and rips up the letter to Miss Watson with the astounding exclamation, “‘All right, then I’ll go to Hell”‘ (Twain 162).
During the moments leading up to this heroic decision, his mind runs wild with the thoughts of the harsh punishments Jim could possibly face. Huck recognizes that he has a power to give Jim something he has desired his entire life: freedom. Huck’s empathy is so strong at this point, that combined with his loyalty and morality, it causes Huck to have a significant epiphany.
The epiphany illuminates Huck’s concern for Jim and shows another step in his moral development. The fact that Huck believes he is giving up his soul for Jim’s freedom demonstrates that Huck’s morality has truly developed over the course of the novel. This shows Huck’s incredible loyalty and his ability to put himself in Jim’s shoes in order to sacrifice his owns wants, needs and desires to save Jim. His empathy displayed in this scene supports the belief that although Huck is racist, he still possesses an enormous capacity to see Jim as a fellow human being.
Every person acts in accordance with their beliefs, attitudes, and values, which consequently reflects that person’s ultimate identity. Many factors are responsible for determining the principles people value and respect, including familial, societal, and environmental influences. Throughout Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is in the midst of moral development in his subconscious and his deeper feelings arise as the truer expression of his morality.
He makes decisions in his adventures which demonstrate that not only does he possess morals, he possesses extraordinary ones. Huck’s moral maturity rings clear after he makes significant controversial decisions. Huck’s character progression shows that good scruples can be developed in anyone and a more empathetic part of people can triumph over heartlessness. .
In the novel The Road, Cormac McCarthy describes the struggle between morality and immorality that exists within every person that walks the post-apocalyptic world. He demonstrates that some people give into the evil while others are able to remain good. McCarthy essentially concentrates on the man’s progression from the moral “good guy” to an immoral “bad guy.” “The fire” that the man truly believed he possessed slowly smolders and he begins to succumb to the immoral world he had faced for such a long time.
Huck and the man serve as foils to each other by highlighting Huck’s progression towards a better morality as the man regresses and loses the morals he originally possessed. In essence, both Twain and McCarthy conclude that all people are faced with adversity and difficult decisions, but those people have the power to make certain choices which ultimately define who they really are.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Print.
Kravits, Bennett. “Reinventing the World and Reinventing the Self in Huck Finn.” Literature Resource Center. Gale, Winter 2004. Web. 22 May 2012. <http://0-go.galegroup.com.www.livermore.lib.ca.us/ps/retrieve.do?sgHitCountType=None&sort=RELEVANCE&inPS=true&prodId=LitRC&userGroupName=liver_main&tabID=T001&searchId=R2&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&contentSegment=&searchType=BasicSearchForm¤tPosition=1&contentSet=GALE|A114872927&&docId=GALE|A114872927&docType=GALE&role=LitRChttp://>.
Socrates. “Morality Quotes.” ThinkExist. Web. 22 May. 2012. <http://thinkexist.com/quotations/morality/>.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. United Sates: Tom Doherty Associates, 1985. Print.