Spin those transcendent virtues!

Winter in the Desert by Cheri Block Sabraw All Rights Reserved. 2008

I realize that what is right in one situation may be wrong in another.

In some cultures, slurping soup is the sign of impending digestive joy and in others, avoiding direct eye contact shows respect. However, some actions are just plain wrong at all times.

Literature is an effective way to help students question the actions of fictional characters who make poor decisions. This questioning impacts the student, who may begin to put himself into the characters’ shoes. And we know that being in someone else’s shoes is sometimes more comfortable than confronting our own moral shortcomings. My favorite novel to use for the purpose of examining moral decision- making is John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent.

In brief, the main character, Ethan Allen Hawley, a good man, descends into a world of temptation, sorcery, crime, and moral bankruptcy when faced with the pressures from his family and society. In this story, a moral inversion occurs; that is, what we consider bad becomes good and what we think is good becomes bad. In current jargon we might call this moral inversion the spin, the spin we like to put on events and circumstances that we find uncomfortable.

Before my students  opened the book, they had to take a quiz with 30 questions about moral decision- making.
For example, one question went like this:

If you found a wallet, full of money and credit cards, in a phone booth, what would you do?

For most of us, the answer is obvious. Contact the wallet’s owner.

Here are the types of answers that students shared:

  • I would take the money out and then mail the wallet to the owner.
  • I would keep the wallet and the money and mail the credit cards to the owner.
  • I would return everything to the owner.

Here is the answer that stopped me cold, fifteen years ago:

  • The wallet isn’t lost. It is found. Now it is mine.

I can even remember the student who said this. His answer chilled my soul.  It was a perfect answer to hear before reading The Winter of Our Discontent. Bad is good, good is bad, lost is found.

The spin had begun.

But you can only imagine seeing the smug grin fade to an awkward grimace when I told him that the wallet lost in that phone booth had been my husband’s, on his way with my son to visit colleges in Arizona.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
This entry was posted in On fiction, Writing and Teaching and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Spin those transcendent virtues!

  1. andreaskluth says:

    I haven’t read that book by Steinbeck, but now I want to. I like inversions. Here good and bad seem to be “impostors”. Based on real life, I would partially agree.

    But this student of yours seems not so much to be spinning or inverting as to be … just plain confused. Or bored.

    That would be the French answer: Blame it on the “ennui”. If you live a placid middle-class existence as an average teenager, without wrenching injustice visited upon you, and your teacher gives you a multiple choice question where the answer is boringly obvious (return the damn wallet!), you will rebel and say something that you later can’t believe having said.

    • Cheri says:

      You sound as if you know what you are talking about here 😉 I imagine you were bored in many of your classes, am I right? Oh, you would have been fun to have in class…you and Mr. Crotchety.

      This book is worth the time it takes to read. Steinbeck wrote it after the game show hoax in the late 50’s; the characters are still relevant today: tempted, juicy, conniving, and pressured.

      This student did have what he thought was a wrenching injustice when grades came out.

      Then the ennui went kaput.

  2. andreaskluth says:

    Ahem. yes, occasionally less than engaged.

  3. Christopher says:

    “…….The wallet isn’t lost. It is found. Now it is mine……..

    When I was at school (long ago in the ’50s and very early ’60s) this was called “finders keepers”.

    I feel sure you’ve heard of “situational ethics”, about which learned books have been written, where things one ordinarily shouldn’t do, like killing and stealing, can, in certain circumstances, be morally the right thing to do.

    • Cheri says:

      What do you think of situational ethics?
      That behavior can be right in one circumstances and wrong in another.
      While I understand how this can be when totally different cultures collide, how is it so in one homogeneous society?

      Very interesting comment, Christopher. Thank you.

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