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The Meaning of Morality in Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem

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The Meaning Of Morality In Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem

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What it means to be “moral” is a question that over time has been difficult to answer. In its most literal form, morality is defined as the principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. In society, the meaning of morality has become ambiguous. What one culture believes is morally “correct” often differs from what another culture believes. In Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she argues that the meaning of morality is defined based on one’s environment through her use of real-life examples, imagery, and an informal tone. This is evident through her essay On Morality and the title essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem as Didion seeks to find what influences morality on a universal level.

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The first way Didion communicates her argument about morality being dependent on one’s environment is through her use of real-life examples. From the reader’s perspective, morality is a difficult topic to grasp due to its heavily subjective and scrutinized nature. But, Didion successfully clarifies her argument by putting moral dilemmas in pejorative situations to which the reader can relate. The first example of this is the “car accident” scene. Beyond the description of the scene, a car accident is an event that any person with access to a vehicle has experienced at one time or another whether they were a victim or a witness. When Didion says, “Whether or not a corpse is torn apart by coyotes may seem only a sentimental consideration, but of course, it is more: one of the promises we make to one another is that we will try to retrieve our casualties, try not to abandon our dead to the coyotes ” she makes the reader consider morality in their terms based on this environment. If one was in this position, would they act the same? Would they show respect to the corpse? What if it was the coyote who died and not a human, how would you treat the corpse? These questions indirectly proposed by Didion support her argument that morality is a product of one’s environment. Furthermore, Didion’s argument is most evident through the actions of the nurse who was in a life or death predicament and acted in a moral way to protect the corpse.

Didion uses another real-life example with the Donner Party and the Jayhawkers to support her argument. This is a situation in which Americans can relate to the victims and put themselves in this environment on a moral level. In this instance, Didion justifies cannibalism based on the environment in which these people were. For the people who were trapped, they resorted to cannibalism as it was a way of survival in the harsh reality they were facing. On a basic moral level, cannibalism is wrong. But based on their environment, this was an instance of life or death. By using a real-life example, the reader can open their minds and imagine themselves in this environment and consider the meaning of morality from this perspective.

In Didion’s title essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she captures the reality of the Hippie Movement and a real-life example of “hippie racism” to describe morality in the context of this environment. Typically, the “hippie” generation is associated with peace, love, and freedom. But, in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, characters are faced with a potential moral issue regarding racism. Didion says, “I mention to Max and Sharon that some members of the Mime Troupe seem to be in blackface. “It’s street theater… It’s supposed to be really groovy. ” Didion evokes the reader to ponder whether this cultural appropriation is a moral issue or just a product of the environment in which this is taking place. During this period though, “hipster racism” was defined by cultural appropriation, ignorance, and hypocrisy. The racist acts of these people wouldn’t necessarily be considered immoral from Didion’s perspective since it is a direct result of the environment in which they are living. In this environment, racist behaviors are seen more in a joking manner rather than in a harmful manner. Today, a negative situation like this would be considered immoral and incorrect. But, that’s partly due to the environment of today’s society which doesn’t tolerate racist remarks. Back in the 1960s during the civil rights movements, racist jokes were a part of their everyday life. This further supports Didion’s argument that the meaning of morality is derived from one’s environment.

This situation escalates as a girl in blackface contests a black male in the park. She says, “What’d America ever do for you… White kids here, they can sit in the Park all summer long, listening to the music they stole, because their bigshot parents keep sending them money. Whoever sends you money? ” In this situation, the young girl is trying to justify her actions by saying that her use of blackface is raising awareness for black rights in America. This supports Didion’s arguments because if you look at this scenario on a broader scale, this environment supports this behavior. In a time when blacks were oppressed in America and awareness was necessary, this sort of moral action of blackface in public was justified. Comparing this situation to nowadays, wearing blackface regardless of who you are is severely looked down upon as it is a blatant form of cultural appropriation. Today, this would be immoral based on our environment. But, the environment in the 1960s supports the girl and Joan Didion’s argument.

By using a popular time period in American history, readers who remember this time are better equipped to put themselves in this environment and consider this interaction on a moral level. The 1960s were full of racial turmoil and moral actions were accepted differently than they are today. The importance of the environment on morality cannot be understated. The time period and social issues occurring at the time are vital when contemplating whether an action or a thought is “right” or “wrong.”

