Narratives should have a clear moral stance and there should not be room for ambiguity in the view of characters. What is an example/are some examples of incidents or circumstance in Salvage the Bones that calls this kind of storytelling into question?
Let me preface the following answer by proffering a perspective that stands in sharp contrast to the premise of the student’s question: “Narrative should have a clear moral stance and there should not be room for ambiguity in the view of the characters.” To some, including this educator, nothing could be further from the truth. Absolutism is fine in some contexts, such as the creation of characters who represent extreme or very firm views on a given issue. Such characters, however, are of limited practical utility in scenarios involving real events and realistic individuals. All humans are flawed in some way, and almost all people exercise, whether they consciously acknowledge it or not, some degree of moral ambiguity during the course of their lives. In her novel about a desperately poor African American family in rural Mississippi, Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward creates an atmosphere with which she is intimately familiar and in which, as she has acknowledged, there is no room for absolutism.
Ward’s main protagonist, Esch, is a 15-year-old pregnant teenager living with her physically abusive alcoholic father and three brothers, one of whom, Skeetah, has a pit bull he regularly engages in dog fights, an activity widely derided for its brutality and disregard for the welfare of the animals involved. That dog, China, is the love of Skeetah’s life, and boy and dog are inseparable. As Esch notes in the novel’s opening regarding China’s loyalty to Skeetah, “she only has eyes for him.” Skeetah loves China, yet he uses the dog to fight. Esch regularly references a figure from Greek mythology, Medea, who kills her children in protest of her husband, Jason’s, infidelity. Medea is a tragic figure, and, with the deadliest hurricane in the nation’s history bearing down on the small town in which this family lives, an apt figure to represent the moral ambiguity that permeates Salvage the Bones. In Chapter Six, “The Sixth Day: A Steady Hand,” China reacts violently against one her puppies, a “bully” amongst this latest litter:
“The red puppy undulates towards her; a fat mite. China snaps forward. Closes her jaw around the puppy’s neck as she does when she carries him, but there is no gentleness in it. . .She is chewing. She is whipping him through the air like a tire eaten too short for Skeetah to grab.”
Early in the novel, Esch recalls the difficulty her late mother endured while giving birth to her younger brother, Junior. Her mother died as a result of that delivery, dragged from their ramshackle home to the hospital dripping blood along the way. Later, when China viciously grabs and throws the puppy, the pregnant Esch considers the scene:
“China is bloody-mouthed and bright-eyed as Medea. If she could speak, this is what I would ask her: Is this what motherhood is? [Italics in original text]
Ward is very explicit in the importance of moral ambiguity in her story. Especially in the wake of the hurricane, Katrina, which destroyed much of the Gulf Coast, hitting the poor hardest, the people in this region, people Ward knows well, were forced to reduce themselves to savagery. There was no electricity, no water, and no order. It was, literally, every man for himself, and the struggle to survive under these conditions forced most to confront their inner demons. As the author stated in an interview regarding her novel:
“I wanted to align Esch with that classic text, with the universal figure of Medea, the antihero, to claim that tradition as part of my Western literary heritage. The stories I write are particular to my community and my people, which means the details are particular to our circumstances, but the larger story of the survivor, the savage, is essentially a universal, human one. . . I saw an entire town demolished, people fighting over water, breaking open caskets searching for something that could help them survive. I realized that if I was going to assume the responsibility of writing about my home, I needed narrative ruthlessness.”
Moral absolutism is easy when the subject matter is the Bible and the figures depicted are Moses and Jesus, and even these figures struggled with the immorality that surrounded them. As noted, dog fighting is an ugly, and illegal, activity. Most of us deplore and condemn it. Ward understands the culture that values it:
“My father owned pit bulls when I was young. He sometimes fought them. My brother and a lot of the men in my community owned pit bulls as well: sometimes they fought them for honor, never for money.”
Real life, especially among the multitudes victimized by centuries of oppression and condemned to lives of extreme poverty, have little use for moral absolutism. This is not to say that religion doesn’t play a large role in the lives of many African American families across the South, because it does. Many are deeply religious. The history of the region, however, created a culture that sometimes views morality different than what is found in other regions. Those were crosses the white-sheet wearing Klansmen burned (they would word it differently, arguing that they are “lighting” the cross) as part of their terrorist campaign against desegregation and in support of white supremacy. The cross symbolized, to these racist criminals, that their actions were sanctified by the Church. The point is that perceptions of morality differ greatly, and that the culture depicted in Salvage the Bones is as moral as circumstances allow.