Morality can be partly defined as being empathetically connected to one’s sense humanity and, in a greater sense, tuned into the interconnectedness of all human beings. This aspect of our beings expresses itself most frequently in the decisions we make in varying ordinary situations when it becomes critical to think outside of the base id and instead, to hearken to a greater call and sense of what is just and unjust. While this is a complex enough issue on its own, when the maker of these decisions is surrounded by chaos and massive acts of inhumanity, the ability to maintain a sense of morality becomes clouded and confused.
This is particularly the case in times of war or political strife and the resulting social upheaval. This conflicting environment of war, hardship, and chaos is exactly the environment that backgrounds three texts that question the matter of morality within chaos; Macbeth by William Shakespeare, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee. In each of these literary works, the base sense of humanity and morality that guides many in the ordinary world is called into question amidst the chaotic settings of battles, internal and literal, as well as political and social discord. What is most fascinating in these texts, however, is how morality is expressed and in what contexts. These expressions culminate in a greater understanding of how humanity responds to a lack of order through decision-making and action and questions the universal notions of “morality” that apply to relatively normal (non-war or chaotic) situations.
Shakespeare’s tragedy, Macbeth, presents depictions of both the ordinary and chaotic in terms of the mental landscape of its main character, Macbeth, and his circle of confidants as well as his society within the kingdom. While normally honorable, loyal, and clear-headed, when chaos enters the plot and forces actions on behalf of other characters and the tone of events in general, the basic sense of morality rapidly begins to break down. Questions that might not have entered the minds of central characters in the play due to the internal compass of morality that manifests in ordinary situations now emerge with startling ferocity, even surprising Macbeth himself, as he considers to himself, “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well / It were done quickly….We still have judgment here, that we but teach / Bloody instructions which, being taught, return/ to plague the inventor” (I.vii.1-15). For this moment, among a few others, the morality of his decision weights heavily upon Macbeth as it becomes fully clear that he is murdering his lord, a man who trusts him, who comes to his home in peace. The chaos of the situation, however, does not favor Macbeth and his wife, understanding her husband Macbeth to be a bit too full of “the milk of human kindness” (I.v.15) and, seeing this morality as his greatest stumbling block on the road to success, naturally gears her persuasive actions to eliminate morality and cause even more chaos in the mind of Macbeth.
The witches in this play by Shakespeare, even with their foggy riddles, make a number of important covert references to the importance of morality and its significance for Banquo and Macbeth. In their cryptic statement, “foul is fair” and “fair is foul” (I.i.10) is contained a rudimentary statement on the topsy-turvy nature of not just the forthcoming situation, but on how the reversal and resulting chaos will turn one thing easily into another. What was once considered “foul” to Macbeth; a dishonorable murder of a kinsman and ruler, becomes, given the chaos caused by the prediction and the cunning manipulation of his wife, in particular, fair. Conversely, what might once have been “fair” such as marriage, becoming king, and enjoying the power that he secretly lusts for, becomes quite foul—just as the witches suggest in their disorienting lines. In the end, it appears that the witches, when suggesting that Banquo is (and would be) “lesser than Macbeth, and greater” as well as “not so happy, yet much happier” (I.iii.63-64) were quite correct. As a result of Macbeth’s dwindled sense of morality, his kingship is miserable and stained by the blood of his deeds. Within the incredible chaos of murder, Banquo maintains his sense of humanity and thus, by preserving his morality within chaos, is the parallel opposite of Macbeth. In short, this is play that represents extreme dualities, especially in human nature. A sense of morality that might otherwise be fair and flawless can, given a twist, become the opposite to a disturbing degree.
Just as in Macbeth, pre-chaos ordinary morality reigns in The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien before the moral compass is destroyed or set off course by war and intense emotions brought about by an unnatural situation. Like Macbeth, the main character in O’Brien’s novel, Tim, has some conflicting feelings, in this case about going to fight in a war he does not believe in, but ultimately, the morality wins out as he considers his family and the fact that he would have to live with a cowardly decision for the rest of his life. While he says, “I couldn’t make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarassment, that’s all it was… I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to” (O’Brien 52) the fact is, under the circumstances, he did make a decision not to flee to Canada and although embarrassment is the cited reason, the underlying concern for something outside of the self; the lack of reliance on the id or selfish desire, wins out. This is, indeed, some speculation, but the point of this examination of the three texts in terms of morality does have quite a bit with reacting outside of the id in cases of morality and the exact opposite in terms of lacking a moral sense. Reasons of embarrassment and their relation to morality considered, this is a distinctly morality-based decision as it considers others and is not founded solely on the id or the initial gut reaction to avoid the conflict but just as in Macbeth, the founding morality that exists is shattered by chaos. In The Things They Carried,
While O’Brien’s novel and Macbeth are thematically similar in terms of the fact that morality-based decisions juxtaposed with chaotic conditions are central, the two main characters of each could not be more diametrically opposed. In the case of war, it is a matter of survival and not an attempt to achieve a position of power. As a result, the dynamics are quite different. While morality for Macbeth involved strategic decision-making and conscious recognition of the distinct immorality of decisions, the environment of war prompts base, animal reactions. For instance, one of the most poignant chapters in The Things They Carried, “The Man I Killed,” the awful murder scene has none of the moral overtones the murder in Macbeth had, simply because there was no forethought; no room for morality to play out. As Tim relates, “I had already pulled the pin on the grenade. I had come up to a crouch. It was entirely automatic. I did not hate the young man; I did not even see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty” (O’Brien 132). The problem with this kind of morality is that its effects are retroactive and haunt him years later, in addition to his absorption in complete guilt as he imagines the young man he killed and what he might have been like. In the case of this novel, morality is something there is no time for. In a war, there are different ways of coping and while some of the men are hardened and rather cruel about the massive death that surrounds them some, like the narrator of this section, are torn apart by it; ripped through by the morality that there was no time for in a moment that required quick, thoughtless, cruel action or certain death. In the case of O’Brien’s novel, due to this particular kind of chaotic situation (which is quite different than Macbeth’s) morality is something that comes back later rather than something that is at stake in a frightful moment.