When Didion talks about her upbringing in support of her argument she says, “For better or worse, we are what we learned as children: my own childhood was illuminated by graphic litanies of the grief awaiting those who failed in their loyalties of each other ”. Here Didion talks to the testament that your environment growing up influences how you act morally. For Didion, she realized that people who failed to be loyal to those around them will face deep sorrow in the form of grief. In other words, people who make immoral decisions will face negative consequences. This is a self-inflicted result towards those who fail to act morally within their means.

Didion ties her argument into the description of the national media through her contemporary perspective. The most troubling aspect of morality that Didion experiences come from the misuse and sheer frequency that the word is used in the media. She says, “I dwell so upon this because the most disturbing aspect of “morality” seems to me to be the frequency with which the word now appears in the press, on television, in the most perfunctory kinds of conversation. ” She later says, “Of course we would all like to “believe” in something, like to assuage our private guilts in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves. ” Didion supports the idea that everyone needs something to believe in and what we believe is a part of our environment and therefore influences our concept of morality. She believes that morality is muddied in part due to the media. Comparing Didion’s approach to a modern contemporary lens, the state of the media today has heavily influenced society’s take on morality. Everyone’s definition of what’s right or wrong has been inconsistent in recent years. This discrepancy is a result of the environment and current state of our national media. Didion’s point about the media disrupting the meaning of morality is still supported in the modern day.

Lastly, Didion uses the story of Klaus Fuchs and Alfred Rosenberg to relate a real-life example to her argument. From a historical perspective, Fuchs and Rosenberg were very different people. Rosenberg was a Nazi whereas Fuchs was an Englishman who leaked nuclear secrets to Russia. Both faced moral dilemmas and tried to justify their actions by claiming what they did was considered right in their eyes. Didion then juxtaposes this example by tying Jesus Christ into the argument. She says that just like Fuchs and Rosenberg, Jesus’ actions were morally justified in his eyes. These examples support Didion’s argument as based on each person’s unique environment, they were morally “correct”. Didion says, “except on that most primitive level – our loyalties to those we love – what could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience. ” Here Didion reinforces her argument alluding to the fact that it is arrogant to disregard someone’s personal conscience because you disagree with it. Instead, Didion wants the reader to realize that what one thinks is morally “correct” varies from person to person based on environmental influences.

Another effective tool that Joan Didion utilizes to support her argument comes in the form of her vivid imagery. In her essay, On Morality and Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she is successfully able to illustrate scenes in which people are experiencing moral issues. In Joan Didion’s first story in On Morality about a car accident, she sets the scene of her argument by first describing a sentimental moral situation. Didion begins by painting a picture of quite possibly the purest forms of sentimental morality regarding life or death. In this story, a young girl was killed in a car accident. She describes the scene by saying, “at midnight last night, on the road in from Las Vegas to Death Valley Junction, a car hit a shoulder and turned over. The driver, very young and apparently drunk, was killed instantly. ” With this clear description, the reader is better able to understand this moral dilemma and come up with their interpretations. This harsh environment that Didion creates evokes emotion from the reader as it involves a young woman passing away abruptly. Her imagery immediately puts the reader in the scene as her diction makes it easy to track the setting. When faced with a moral decision, Didion argues that the environment of the situation dictates moral actions. Shortly after the car accident, she mentions how the corpse couldn’t be just left on the highway out of having moral respect for the deceased. She says, “you can’t just leave a body on the highway… if a body is left alone in the desert, the coyotes in and eat the flesh. ” Here Didion is creating a universal moral code in which when someone passes away, respect must still be intact. Didion’s goal for this scene is to set the stage for the reader to understand the environment in which these characters are in and how they would act morally. Didion puts the reader in the scene through her imagery and poses the question, “If the reader were in this exact environment, how would they act?”

Through her depiction of the deceased, life and death is the only level of morality that respectful humans can agree to. Didion supports this claim when she says, “If we have been taught to keep our promises – if in the simplest terms, our upbringing is good enough – we stay with the body or have bad dreams.” Here Didion explains that if one was brought up having respect for the deceased, it is a societal courtesy to stay with a deceased body until it is properly taken care of. This story about the car accident is the only universal interpretation of morality.

