re·demp·tion [ri-demp-shuhn] –noun
|1.||an act of redeeming or the state of being redeemed.|
|3.||Theology. deliverance from sin; salvation.|
|4.||atonement for guilt.|
I have been thinking a lot lately about redemption. The trigger for these thoughts is the Scott Beauchamp saga. If you’re new to the idea of Scott Thomas Beauchamp, he is the soldier who wrote a series of articles that he submitted to The New Republic. In these articles, he purported to portray the macabre theater of war that is Iraq, a place in which US troops mock disfigured bomb victims, use tanks as lethal weapons against stray dogs, and dance around graveyards nattily attired in the bones of dead Iraqi children. Investigation quickly showed that these stories were slanderous fictions.
While TNR is sticking by the stories and, incidentally, digging itself a deeper and deeper hole using the shovels of stonewalling, prevarication and denial, Scott Beauchamp himself has quietly backed off. He has refused to confirm the stories and, instead, has done something very different: he’s thrown himself into being a good soldier. Thus, in a private email thread regarding Beauchamp’s performance since the TNR debacle, Blackfive wrote:
When this thing was boiling last summer I wrote that I hoped STB would get back to soldiering and focusing on winning the war. At this time, I believe that he is (and his Commander believes it, too). Laughing Wolf from Blackfive met him and his sergeants just a few weeks ago. I’ve heard witness accounts of STB being the first through the door (volunteered). (Reprinted with Blackfive’s permission.)
In other words, it appears that Beauchamp, having thought to achieve writing fame by slandering his comrades in arms, has now chosen a different route. He’s trying to redeem himself, whether in their eyes or his (or both), by proving himself to be a good soldier, someone who can be relied upon to do the right thing. Beauchamp’s trajectory made me think of the rise and fall of redemption as a literary device.
Writers have long had to grapple with the problem that a moral character is usually a boring one. There is simply no artistic tension in a character who is pure and sweet and always does the right thing. Writers have responded to this challenge in a couple of ways. The first and oldest approach, seen most strongly in fairy tales, is to surround your virtuous hero or heroine with truly wicked (but memorable) foils, all focused on destroying that boring lead character. Whether you’re reading Donkey Skin, Cinderella, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, or any of the other most famous tales, the dramatic tension comes, not from the insipid central character, but from his or her foul enemies, all of them cheerfully engaged in witchcraft, incest, cannibalism, torture, etc. With those extreme behaviors, of course, the only just ending is the malfeasor’s death, the more hideous the better. You then tack on a “happily ever after” and there’s your story.
This same approach — to have wicked side characters who are suitably punished — shows up in more sophisticated writings as well. Two of the most interesting evil characters in literature are Shylock and Fagin, both of whom are malevolent outsiders who linger in the collective memory, while their more virtuous victims have simply vanished from popular culture. Shylock and Fagin may be bad, but they’re exciting. They have depth and a certain sinister charm. And to offset that fact, both of them are roundly punished at the end: Shylock, by being deprived of his wealth and, indeed, his very self, since he’s forced to convert to Christianity; and Fagin, by being executed (although he repents of his sins at the end).
The second approach that old-time authors used if they wanted the central character to be interesting (and not just a foil for the more fascinating subsidiary characters) was redemption. As long as the main character recognized his wrongs at the end and mended his ways, you could have a book filled with a whole series of interesting wrongdoings. The template for this kind of character is, I think, Moll Flanders. The book’s original subtitle tells it all:
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Etc. Who was born in Newgate, and during a life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.
The penitential school of writing was very popular during the mid- to late-Victorian era. Louisa May Alcott used it to good effect on a small scale in Little Women, in which her endearing heroine Jo committed a host of small, non-venal sins on her road to maturity and adult happiness. (In a dry, considered way, so too did Jane Austen, of course.) As for Alcott, she also used the same device in her blood and thunder novels, which she wrote under a pseudonym when she was young, with her heroines committing vile moral crimes — by any standards, not just Victorian ones — and then either dying or repenting at story’s end.
