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Problematic Favorites: A Little Princess – Part 26 Moral Accounting (Reprise)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016 - 08:00

This week, I’m going to pause in the chapters and go back to one of the concepts I discussed at the beginning of this series of posts: moral accounting as a literary analysis technique. To reiterate, it’s a concept that came out of the field of cognitive linguistics, and specifically the sort of conceptual analysis of metaphoric structure pioneered by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. In brief: the use of the langauge of accounting (debts and payments, balances and sums) to talk about how people’s interactions--and especially a series of interactions over time--reflects an underlying concept of “moral balance”. That is, that people who do good things (or who have bad things happen to them for no reason) are “owed” a good outcome, while people who do bad things (or who have unearned good things happen to them) accrue a moral “debt” which can be balanced either by disaster or good deeds. That fact that we use the language of accounting to talk about such things is both a symptom and a motivation for actually thinking/believing in the reality of "moral balance". (It is, of course, not the only metaphoric model we have for morality and ethics.)

A Little Princess has always struck me as a supreme exercise in moral accounting. Sara begins with an “unearned” balance (i.e., a debt) due to her social and financial circumstances and her happy family situation. All these are taken away from her so drastically that she shoots right past balance into severe credit. That is: a state of being “owed” good things by the universe. Then she is driven even deeper into credit by the combination of continuing to do good deeds as best she can, and experiencing unwarranted bad experiences (e.g., the persecution by Miss Minchin). It is only by this continued accrual of credit that Sara can “earn” the eventual conclusion of the story where she becomes wealthy beyond imagination and once again achieves a happy and loving family situation.

But before she has earned that, she has to hit bottom. First, we’ll see Sara perform a significant “good deed” (the part of the accounting under her control). Then we’ll see a series of external bad deeds done to her (e.g., deprivations of food and comfort). And then, when it seems that complete disaster has struck, the balance will begin to assert itself. Not all at once--that wouldn’t be satisfying. Rather in a long, slow build-up to the final climax.

Mr. Carrisford's moral-economy arc is in a different place. Like Sara, he begins the story with what we can assume is a moral debt due to unearned life circumstances. This debt inflates greatly by the good fortune of the diamond mines and by his failures toward Captain Crewe during the supposed crash. His brief brush with the threat of financial loss can't really be treated as a payment toward that debt because it's so quickly neutralized. One might say that Mr. Carrisford's illness is something in the way of paying "interest" on the debt. (A different symbolic understanding of morality might view the illness as a physical realization of his moral weakness--that he won't be healed until he makes good.) Carrisford will work toward balance by a combination of taking action (performing charity for "the little girl in the attic") and experiencing failure (the unsuccesful quest to find Sara). But when you look at the magnitude of these events compared to his wealth and good situation, one can see that he may be carrying a debt load even past the end of the story.

Compare all this to Becky's moral account books. One might think that she begins with a credit due to her economic circumstances and the hardness of her life. It's clear that she is treated much worse as a school employee than Sara is. One might think that she increases this credit by the way she supports Sara through her difficulties. If one's absolute situation were what mattered, one might think that she is owed a larger payoff than Sara is. But the story dynamics of moral debt appear to place a stronger weight on changes than on static experiences. Or, to put it another way, Becky's plot/accounting arc is "damped down", with smaller movements around a lower balance point. One could either see this as an implicit, invisible difference in how their experiences are valued, or one could see it as defining the difference between a protagonist and a supporting character. (When you look at changes in accounts, pretty much the only minor characters who have any activity in their moral ledger at all are Becky and Anne the beggar girl.)