A Timeless Struggle: Knowing the Right Thing to do and Doing the Right Thing
Author Isaac Asimov once wrote,” Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what’s right.” This saying came to mind while reading both Montana 1948 and Brokeback Mountain. The authors, Larry Watson (Montana 1948) and Annie Proulx (Brokeback Mountain) both write stories with the internal conflict of man vs. himself. In Montana 1948 Larry Watson’s main characters the Hayden family cope with a situation of sexual abuse that forces them to search for their moral base and choose between right and wrong.
Each member of the family begins at a different in their moral expedition, but eventually end up with the same internal resolution. Similarly, in Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, the author sketches a picture of two men who live in a constant struggle with their ideas of morality. Rationalizing and avoidance exist as Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar’s main internal defense mechanisms. Proulx presents a devastating study of Jack and Ennis’ subsequent struggle with both their families and their work as they try to come to terms with their sexual relationship.
To begin in this examination of the moral code of the American West, we turn to the relationships and struggles brought about in Larry Watson’s novel Montana 1948. In this novel, there exists conflicts between several of the characters, however; the main conflict lies within the characters themselves. The reader sees the Hayden family struggle with the realization that the town doctor, their relative, has been molesting young Indian girls.
This situation forces Wes Hayden, the town’s sheriff and the doctor’s only brother, to choose his actions towards this ethical dilemma carefully. He deliberates on his situation throughout most of the novel, relying on his wife’s set-in-stone morals to guide his decision in some ways. Through this interaction, the reader sees that some people who were not brought up with a strong moral code must develop one for themselves, while others who were taught their morals at an early age may alter them to fit their own perspectives as they grow.
Also, noted very plainly, the moral code of the American West did not exist as equal to today’s code. The characters in this novel existed in what they believed to be a moral society, but by today’s standards it was amoral, devoid of moral standards. Watson brings this idea to life when he writes through the narrator’s voice, “My father did not like Indians . . . He simply held them in low regard . . . he probably thought that he was free of prejudice!” (Watson 34) This idea shows the amoral nature of the people of that time. They do not see their views immoral or amoral. Though, their morals do differ greatly from the stencil of the code that exists today. Like African Americans in the early stages of our country, American Indians are not viewed by all as equal to whites. novel. Prejudices are held, but they are not viewed negatively. They are the norm. In a way, they are the embodiment of the moral code of that time period.
Consequently, these morals are challenged. The most interesting moral dilemma that exists in this novel is between Wesley Hayden and himself. Larry Watson declares this struggle when he writes, “Are you telling me this because I’m Frank’s brother? Because I’m your husband . . .or because I’m the sheriff . . . I wish you wouldn’t have told the sheriff.” (48) Here the reader sees the struggle between Wes’ duty to his family, his duty to his office and his duty to his morals begin to conflict. With a wife who is pressing him to do the moral thing, and a father who is threatening if he decides to do such, Wes Hayden must delve into his own psyche to determine what he believes to be the right thing to do. He must create his own moral code, and act according to it.
Although Wes admits that he does not hold American Indians in high regard, there is something he can’t ignore in his brother’s actions. He tries to rationalize the situation, but then when the doctor responds to the ordeal by murdering Mary Little Foot, the Sheriff is left with only one choice. He decides that his brother must be stopped, damned the family’s reputation. Watson shows that Wes does what he feels is right, but he is still upset about hurting his brother when he writes, “I believe that in this world people must pay for their crimes. It doesn’t matter who you are or who your relations are; if you do wrong, you pay . . . But that doesn’t mean the sun’s going to shine.”(156)
However, when his brother commits suicide instead of facing his demons in public, the Sheriff decides to cover up the whole scandal. In taking this action the character compromises his morals. He decides that bringing shame to his family would not make the girls that were molested well, nor will they ever have to worry about Dr. Hayden again. So, Wes bribes the coroner to keep quiet concerning Frank’s suicide. In a way, this seems immoral, but by today’s standards, I believe the same action would be taken as in this novel. Protecting loved ones can outweigh any code of conduct that exists during any time period.
Next, we look at the moral code of the West in Annie Proulx’s story Brokeback Mountain. In this story, the author describes a difficult affair between two cowboys that survives everything but the world’ violent intolerance. Theirs is a story of desperation, hard times and unlikely elation. These characters exist in a landscape much like their lives, both brutal and magnificent. In exploring the intimacies and sexual pleasures emerging from this masculine world, Proulx captures the destruction and isolation, which comes from both men’s disapproval of their homosexual tendencies. Proulx identifies this conflict when she writes, “There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.” (Proulx 58)
Throughout this novella the reader sees Jack and Ennis deal with the fact that they do not approve of their own feelings. The moral norm in the American West was that homosexuals are perverts. Ennis lives his adult life plagued by the remembrance of a man who was brutally killed because people thought him to be a homosexual. In essence these two live a life that could have been a lot happier if there weren’t prejudices that prevented them from being together. What I find most interesting is that it wasn’t other people’s prejudices that kept them apart, although that was a part. These men are kept apart by their own morals. They truly believed that their homosexuality was immoral.
Thus we see two novels whose characters deal with an internal struggle. Both the characters in Montana 1948 and those in Brokeback Mountain struggle with their set of morals in situations that can change their lives forever. In Montana 1948 Wes Hayden faces a situation that may estrange his family or estrange himself from his moral base. He eventually chooses to be true to himself, in arresting his only brother for molestation and murder.
However, in Brokeback Mountain the cowboys, Jack and Ennis, must hide their relationship because of its immoral content. Thus, they live a life hiding from their true feelings. At some times they even trying to deny their nature. Because of the threat of being ostracized and possible killed, these men led a life separate from their love for one another. Though, in the end their prejudice, along with every one else’s killed Jack. Ennis knows this and the only place that they have left is Brokeback Mountain, a place untouched by the world, unable to be soiled with prejudices.