Challenge 468 Response
Satire in ‘Moral Turp’
with Karen B. Kaplan
Challenge 468 asks:
In Channie Greenberg’s “On Not Weighing the Moral Turpitudes of Common Man”:
- What does the story satirize?
- What is the tone of the title and the ending: Comic? Ironic? Bitter?
You query, “What does the story satirize?” Oh, “let me count the ways.” Or the question should have been, “What does Greenberg NOT satirize?”
For starters she satirizes old versus modern writing styles through incongruity and juxtaposition. For example, in her first paragraph she describes Brenda’s “winsome butt,” using a medieval-sounding adjective with a modern, slangy noun.
She satirizes academic writing style through using it to describe everyday things; for example, sex as “delving into tactic semiology.” Way before that,in her second paragraph, to describe how the couple met, she uses syntactically complex sentences more commonly seen in academic journals. The most humorous detail is the use of the popular academic word “respective” in “We smiled at each other and even removed our respective reading glasses.”
Through her play with writing styles as well as the mistress’s behavior and the adulterer’s reaction to it, she satirizes academic fields and academic people, feminists, men’s attitudes towards women, stereotypes of wives and mistresses, stories about wives and mistresses, the writers who write them, and thus even her very own story.
Given the context of speculative literature that readers of Bewildering Stories most likely assume, the title came off as comic. When I saw it at the end, it struck me as both comic and ironic as well as “just a tad” sad.
Sad in that people can be in real life almost this self-delusional to the point of self-destruction. Comic in that his acquisition “of a fragile blossom” is so absurd, and ironic in that she was more like a man-eating plant.
Copyright © 2012 by Karen B. Kaplan
Thank you for a most perceptive Challenge response, Karen! I, for one, very much appreciate the examples. To paraphrase Vince Lombardi on winning football games: “Examples aren’t everything, they’re the only thing.” Readers — like students — remember examples, not abstract formulas.
All you say about Channie’s style in this story is quite true. In a similar vein, I might observe that she has “extremophilic proclivities.” Translating that into English, I mean she enjoys going from pillar to post, from one extreme of language to another, as you describe.
Such a style has its dangers, of course. Channie’s prose and poetry are often hard to understand, and some readers will think she’s “putting on the style.” However, patient readers will enjoy a payoff in Channie’s wry, often sardonic humor, and they may learn some words, too.
Interpreting “Moral Turp” is not easy. The narrator’s description of his lady love will strike most readers as repulsive. But what else can the narrator do? He’s fatally attracted by attributes most people would dislike. He’s aware of it, and he’s quite okay with that. Is the narrator being unconsciously ironic? Or is love blind, and there’s no accounting for taste? It depends on one’s point of view.
One question I somewhat regret omitting: What constitutes the “moral turpitude” in the story?
One might answer that it’s the narrator’s leaving his familiy for a woman who clearly doesn’t deserve him. But again, that’s a matter of perspective. As the Readers’ Guide introduction says, the story is about two people who “deserve each other.” The narrator may be doing his family a favor.
Another answer takes a very different perspective. The tragedy of the story sneaks up on the reader from behind, so to speak. It’s not the narrator’s strange taste in women or even his leaving his wife; it’s the sad fate of the children he has with his wife and the child he has with a woman who doesn’t want it.
My answer to my own question is that the tone is quite bitter. The story depicts a raw, physical caricature of two “intellectuals” who have extraordinary human frailties and who, in the end, really ought to know better than to neglect those who depend on them.
Copyright © 2012 by Bewildering Stories