In the next paragraph, Didion furthers her argument by defining what she calls “wagon-train ” morality. This is a social code in society that is used in a “pejorative” or belittling manner. In her story about the “Donner-Reed Party,” she talks about how the “wagon-train” moral code values survival and more important responsibility for your personal ideals and values based on your environment. To better help the reader understand the situations these people are experiencing, she describes it by saying, “The Donner-Reed A Party, starving in the Sierra snow, all the ephemera of civilization gone save that one vestigial taboo, the provision that no one should eat his own blood kin. ” The reader can derive an image of people trapped in the snow who were innately know that cannibalization is wrong on a moral level. By visualizing this scene from the position of the Donner-Reed party, it makes the reader better understand this moral dilemma. “No one should eat his own blood kin” refers to the fact that cannibalization is heavily immoral, but in this environment, it becomes a justified moral action.

By Didion painting a picture of the scene taking place, the reader can visualize themselves in this position. These people didn’t commit cannibalism because they were immoral, but based on their environment, it was their only option. Didion supports this when she says, “we were taught instead that they had somewhere abdicated their responsibilities, somehow breached their primary loyalties, or they would not have found themselves helpless in the mountain winter or the desert summer, would not have given away to acrimony, would not have deserted on another, would not have failed. ” Didion justifies these immoral decisions as it was the only way to survive. She uses clear description words such as “mountain winter” and “desert summer” to emphasize what these people have experienced. Didion disagrees with the notion that people should be held responsible for their situations due to their environment. Often, you can’t control your surroundings, and the meaning of morality shifts when the context around shifts.

Didion furthers her argument with her story about the “boy” who drowned in Nevada. To set up the scene, Didion mentions that “it is difficult to believe that “the good” is a knowable quantity” as she describes how the meaning of morality shifts as the environment changes. As this story changes hands, its meaning begins to dissolve. She once again creates a vivid image where the reader can imagine the scene set in place. Didion says, “they have been diving for ten days but have found no bottom to the caves, no bodies and no trace of them, only the black 90-degree water going down… and a singly translucent fish, not classified. ” The widow later finds out that this “boy” drowned in a pool due to the government’s nuclear testing. In this instance, Didion conveys the moral evils that take place in society regarding survival. Her description of this horrific scene evokes an emotional connection within the reader that allows them to better understand Didion’s argument and the environment in which this is taking place.

The final way in which Didion supports her argument is through her use of an informal tone. Morality is a sensitive topic in society that can be interpreted in several different ways. Didion breaks this mold by uniquely discussing morality. Throughout On Morality, Didion uses the second person primarily with “you.” This allows Didion to connect more closely with the reader since she is referring to them directly. From the reader’s perspective, they are better able to attach themselves to the story as it is being told to them. As mentioned previously, moral discussions can be sensitive but Didion successfully softens the topic through her tone.

Her soft, informal tone makes the whole essay seem more conversational. This allows Didion to more effectively communicate her argument as it feels as if she is providing her thoughts as a peer rather than an opposition. This is clear when Didion says, “You are quite possibly impatient with me by now; I am talking, you want to say, about a “morality” so primitive that scarcely deserves the name, a code that has as its point only survival, not the attainment of the ideal good. ” Here Didion talks to the fact that morality is only present when it comes to the point of survival, not when it comes to trying to act in “good” faith. Didion is having a direct conversation with the reader by using “you” and talking on a 1-on-1 level. With the combination of Didion’s imagery and real-life examples, her informal tone resonates more with the reader and creates consideration about morality within one’s environment.

Didion’s tone also allows her to influence her perspective of morality upon the reader. She says, “even those who do raise it tend to segue with troubling readiness into the quite contradictory position that the ethic of consciences is dangerous when it is “wrong” and admirable when it is “right.” In this instance, Didion can build on her previous definition of morality by saying that when someone is morally “wrong”, it can have dangerous effects. When someone is morally “correct”, they are considered “right.” This ties back in with Didion’s argument by describing the detrimental effects of immoral behavior.

To conclude, in Joan Didion’s On Morality and Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion argues that morality is a product of one’s environment. She manages to connect with the reader on a deeper level and consider the concept of morality from a contemporary lens. Her essays urge the reader to think of morality in their own perspective as a tool to decide whether your actions are based on your surroundings. Didion is successful in her efforts to define morality in terms of one’s environment by utilizing vivid images and scenes that the reader can fully understand. Also, Didion relates moral issues to real-life examples that allow the reader to interpret situations that they can fathom or have experienced themselves. What separates Didion’s writing from several others in this space is her use of the second person. In On Morality, Didion uses “you” to refer to the reader. This allows her to utilize an informal, conversational tone that creates an emotional connection with the reader on a deeper level. This style is relatable and ties in with both her imagery and real-life examples to convincingly support her claim about morality being based upon one’s environment.    

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