Chastity

This week we start on the third and final segment in our discussion about virtue. Segment one was the Cardinal or hinge virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Courage. They were highly regarded in ancient Greek philosophy as essential for there to be a stable society.

Segment two centered solely on a statement made by the Apostle Paul, from which were derived the Theological virtues: Faith Hope and Love.

Segment three is about the Heavenly virtues of which there are seven. Two of these have already been covered, Temperance and Love. The remaining five are Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness and Humility.

The provenance of the seven Heavenly virtues goes back to an attempt by the early Christian teachers to identify the counterpoint to the proposed seven deadly sins. Since both lists have morphed somewhat over the centuries, the connection between the two is a little tenuous. But seven is a significant somewhat holy number in the Christian faith as reflected in the biblical references to the seven-fold spirit of God. So to retain this final collection of virtues is a virtuous gesture within itself.

We are following the lead of Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University. In her book On Reading Well, her method of encouraging us to think deeply about the subject of virtue is to match a prominent literary work to the speculative discussions by philosophers and theologians. The theory is that in literature we can learn about virtue from those fictional practitioners and profligates, who inhabit some of the best works of prose. This means we do not have to behave in like manner in order to prove a point; a gracious allowance when reading about a profligate protagonist – of whom there are many.

Professor Prior’s choice of Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel, Ethan Frome, as the source for enhancing our understanding on the nature and value of chastity once again puts me at a disadvantage for having never read the book. But just gleaning a few details from Prior’s recap and accessing the internet’s version of Cliff Notes (aka Wikipedia) I am inclined to think that Wharton was a master of innuendo. She was a writer during America’s Gilded Age and thereby required to suggest but not show the full frontal impact of something like the antithesis of chastity, which is lust.

Lust is the topic at hand in Wharton’s story, cleverly introduced by an engaging scene of a dance held in a church, normally considered a place of worship. Jane Austen demonstrated the power of the dance as a social gambit in a restrictive society in her novel Pride and Prejudice. Couples who are limited in their personal contacts with others can experience a reverie in close, physically active proximity when they join in the dance.

Ethan Frome is no more than a casual observer of this joyous ritual, looking through a church window. He is pictured as the consummate outsider looking in. Even though he is not a direct participant in the dance, he is still aroused by the mere sight of a young woman’s youthful movements; a sensation which is irreparably enhanced by her wardrobe malfunction; her red scarf slips back on her head. How unfortunate it is for the married Frome to find himself sensually ensnared by such an unintended gesture. Wharton, however, is very savvy for using the juxtaposition of a woman’s pleasing movements, the color red, and a casual slip of a garment. The man is hooked.

Wharton laces her story with another subtle metaphor to help us read into the lives unwinding in her text. The young woman who is the object of Frome’s male gaze is Mattie Silver and silver – as everyone knows – is regarded as a very valuable commodity. Men of greed have done terrible things to possess it and Frome, though Wharton gives us reason to feel sorry for him, is revealed to be just such a scoundrel. The greed of lust compels him to find ways to gain Mattie’s favorable attention until his enticement of Mattie to join him in his romantic fantasy proves to be just as effective and just as tragic as the words spoken by the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Frome’s hypochondriac wife forces him to send Mattie, their housemaid, away. Instead the yet to be consummated affair ends with a suicide pact of dubious credibility on Wharton’s part. It puts me in mind of how Alfred Hitchcock got Tippi Hedren to trap herself in a room filled with a flock of vengeful birds. She pays the price for her stupidity. So do Frome and Mattie, who agree to ride a sled down a hill and into an elm tree with the intent of dying in each other’s embrace. The reality is that Frome is maimed in the collision and Mattie crippled.

The story ends with Mattie staying with the Fromes; confined actually. Literally there will be no more dances to arouse poor Etan Frome, who is confined himself by the responsibility of now caring for two complaining women.

