Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Clean Hands (Civilization, Part Three)

Do you mean to say that I am just as bad as you are?

(Trench to Sartorius, Widowers’ Houses by George Bernard Shaw)

At the end of Moliere’s The Misanthrope the title character, Alceste, storms off the stage proclaiming his intention to leave society behind and dwell by himself in some place uninfected by other people. One dramatic character who has no desire to abandon society is Harry Trench, one half of the love interest in George Bernard Shaw’s first play, Widowers’ Houses. Like Alceste, Trench appears to be an upright person and, furthermore, as a newly-graduated doctor, he is intent upon doing good for society. Unlike Alceste, he is not a social misfit; he observes the social conventions, among other things, keeping an unpleasant truth from being revealed (to save a daughter’s image of her father), even when doing so, works against his interests.

The unpleasant truth that Trench keeps secret from his fiancĂ©e, Blanche Sartorius, is that her father is not a respectable businessman, but a slumlord. Honorable Harry Trench refuses to accept any money from his would-be father-in-law—it is tainted money, screwed out of the poorest citizens of London, who live in ramshackle hovels.

When Trench is challenged by Sartorius about the source of Trench’s own income, the latter claims, “M y* hands are clean as far as that goes,” for the money derives from “Interest on a mortgage.”

“Yes,” responds Sartorius, “a mortgage on my property.”

When I, to use your own words, screw, and bully, and
drive these people to pay what they have freely
undertaken to pay me, I cannot touch one penny of
the money they give me until I have first paid you
your £700 out of it.

And, so, shockingly, Trench learns that his hands aren’t clean.

Likewise, Vivie Warren, in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, another of Shaw’s early “Plays Unpleasant,” owes her comfortable upbringing (financed by profits from brothels) and quality education (her university scholarship was established by the owner of sweatshops) to “tainted” money. Even people of good will and highmindedness cannot escape being tarred by the corruption of their society.

There are no innocents in an imperfect society. And unless society is made perfect, the only way to free oneself from its taint is to flee to a desert island—but, then, what happens if a serpent bites you?


*For emphasis Shaw doesn’t italicize or underline; he
s p a c e s the letters (Well, of course, he has to italicize
I, though, doesn’t he?).

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