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Morality in Literature

Journey as pursuit for 'true' morality: Literary analysis of works from William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Moliere, Dante, and Samuel Coleridge

More than depicting the nature of humanity, literature has also seen the preponderance of artistic works that delve into the morality of humans. Society has been exposed to the dichotomy and conflict between goodness and evil, or, more concretely, between what is considered as right or wrong. The standard of morality prevalent in the society was distinctly distinguished between right or wrong; ultimately, humanity should only commit, behave, and think 'rightly' -- that is, actions must benefit the greater good.

Indeed, contemplation on humanity's continuous pursuit for committing moral actions and behaving and thinking morally has been interpreted in famous works of literature. While other works centered on the 'rightness' of what society considers as moral acts and behavior, other literary works have focused on providing a multilateral rather than a bilateral perspective of humanity's sense of morality. Ultimately, these various perspectives lead to only one common theme, which is that humanity is eternally looking for the true meaning of morality. More specifically, an individual always face the reality that s/he is confronted with various meanings ('versions') of morality everyday. In effect, people, in their pursuit for meaning in life, as depicted in literature, are actually pursuing true morality -- that is, eternally giving meaning to their actions, behavior, and thoughts.

This theme was shown and explicated in the works of William Shakespeare, Jonathan Swift, Moliere, Dante, and Samuel Coleridge. An analysis of the main themes shown in each of the author's works reflected a similar contemplation of humanity's pursuit for 'true morality.' The main theme that emerged from the works of these authors is that, indeed, there had been various depictions of humanity's pursuit for true morality. Only, these pursuits were symbolically represented by journeys that the main characters of the story had been in. Thus, this paper posits that the literary works "Othello" by Shakespeare, "Gulliver's Travels" by Swift, "Tartuffe" by Moliere, "Inferno" by Dante, and the poems "Life," "Dejection: an ode," and "Hexameters" by Coleridge showed the protagonist's pursuit for true morality during their journeys. These journeys were illustrated as an opportunity for the protagonist or main character to reflect on his life and re-discover one's self, thereby serving as the catalyst to achieve the individual's own meaning of true morality.

Shakespeare highlighted humanity's faults in pursuing the true meaning of morality in Othello's character in the play, "Othello." Events that led to Othello's commitment of murder to Desdemona was triggered during his absence for a journey, which had given Iago the chance to develop plans that later took a toll in Othello and Desdemona's future. Shakespeare showed Othello's loss in his pursuit of true morality when he decided to believe Iago's allegations, and murder Desdemona in the process without hearing her side of the story. He believed that Desdemona's actions had been immoral, believing that she had an affair with Cassio, while all the way it was Othello who had been immoral, and Desdemona and Cassio, the moral ones. Othello's repentance and recognition of his immoral act and thoughts was explicated in his confession in the last act of the play, wherein he revealed that, "Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate, Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak Of one that loved not wisely but too well; Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought Perplex'd in the extreme ... "

A similar depiction of the detrimental effects and consequences of immoral acts and thoughts to the individual was found in Dante's "Inferno." In it, Dante had provided a glimpse of the consequences if human life is to be lived immorally. Symbolically represented by Dante's journey in "Inferno" or hell, immorality was collectively reflected through the following immoral behavior characterized among humans: " ... her angry paramour Did scourge her ... Then full of jealousy, and fierce with wrath, He loosed the monster ... " From this passage, anger, wrath, and jealousy are among the human qualities that were depicted immoral, hence resulting to human suffering and loss of the path towards achieving the true morality.

Dante, by portraying suffering and restlessness of the soul as grave consequences of immoral acts, had in effect extended to his readers his own interpretation of morality. That is, any act, behavior, or thought is considered moral and right if these do not tarnish or diminish the pureness of the soul. Notice that Dante's sense of morality goes beyond ensuring that an act is for the greater good: he went beyond his analysis to include acts and thoughts that were not only beneficial to society, but more importantly, to the self or individual. Not being able to conduct good acts for the benefit of both society and the self would result to the degeneration of the soul, and in effect, leads to immorality.

Moliere, author of the play "Tartuffe," had expressed his criticism of society's standards of what is right or wrong, or collectively, what is moral or immoral. Through the character of the traveling impostor Tartuffe, the play had shown how morality was hard to gauge when based on explicit observations only. Tartuffe's character embodied both moral and immoral qualities of humankind: on one hand, he was seen by Orgon as a pious and moral individual; on the other hand, he was portrayed by Orgon's family and relatives as a treacherous individual. Indeed, Orgon's characterization of Tartuffe and his 'blindness' to the man's true intentions to his wealth were based on his biased observations: "He came to church each day ... Kneeled, on both knees ... The fervour of his prayers to heaven; With deep-drawn sighs and great ejaculations ... " Solely basing his judgment on Tartuffe's religious behavior, Orgon had wrongly considered him as a good man rather than an impostor. Moliere intended this blindness to last until the end of the play, revealing an important lesson for Orgon and Moliere's audience: morality includes not only explicit acts of goodness, but must also include acts of goodness to one's self.

Like Dante's depiction of morality in "Inferno," Moliere's "Tartuffe" emphasizes the importance of showing moral goodness not only to other people, but also to one's self as well. Tartuffe's innate immoral character surfaced not long after he had gained Orgon's trust; his treachery had cost him not only his wealth, but his dignity and character as a member of his conservative and moral society as well. His punishment reflected Moliere's belief in retributive justice as the path towards achieving true morality: "He stood revealed before our monarch's eyes A scoundrel known before by other names, Whose horrid crimes, detailed at length, might fill A long-drawn history of many volumes."

Interestingly, what was portrayed in the works of Shakespeare, Dante, and Moliere was true morality can only be achieved through a 'spiritual journey' -- a contemplation and reflection of one's life as s/he had lived it. Othello, Dante, and Tartuffe were made to realize their errors in life by experiencing the dire consequences of their immoral acts, thoughts, and behavior. However, these realizations were generated only after seeing these detrimental or negative effects of morality. Neither of the protagonists realized and experienced true morality through its innateness in the individual -- that is, they were portrayed as sinful individuals who only achieved morality through repentance and self-reflection, i.e., a spiritual journey through their respective lives.

Coleridge represented morality in its explicit and manifest form in his poems "Life," "Hexameters," and "Dejection: an ode." Through these poems, he was able to show his sense of morality in its purest and positive form, and not by illustrating its opposite characteristics. This was evident in his glorification of human life in the poem "Life," which he Life as follows: "New scenes of Wisdom may each step delay, And Knowledge open as my days advance!...My eye shall dart thro' infinite expanse ... " The exhilaration apparent in the poem showed how Coleridge was more concerned about the importance of life lived meaningfully and morally rather than fearing the consequences of immoral acts and thoughts committed during one's lifetime. In effect, Coleridge was more concerned with the kind of spiritual journey that the individual had rather than focusing on the end of the journey itself (as Dante, Shakespeare, and Moliere had shown in their works).

Another manifestation of Coleridge's innate belief in the goodness of humanity was reflected in "Dejection: an ode," wherein, despite the apparent loneliness felt by the Voice, Coleridge was able to look at the positive side of loneliness or dejection. Dejection for the poet comes with a new opportunity to experience joy, and positively thinking about happiness after feelings of dejection was reflective of Moliere and Dante's belief that a moral individual is one who also considers the goodness of his/her spirit, mind, and heart.

While the first four authors (Shakespeare, Dante, Moliere, and Coleridge) illustrated their respective interpretations of morality through…[continue]

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