Ethan Frome is a framed narrative. This is a technique where the main part of the story (told in the usual third person narrative) is framed within an opening and closing first-person account by a disinterested character. Using this format allowed Wharton to spring her surprise ending on her readers. It makes her story, like those of her fellow New Englander Nathaniel Hawthorn, Twilight Zone worthy. We only need to cue the music and invoke the spirit of Rod Serling to bring his classic opening and closing narration to support Wharton’s clever plot twist and drive home the novel’s moral assessment regarding the evils of lust.

The lack of a more positive statement about the value of chastity places me once again at odds with the good professor’s choice, since I do better seeing virtue in action rather than extrapolating its value from someone else’s decadent behavior. That’s too much mental work for the likes of me. I recognize the problem of portraying chastity in a positive light, even in a fictional context, since our culture typically labels any adherent as a goody two-shoes. Life’s a bitch that way.

Chastity is also considered to be synonymous with virginity, limiting the concept to one’s sexual activity or lack thereof. It takes on a greater depth when one considers that chastity has a twin; modesty. A chaste life is one of modest reserve in all aspects and reveals itself in one’s appearance, which eschews glamour, and behavior, which rejects the desire for generating attention by living one’s life as a public spectacle. The subtle result is a life well-lived for the benefit of others.

Furthermore, chastity, if regarded at all, is likely thought of as a feminine trait. Fictional characters like Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 tale of the same name or Agnes Wickfield in Charles Dickens’ 1850 novel David Copperfield are credible examples of those whose chaste behavior reveals a commitment to the wellbeing of others. Men need not despair, however, at the thought that we must forever be portrayed in fiction and in life as lustful interlopers into the otherwise happy existence of women. We have as our champion of virtue James Fennimore Cooper’s action hero Natty Bumppo of the Leatherstocking Tales.

Cooper’s 1841 novel, The Deerslayer, was the last of the five Leatherstocking novels to be written but the first in the chronological sequence of Bumppo’s adventures. Today we would call it a prequel. A young Natty Bumppo appears on the scene already famous for his long rifle skills, hence his sobriquet and source of the book’s title of Deerslayer. A more mature Bumppo is better known as Hawkeye from the previously published and more popular novel The Last of the Mohicans.

Cooper gives more depth to Bumppo in The Deerslayer than in his previous novels by giving him more in the way of emotional conflicts to resolve in addition to the struggles to defeat the bad guys in mortal combat. One of his issues is his personal encounter with killing his first human being. Another is more to the point of this message, how to respond to the proposal in marriage proffered by the beautiful Judith Hutter. Beyond her beauty, Hutter is intelligent, courageous, devoted to her younger sister and loyal to her friends. The sticking point for the Deerslayer: Hutter’s reputation is one of amorous indiscretions openly committed among the officers she meets in the then frontier of upstate New York.

Hutter sees in Bumppo a person of many virtues, which she overly romanticizes by referring to Bumppo as her hoped for Adam to help her start a new life in the frontier’s semblance of Eden. Bumppo’s keen eye serves him well in this instance as he sees in Hutter’s overture a doubtful fantasy, something Mattie Silver could not discern in Ethan Frome’s enticements. More importantly for us, Bumppo cannot bring himself to compromise his Moravian Christian beliefs for the sake of embracing someone, whose physical beauty is compelling but insufficient to seduce in light of a staunch character. Chastity prevails.

It is naive to think that we can be so morally pure that we cannot be tempted. Beauty is an attraction we cannot deny. Lust, however, is the perpetual desire for an illicit pleasure. Ethan Frome shows us that lust can be ignited in an instant but takes time to be fulfilled. To experience a moment’s pleasure at the sight of someone who meets our personal beauty requirements is normal. The relentless stalking of the object of our obsession, no matter how stealthily done, is lust on the make. It is greed for a commodity, which can only render the pursuer morally bankrupt.

Chastity is selfless, seeking another’s good. And clothed with modesty its dance moves more gracious to the soul of both the dancer and the observer.  

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