Tuesday, April 14, 2009


conscience--a societal barometer consulted with varying degrees of frequency by characters in pursuit of their daily agenda; a mediating device between "want" or "desire" and "ought I?" or "Is this ethical?"; a behavior fulcrum.

Conscience plays a major role in fiction, its very composition an effective analysis of a character, particularly when compared to that character's sense of self and that character's needs. If conscience is seen as a societal lens through which social and ethical behavior may be judged,the reader will automatically form opinions about where a character is placed on an ethical scale, much in the manner of charting the growth in height of a young person with pencil marks on some communal wall.

Readers are given frequent opportunity to assess characters and consequently form judgments about them based on the character's conscience-based responses to previous actions. At the end of chapter one of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, the reader has seen the immediate consequences of a severe trial of conscience to Michael Henchard. To call the response guilt is to put it in mild terms. A good deal of the arc of Henchard's response to that first-chapter lapse will cause many readers to root for him and his apparent redress of the enormous occasion of guilt, but Hardy piles more travail on Henchard, bringing him face to face with yet another moral quandary. Thus does the human attribute of conscience appear in the novel, almost as though it were a person itself, seeking another quality that may differ among an array of readers: atonement, redress, revenge. Thus does endowing a character with a large conscience or, arguably, no conscience at all, set the stage for drama. Every bit as compelling as the first chapter in the Hardy novel is the payoff scene in Eugene O'Neill's Desire Under the Elms, when the full force of what she has in her need for love done to her husband and stepson leaves its mark on Abbie Putnam's conscience.

Of a piece with the full-frame sensor on the Canon EOS 5D single-lens reflex, the conscience is also a receptor site, taking in intent, fantasy, consequences, implications; it may deliver a response of guilt or self-justification. Even with murderous and vengeful intent full upon him, Hamlet cannot bring himself to kill his intended target, King Claudius, not at this particular moment because he is at prayer. Macbeth, having made the decision to murder King Malcolm, momentarily relents when he sees a servant carrying a tray with a meal to Malcolm. Macbeth's conscience calls out to him in a sense with the reminder that this tray carries what will be Malcolm's last meal, from which trope he is reminded of the Last Supper, which to say the least puts a damper on his ambitions.

Conscience causes some men and women to refuse participation in armed conflict; as well it motivates their behavior relative to birth control and eating products derived from animals. Conscience makes its appearance in ways that may also add a note of wry off-the-wall humor, as in Frank Pierson's opera buffa, Dog Day Afternoon, which begins with three men deciding to rob the bank at 450 Avenue P, Brooklyn. No sooner are Sonny, Sal, and Stevie in the bank, guns drawn, shouting instructions to startled customers and bank employees, than Stevie decides he can't go through with his part, whereupon he leaves.

Back to Hamlet for a moment because of his observation that "conscience doth make cowards of us all," a reminder that many fear to act on their agendas for fear of the ransom gilt will require of the hostage. It becomes a fair question for the writer to ask of all his characters, How little or how much conscience does this character have? To which can be added, And what effect does that have on the character?

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