The repentance genre probable reached its apex in Hollywood, when the studios discovered that they could get away with all manner of debauchery provided that their central character was either killed or repented at movie’s end. One of the best movies of this type is San Francisco, the 1936 blockbuster about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Clark Gable is wonderful as Blackie, the gambling nightclub owner who is inexorably drawn to the good (but vapid and shrill) nightclub singer (Jeanette MacDonald, of course). He fights his good instincts, but the horrors of the ’06 quake (marvelously rendered in the movie) cleanse his soul and send him karooming down the path to virtue. The movie ends there, of course, not only because Blackie’s been redeemed but because, with his soul’s purification, he ceases to be an interesting artistic character.
Although I think San Francisco is the best of the repentance movies, you’ll find that the theme continued in movies all the way through the 60s. People did bad, or stupid or silly things that made interesting the movie (and, later, the TV show, even such silly ones as Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best) and then, inevitably, redeemed themselves at show’s end, not just by getting in trouble, but by making an affirmative decision to do the right thing.
Since the pivotal 1960s, of course, Hollywood realized that it could jettison redemption or pertinence, and simply have movies about bad people doing bad things. The characters could be interestingly wicked in the beginning, the middle and the end, without ever developing a conscience, learning a lesson, repenting of their sins, or making reparation for the harm they did. I never like these movies. I find them extremely unsatisfying and usually feel somewhat sullied by having watched them. Sitting here, writing this, the only show of this type that springs to mind is The Sopranos. The show’s fans will tell you that it’s a good show because the Mafiosos are shown as so morally repellent that no one would want to be like them, but I find troubling the fact that the characters themselves, separate from the viewing audience, function in a moral vacuum. That is, you may bring your own morality to viewing the show but, from what I gather, the characters themselves, within the artificial universe of the show, never grow morally and put aside, or even see the wrong in, their utterly repugnant behavior.
As you’ve probably already surmised, given that I dislike movies that do not show the central character growing in maturity or morality, I’ve always had a fondness for movies in which the main character does eventually figure things out and get them right. I like the moral trajectory from ignorance or sin to knowledge and virtue. It makes me feel hopeful. Perhaps these old-time themes are simplistic, but I can see them play out in my own life, where I have (I hope) grown to be a better person than I was ten, twenty or thirty years ago. After all, if life experience and aging don’t improve us, it seems to me we’re little better than animals, since we’ve demonstrated a stunning lack of awareness about ourselves and the world around us.
I’ve actually written a lot of articles for American Thinker in which I’ve considered the how important it is for people to grow morally, and how I think it’s culturally a good thing if movies show this importance. Here, for example, I wrote about how political correctness, with its self-involved focus on each person’s own feelings, short-circuits a child’s ability to learn from his mistakes and appreciate the abstract morality that enables us to function together in a civilized society. Becazusae I find this trend towards amoral self-involvement so distressing, especially as it manifests itself in pop culture, I was delighted with the movie The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which I saw as a real throwback to the old time movies in which a character matures through the movie’s trajectory, and is able to take on the responsibilities of a moral adult by movie’s end. My most recent article in that series (and I didn’t even know at the time that I was writing a series) is about the difference between those who are mature adults in the political world and those who remain perpetually mired in an irresponsible adolescence, immune to life’s lessons.
It seems to me that, in a culture where all bad behavior is treated as either a symptom of societal ills or a disease, we deprive people of their right and their ability to grow to adulthood, both in terms of morality and responsibility. Children nowadays are simply told, “if it feels good, do it” (and that’s true no matter how much you wrap this sentiment in gushy, multiculturalist, politically correct language). This is a no-growth philosophy and I can’t help but feel that it pales beside the old redemption scenario that held out for all of us the promise that, no matter our failings, if we can recognize our wrongdoing and atone for it, we can be better people.