Thursday, March 31, 2011

Stephen Crane's "The Monster" and the Limits of Sympathy

Illustration from original edition of The Monster

We are reading  Newark, New Jersey native Stephen Crane's 1898 novella, The Monster, in my English Honors class--it's the story of a black servant, Henry Johnson, who rescues the son of his employer, a white doctor, from a terrible fire. Henry is disfigured in the process and is, at first, regarded as a hero by the community. However, due to his disfigurement--he is literally without a face-- his persistent presence in the community is viewed as a disruptive element and he becomes a pariah. 

There are several ways of reading this story--as a racial allegory and/or as a Christian allegory, as an example of the "white man's burden," for example--my students will be considering a variety of perspectives. The story is quintessentially Crane in its stylistic elements, and he also engages in illustrating some of the racial stereotypes characteristically used by white writers of the turn of the century.

We are reading Adam Smith's "The Impartial Spectator" (from 1759's The Theory of Moral Sentiments) alongside The Monster as we examine the reactions of the racially segregated (black and white) town to Henry's disfigurement. Dr. Trescott's insistence on caring for him despite the social ostracism from the white community asks the reader to consider the idea of "sympathy" and whether there are natural limitations on how one may proceed conscientiously and ethically in one's life. Are there limits to sympathy? If so, what are they?

Old Doc noted Cain's question to God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" in a recent blog post, and promised to address his own interpretation of that query. I hope Doc has an opportunity to read The Monster--the limits of one's duty or conscience become the central controlling factors in Dr. Trescott's response to Henry's situation. These are, undoubtedly, issues that all doctors wrestle with at some time or another in their professional careers. Indeed, the concluding scene in the novella offers no easy closure, as it is open-ended, suggesting that the answers to ethical questions such as these are arrived at with great difficulty and, at times, remain uncertain.

I have posted links to the novella as well as to the Adam Smith text below. 

All best,