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Crime and Punishment
Ours is an extremely violent kind of world where even the most common type of folk can find themselves faced with types of unspeakable horrors and criminal activity through little or no intention of their own. In American literature, a common theme is the concept of the freedom of choice and how a person's choices come to affect not only themselves, but all of the people around them. Some of the choices that people, and their literary counterparts, make lead them to crime. It is the purpose of the American justice system to ensure that crimes are punished. However, in literature, that is not always the case. Crime in the American judicial sense is activity which violates the laws of the United States of America. In literature, these are not always the crimes that the authors feel deserve punishment. Three specific stories which deal with crime and punishment in the American landscape are Richard Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," James Alan McPherson's "The Story of a Scar," and Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find."
"Sonny's Blues" is a sad story, as are all the texts in this exploration. The narrator of the story has a younger brother named Sonny who has been arrested for possession of heroin. The two brothers have been able to communicate only intermittently throughout their adult lives because of their differing personalities and opposing priorities. In fact, the older brother only learns of Sonny's arrest through the impersonal newspaper (Reilly 56). Sonny's older brother is a teacher and every single day he encounters students who are as young now as when Sonny started using drugs. "I was sure that the first time Sonny had ever had horse, he couldn't have been much older than these boys were now" (Baldwin 1). The narrator has always looked down upon Sonny for this drug use and for wanting to have a living as a musician, which the narrator sees as both unstable and as an invitation to continue with the boy's drug addiction. According to the laws of the United States of America, drug possession and usage by any persons is a criminal action. Heroin is one of the worst types of illegal narcotic that a person can use because it is so addicting and thus those who abuse it have a hard time recovering. In fact, many people do not recover and wind up dying from an overdose. After having been found with the narcotics, Sonny could be arrested and forced to rehab or to jail time. The reasons why he became addicted to heroin are unimportant to the legal system. His father was emotionally abusive and Sonny could not tolerate him. Then, when the brother tried to take control of Sonny's life, he was already addicted and unwilling to change his behaviors, even if they were for his own betterment. Sonny turned to drugs because dealing with the real world was not a possibility for him at that time.
When the two brothers finally come to terms with one another, Sonny tries to explain to his older brother all the horrible things that have happened to him while he was on the drugs and eventually tells his brother what it is that he has come to understand both about himself and his own life so that he could finally stop and become a functioning human being once more. Sonny says:
I don't know how I played, thinking about it now, but I know I did awful things, those times, sometimes, to people. Or it wasn't that I did anything to them -- it was that they weren't real…And other times, I needed a fix, I needed to find a place to lean, I needed to clear a space to listen -- and I couldn't find it, and I-went crazy, I did terrible things to me, I was terrible for me (Baldwin 21).
While Sonny was under the influence, he believes that he may have committed crimes. He alludes to harming people whenever he was in need of a fix. This is understandable and unlikely. People who are heavily addicted to drugs and do not have a ready source of income will often descend into other forms of criminality in order to feed their habit and keep them in a state of intoxication. His punishment is not made clear; the reader knows that he was arrested but is left unsure of what other restitution he has had to pay for his crimes and exactly what those crimes were, if any (Reilly 57). The only certainty the reader has is that Sonny has harmed himself with his addiction. If that is the case, then his punishment, the pain and the difficulty of recovery plus the estrangement of his brother, is fitting to the crime committed. If however, he has indeed harmed others in his quest for another high, then he has no yet paid the restitution for his crimes. Perhaps this is why Sonny plays the blues so sincerely and with such emotion; because the guilt of what may have happened in his past preys upon him. He will continue to play beautifully because it will never be clear either to him or to the reader exactly what transpired in his past.
In "The Story of a Scar" author James Alan McPherson writes about a young man with a broken nose who chooses to speak to a young woman in a doctor's office. The young woman is at first reluctant to converse with him and he prides himself on getting her to speak. He notes her body type and pays particular attention to the woman's obviously scarred face. The man's nose injury was the result of an enjoyable activity; he was having some sort of sexual interaction at the time with some woman who had no importance to him as becomes evident when he explains to the lady in the waiting room that he has no strong commitments to any woman which is why he never got married. The scarred girl reveals that her injury was also because of a love, but that it was not a moment of enjoyment between her and her lover. In a fit of jealous rage, the young woman was viciously stabbed by her former boyfriend. Instead of learning about the woman on an intimate level, the narrator uses the woman's story to express his own ideas about himself and his own pain.
Logically the crime of the story is the assault on the poor woman by her violent and aggressive college boyfriend, but there is a secondary crime that is being committed in the story which is subliminal and must be interpreted by the reader. The narrator and all men that are like him, have a kind of responsibility to ensure that women like this are protected from the worst of the community. Those that do not are failing their community, specifically when a black woman is injured and a black man refuses to take notice or intervene on her behalf (Andrews 126). By insulating himself and concerning himself only with sex and the fulfillment of his own personal desires, he has neglected his social and racial responsibilities. Human beings sho0uld have an innate sense of kindness and care for one another. The narrator emphasizes with the young women but never comes close enough to an emotional attachment to supplant his own selfishness. It is obvious that he will take very little from this meeting although he regrets not asking her name. Men like the narrator will continue to fulfill their own needs, oblivious to the suffering around them.
The story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor is famous for its use of unexpected violence and for an ironic and wholly unexpected conclusion. An unnamed grandmother pleads with her family to take a vacation to Eastern Tennessee, the home of her youth instead of to the state of Florida. "Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people" (O'Connor). Here, the grandmother does not really believe that they will encounter these criminals, but instead tries to impose the fear of potential violence on her family to get her own way. The implicit threat of criminal activity is used as a tool of manipulation by this old woman.
When the grandmother meets Red Sam, she finds something of a kindred spirit, a person willing to judge and discuss disturbing events, even in front of young children. They judge the times they live in based on the violence and the amount of crime around them. "Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched" (O'Connor). The text gives no indication that either has experienced violence or any type of crime first-hand, so their concerns are all based on what they hear on the radio and read in…[continue]
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