Circumstantial Moral Ambiguity in Fences, A Farewell to Arms, and Of Mice and Men

ANalysisThis is a short essay I made for Introduction to American Literature class. I tried to find a same theme in the three mentioned literary works. The image used in this article is simply a visual representation of the literary works. I forgot to copy the link. So if anyone objects, I will put it right down. Remember that the interpretations are my own. So, it may be affected by my own point of view, beliefs, and values.


The stressing point of the article is to discuss how morality is not rigid; rather it shapes like fluid which changes fitting the environment. This fluid-like characteristic of morality is shown through three different modern American literary works; Fences, Of Mice and Men, and A Farewell to Arms. A similarity is found among the three, that each protagonist has been dragged into a situation wherein morality is not clear; the line between black and white is blurred.

First, to fully understand the purpose of the article, the meaning of the term morality has to be synchronized. To put it simply, morality is recognition of the distinction between good and evil or between right and wrong; this is the term used. Humans, since their early ages have been taught to differentiate what is right and what is wrong, both unintentionally through actions and direct warnings or advice.

But, usually those teachings are pretty clear-cut, especially in Indonesia where religion still plays a really important role in shaping one’s concept of morality. People are taught not to kill, not to steal, not to lie, to have virtues; honesty, bravery, selflessness and many other. But the real practice is not as straightforward as this. Sometimes the distinction between right and wrong blurs when people face a certain difficult situation, in which their sense of morality is challenged. And this is evident in the three aforementioned literary works.


In Fences by August Wilson, Troy is forced to face a circumstances in which his morality is being tested. The most difficult challenge that Troy has to overcome is the weight he carries. He, as a father, a brother, and a husband has to support his entire family. In this case, Troy’s need to escape all the responsibility, his desire to find a new perspective and understanding of life, his being human who has aspiration, lead him to have an affair with another woman. Troy knew this is a wrong in a way, cheating on his wife, but he has his justification. This shows that his morality is somewhat ambiguous due to his difficult circumstances. He feels stuck and stressed, his wife cannot please him the way a woman should, so Troy finds an alternative; finding another woman who can fulfill his need. And he finds it in Alberta. From what previously considered as a totally wrong conduct, becomes somewhat an understandable and tolerable thing to do, at least for Troy.

Another example in Fences is when Troy first moved to Pittsburgh. Knowing nothing but abusive parenting from his father, Troy, in dire need for money to survive, can’t think of other way to earn money. He robbed a man because he had to. He had no intention of killing him, but when the man threatens his life, he had to defend himself and unintentionally killed the man. From a general perspective, robbery and killing is absolutely morally wrong. But in Troy’s case, given the circumstances, he had no other choice but to do what he thought was right. In this situation, Troy’s desire or instinct to survive plays a critical role in deciding the eventual actions; robbery and killing.

A Farewell to Arms

The second literary work is A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemmingway. In this case, the grander scale of the circumstance plays a big role in blurring the line between what is right and what is wrong; the war. Frederic Henry is an American man driving ambulances for Red Cross in Italy during World War I. Usually, the common moral value is that going to the war to fight for your country is a very noble thing to do and respectful action. But in Henry’s case, several circumstances hinder him from this noble duty.

The war is cruel and tiresome. Henry finds distraction from the war from a V.A.D nurse named Catherine Barkley. He even later abandons the war to be with Catherine. In this instance, Henry’s morality justifies that being with his lover is more right than going to a war where millions of lives are at stake. He had gone to the frontline too, where one of his friends was killed. Knowing the cruelty of the war, this as a consideration, makes him prefer to spend time with his love.

Another circumstance that makes Henry ran away from the war is the fact that he had better privileges than any other soldiers. He hangs out with officers and almost seems like being spoiled. When he is wounded in battle for his knee, his high-ranking friend makes sure that his love interest also moves to the hospital he was in. In there, he is even pleasured with alcohols and his love. All these comforts intensify all his considerations of not being in the war, and make the thought of being with his lover even more justifiable.

Henry also had to face an extreme case in which he had to kill an engineer. But actually, this action of his, if we see it from his perspective, is somewhat justifiable. A war can bring a lot of stress to a man. A slightest wrong decision could mean the end of a life, or the lives of a group of people. Killing, as the general population views it, is morally wrong. But given the circumstances, Henry got no choice but to kill the engineer who refused to help free the car from the mud because they were afraid of being overtaken by the enemies. The anger and frustration, the depression from the war, affect Henry in a way that he decides to kill the engineer.

Of Mice and Men

In Of Mice and Men by John Steinback, the moral ambiguity is even more ambiguous. In this story the protagonist had to face a really difficult situation, where he had to kill his only best friend, a loved one, for mercy killing. George, the protagonist, had known Lennie for a long time. Lennie, a mentally-challenged adult, still acts like a child. Long story short, Lennie killed a woman by accident. George, knowing what the men who chased Lennie would do to him, took the action himself and shot Lennie in the back of his head.

Killing as we know it is morally wrong. Even in some religions, killing with any kind of justifications is still wrong. But in his circumstances, George had no other choice. George is affected by a lot of things when he decided to shoot Lennie in the head. One of the most obvious was the foreshadowing of Lennie’s mercy killing. Candy’s old dog was too old to live. He suffered rheumatic as the workers at the ranch said. Most of them encourage Candy to shoot the old dog because he was no good to himself alive. This particular scene foreshadows Lennie’s death. George, who was there when the event took place, had this image or idea in his head, which is the same basic principle that he uses for his justification in killing Lennie.

Lennie keeps making problems that endanger his own life and even George’s. In Candy’s case, Candy considers himself superior to the dog, since he is human and the dog is an animal. Clearly, the intelligence gap here is wide. Candy thinks that he, as a superior species, has the power to end the lesser beings. This is related to Lennie’s case. He is mentally challenged and he acts and thinks like a kid. Consciously or unconsciously, George is influenced by the idea that he is the more superior being compared to Lennie, thus he unconsciously thinks that he knows better and is more capable to decide what’s best for Lennie and himself.

What makes George’s decision morally ambiguous is that he could have gone with Lennie again, run away to escape those people who wanted Lennie dead, just like before. The river can cover up their smell from the hounds’ nose. But George decided that this is the end, there is no more running. George had expressed his frustration before that he is better off without Lennie because Lennie keeps getting both of them in trouble, and George couldn’t find a decent stable job. With these circumstances in mind, to George, killing Lennie looks more and more acceptable.


            Morality is not something we can know for sure. We can’t just sit done and discuss each possible circumstance that could occur, and define the best and most morally right course of action. The possibility of the circumstances varies differently in so many ways. In each of that ways, people try their best to justify their actions by considering different kinds of aspect and being affected by a lot of factors.

What differentiates right and wrong are the virtues within the decision. Usually noble virtues like selflessness, honesty, sense of duty/responsibility, fairness, love are considered in making the right call in a given circumstance.

The three protagonists mentioned considered those were the right actions to take because of these considerations and the environtment or the affecting circumstances; like fear, experience, impacts, frustration, depression, a sense of responsibility, and even hope.


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