Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Morality for Beautiful Girls

Because I assigned Alexander McCall Smith's Morality for Beautiful Girls in my "Relationships and Dialogues" class, I developed a new appreciation for this particular novel in the series, which had not stood out to me before. The characters are living their lives as if in answer to Buckaroo Banzai's admonition in a crowded bar: "don't be mean; we don't have to be mean."

Mma Ramotswe ends her friendship with a person who doesn't consider the feelings of her maid because, as she says, "the beginning of all morality" is empathy: "if you knew how a person was feeling, if you could imagine yourself in her position, then surely it would be impossible to inflict further pain. Inflicting pain in such circumstances would be like hurting oneself." Some of my students argued that she should work to "fix" her friend (since she says she's in the business of fixing the lives of people who consult her), but I argued that until the friend consults her, or finds that she cannot live without Mma Ramotswe's friendship, Mma Ramotswe can't change her. Her philosophy is that "people do not change, but that does not mean that they will always remain the same. What you can do is find out the good side of their character and then bring that out." Apparently, though, there's no way to bring out the good side of a friend's character when the friend persists in meanness and doesn't see it as such.

What keeps me interested in Morality for Beautiful Girls is the unexpectedly cutting edge of Mma Ramotswe's empathy. If she imagines herself in the position of someone who is being mean to another, she disengages herself from that person, lest she become an accessory to meanness. How many of us have that kind of courage of conviction?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read a bunch of these this summer, and I can't really distinguish one from another, but there is definitely something interesting going on in them in a quiet sort of way. I also like the series about the woman in Scotland, Isabel Dalhousie, I think.