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  • Techniques for Survival: IV. The Study of CharacterVol. 34, No. 4, May 1972
  • Oscar Cargill

"The Study of Character" concludes Professor Cargill's four-part series. Part I, "On Being Head," appeared in the November 1971 Critic; Part II, "Consensus in Literature," in January 1972; Part III, "Where Parrington Left Us," in March. No one who knew Oscar Cargill and his work could help feeling a sense of tragic loss, professional as well as personal loss, in learning of his fatal heart attack on April 18. We are grateful that he was able to complete this memorable series of academic reminiscences, and we are honored in presenting this fine concluding essay to our readers.

- Ed.

The controversy over the farcical television show All in the Family is the most vital current event in that medium just as The Forsyte Saga was conspicuously the most valuable offering before it. Though Archie Bunker and Soames Forsyte are far apart in the social strata, each is a very fallible human being, each is important as a personality rather than for any story he helps to unfold. Galsworthy's protagonist had all the faults of the British upper-middle-class, but is somehow redeemed by his infatuation with his daughter, who is a feminine mirror of his own limitations; Archie Bunker is a lower-middle-class American whose deep-set racism is balanced off by his support of a Polish son-in-law and daughter while the former earns a college degree. The fact that Archie cannot be consigned outright to purgatorial fires is the basis of the attack upon the TV show by Laura Z. Hobson in an article in the Times and by Life magazine, which produced a real Archie who thinks that his screen prototype is an admirable fellow. An adequate reply to Archie's attackers seems to have been phrased long ago by Thomas Hardy in defending his Tess of the D'Urhervilles for the possible harm it might do to infirm minds:

Of the effects of such sincere presentation on weak minds, when the courses of the characters are not exemplary and the rewards and punishments ill adjusted to deserts, it is not our duty to consider too closely. A novel which does mortal injury to a dozen imbeciles, and has bracing results upon intellects of normal vigor, can justify its existence, and probably a novel was never written by the purest-minded author for which there could not be found some moral invalid or other whom it was capable of harming. [End Page 187]

Judgment is immediately forced, in viewing All in the Family; it is not an aesthetic judgment which must be made, however, but an ethical one. Indeed, there is very little that can be called aesthetic in the show: neither the setting, the roles, nor the action can be put in that category, though perhaps by a long stretch the acting may. Jean Stapleton, as Edith Bunker, is so convincingly and benevolently stupid that even a dull viewer might suspect that art is involved. We are forced to settle first, however, whether Archie's intolerance strengthens intolerance in others or, by farcical exaggeration, dissipates it. I will not vouch for the other 44,999,999 viewers, but I hold All in the Family to be a wholesome satire of bigotry and quote St. Jerome to its contemners: "If an offence come out of the truth [even an exaggeration of the truth], better it is that the offence come than that the truth is concealed."

The priority of moral judgment over aesthetic judgment is a natural fact obscured to criticism by its hatred of didacticism, of manipulation. When Noah Webster lectures Doctor Johnson for taking "low" words out of Shakespeare's comedies for his dictionary, we are justly annoyed with the American lexicographer for his prudery. To distinguish right from wrong, however, cuts deeper than to discriminate the beautiful from the ugly—that is, to get at the utmost essentials, survival is more important than taste, whatever other relations may be drawn between the two. One's experience with students confirms this, for more participate voluntarily in a discussion of what is right or wrong...


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