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,



Nat Singleton said...

Don't know if you are aware of Julian Carlton. He was from the West Indies. I've always wondered why he did what he did.
'(Frank Lloyd) Wright and Mamah Borthwick (now going by her maiden name) moved into Taliesin shortly after Christmas, 1911. On August 15, 1914, while Wright was in Chicago completing a large project, Midway Gardens, Julian Carlton, a manservant whom Wright had hired two months earlier, set fire to the living quarters of Taliesin and murdered seven people with an axe as the fire burned. The dead were: Mamah; her two children, John and Martha; Thomas Brunker, the foreman; Emil Brodelle, a draftsman; David Lindblom, a landscape gardener; and Ernest Weston, the son of the carpenter William Weston. Two victims survived the mêlée—William Weston and draftsman Herb Fritz—and the elder Weston helped to put out the fire that almost completely consumed the residential wing of the house. Carlton, hiding in the unlit furnace, survived the fire but died in jail six weeks later. His wife Gertrude also survived, having escaped the burning building through the basement; she denied any knowledge of her husband's actions.

Prof. Williams said...

Wow, Nat! That is an amazing story--I never heard or read about it. I had wanted to go to Taliesin years ago--one of my dream trips--now I HAVE to go!