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Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood addresses the laws and ethics of 20th Century America. Laws and ethics may seem to correlate, but Wise Blood shows that such is not always the case. Laws may claim to have ethical origins and serve ethical purposes, but Wise Blood shows otherwise. The conflict between law and ethics can be seen during Hazel Motes interaction with the police officer and the non-ethical origins of laws can be seen within the bathroom Motes uses after stepping off the train. The police officer represents the disconnect between what the law says and how the law is enforced; the bathroom shows the unethical basis of some laws. As a whole, Wise Blood shows the relationship, or lack-thereof, between law and ethics.
Laws and ethics first conflict early in the novel when Hazel Motes is confronted by a police officer. Motes begins crossing a busy street but the police officer stops him and chastises him for jaywalking. Within this interaction between Motes, a regular citizen, and the police officer, a representative of the law, one can see how a person’s ethics are not always reflective of governing laws. The police officer claims to protect all races and genders equally, yet from his behavior and vocabulary suggest that he is a corrupt officer who treats everyone, especially minorities, poorly. Through his blatant disrespect of the police officer, Motes, an average citizen, shows how people respect both the law and those who enforce the law. This seemingly small and simple interaction on a street corner serves as a microcosm of 20th Century America.
O’Connor uses the police officer as a symbol of law in the mid-20th Century. The officer’s actions represent the government and its laws. Speaking of the traffic lights, the police officer preaches equality to Motes. Speaking to Motes, the officer says, “Maybe you thought the red ones was for white folks and the green ones for niggers… Men and women, white folks and niggers, all go on the same light” (41). The officer claims that all people, regardless of race and/or gender, are equal. This assertion may be true under the law, however the police officer’s personal ethics, which also represent the ethics of the government, imply that not everyone is seen as or treated equally. The officer’s language and word choice show that African Americans, and likely other minorities, are equal under the law, but not in the personal eyes of many authorities. The police officer refers Caucasians as “white folks,” but when speaking of African Americans, he uses the derogatory “nigger” instead of saying “black folks” or any other non-discriminatory term. The police officer’s reference to African Americans in comparison to Caucasians shows that a person’s ethics may be in conflict with the laws they follow or enforce. The police officer also shows how lawful authority can corrupt a person’s ethics.
The power the officer possesses has gone to his head. He speaks down to Motes in a very supercilious tone. Although he has the intent of enforcing the law for Motes’ safety, the officer turns the simple interaction into a spectacle for people to see. Rather than correcting Motes’ illegal actions, the officer uses sarcasm in an attempt to be funny and entertain a gathering crowd. His job is to uphold the law, but the police officer chooses to act more like an entertainer or a comedian. The officer has the ethical responsibility to enforce the law, but his actions show how said responsibility has morally corrupted him. In contrast to the police officer, Hazel Motes represents the average citizen. Motes’ interactions with the law and its enforcer begin to question the laws themselves. Motes blatantly and knowing breaks the law in front of a police officer. Laws are designed to protect citizens yet Motes puts himself at risk instead of waiting for the light to change. Motes’ actions question the ethicality of the law, and the authority of all laws in general. Laws have no purpose if people do not follow them. Ultimately, people choose whether or not to live ethically.
Further, Hazel Motes also ignores the officer’s repeated whistles while crossing the street during a stop light and Motes then lies to the officer when he claims to have never seen the light. Several ethical issues arise. This interaction questions whether or not one must listen to an authority figure who is cynical, rude, and ethically corrupt. Motes’ words and actions show that police officers have no special right to be sarcastic, disrespectful, or condescending. The arrogant police officer is receiving the same treatment he is giving, and as a representative of the law, he must be held to a higher ethical standard. Neither Motes nor the police officer respects the other man; the poor relationship between citizens and laws is highlighted within the interaction between Motes and the police officer. Race is clearly an issue to the police officer. He nonchalantly repeats the word “nigger” several times. He claims to support civil rights but his personality suggests otherwise. This unequal, unethical treatment of African Americans comes from the law.
Unethical laws regarding race are seen at the beginning of Chapter 2. Racism and segregation are clearly presented as issues in the town in which Motes is from. Motes’ enters a bathroom with a sign reading “MEN’S TOILET. WHITE.” (26). Those who demanded the segregation of the bathrooms would argue that white people are superior to other races, but upon further inspection of the bathroom situation, their argument fails to hold up. The law seeks to keep African Americans separate from Caucasians because that is what is considered the ethical thing to do, however, in reality, this is obviously an unethical law. Most of the Caucasian characters presented in the story are clearly no moral role models to be followed. The white-only bathrooms are not the area of purity that they are made out to be. The room was once “a bright cheerful yellow” (26) when it first opened, but human interference corrupted it to become “nearly green and [decorated] with handwriting and with various detailed drawings of the parts of the body of both men and women” (26). The restroom was also polluted by other doodles as well as the names and addresses of local prostitutes (26). The Caucasians of Wise Blood believe they are ethically, and generally, superior to minorities, yet their actions prove otherwise. Many of the Caucasians, despite a significant number of them believing themselves better than other races, behave in unethical ways. This is notably seen in Hazel Motes’ visit to the whites-only bathroom; Caucasians do not possess the ethical high ground they claim to have.
The seemingly-close relationship between ethics and laws is examined within Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Several events occur that question and critique the ethicality of laws as well as the professionalism and morality of those who enforce the laws. Hazel Motes’ interaction with the racist, supercilious police officer shows how the law can claim to be ethical, yet it can be just as unethical as the man or woman attempting to enforce it. Similarly, the supposed ethical basis of laws is called into question when Motes enters the disgusting, vandalized white-only restroom. No African Americans, a racial group believed to be less civilized than Caucasians, are allowed into the bathroom, yet the immaturity and disrespect of Caucasians is seen in the bathroom graffiti. Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood presents a critical look at the poor relationship between ethics and laws in 20th Century America.
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