The Code of Honor
Both Othello and The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn deal with the issue of race, especially the notion of race as a .social construct x. Othello is .being taken by the insolent foe and sold to slavery x (Shakespeare 1.3.136-137); Jim is a runaway nigger. Both of them have ever been a slaver respectively, but their stories are totally different: one becomes a general; one becomes a free man at the end. What does make this difference, even though they are ever at the same level? By close reading, we know Shakespeare and Twain suggest that honor is more to people than just their races when evaluating the social value.
People who have honor are respected from other people and remain high in their society. What should be consider as honorable? Service to the country, knowledgeable, or even money, and so on. Othello is a Moor, and he is ever sold to slavery. What does make him to be a noble general? It is the services to the state: .My services which I have done the Signiory shall out-tongue his complaints x (Shakespeare 1.2.18-19). Even the Duke will not look down on Othello, who is an Arab, like the Turks (the enemy of Venice). He believes .Othello, the fortitude of the place is best known to you x (Shakespeare 1.3.219-220) and employs him .against the general enemy Ottoman x (Shakespeare 1.3.47-48). Therefore, race is not an obstacle to Othello s military career. Twain also suggests race is not the only issue to define social construct. For example, .There was a free nigger there, they said he was a p fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of language, and knowed everything they said he could vote x (Twain 26; ch.6). This professor is the same race with Jim, but why he even has the right to vote? It is not only because he lives in the North of American, but also because he is knowledgeable. No every nigger in the North has the honor of voting, actually only few does at that time. Therefore, race is not totally determined whether the professor or a nigger has the right to vote or not. Other people respect Othello and the nigger professor for their honor, and the people do not really care about their races.
On the other hand, dishonor will make people lose their society position and their reputation. In Othello, Cassio is an honorable lieutenant, .an honest fellow x (Shakespeare 3.3.4). Othello trusts him, treats him as his friend, and calls him .good Michael x, .Michael x. It is this grand honor that Iago is jealous of. But drunken Cassio loses his reputation since he fights with Montano other than guards the watch. Othello calls him .Cassio x and tells him .never more be officer of mine x (Shakespeare 2.3.248). A lieutenant suddenly becomes an ordinary man due to the dishonorable thing he does. .O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial (Shakespeare 2.2.261-263), Cassio confesses. Twain also give us some examples. For instance, pap gains the reputation from the new judge s family because they have sympathy for him, and pap also swears: .It is the hand of a man that s started in on a new life. x .The judge says it is the holiest time on record and tucks the old man into a beautiful room x (Twain 22; ch. 5). It seems that pap s value is revalidated. But once pap .trades his new coat for a jug of forty-rod (Twain 22; ch. 5) and gets drunken again, pap loses his flick of reputation and becomes old pap again. .The judge reckons a body could reform the ole man with a shot-gun x (Twain 22; ch. 5). Cassio and pap all are white people, who are the majority in their society, but they do not have expected social value because they do something dishonorable. Therefore, the code of honor is different in all these examples, but honor is used to determine the social construct other than simply race.
Since honor is so important and valuable, people will do everything to pursue their honor, to fight for their honor, and to defend their honor. Why does Othello want to kill Cassio and Desdemona? He thinks Cassio cuckolds him, which makes him feel he loses his honor. His marriage is the peak in his life because it is not common, or even a guilty for a Moor to marry a white woman at that time. Othello makes his marriage become reality for his services to state. His honor is confirmed by the Duke and by Venice. Desdemona, Venice, and Othello are interconnected. If one link is broken, the system of interconnection will be destroyed. .Farewell! Othello s occupation s gone! x (Shakespeare 3.3.354), that is why Othello s crying when he feels the relation between he and Desdemona is in crisis. After Othello receives the letter from Venice, which .commands him home and deputes Cassio in his government x (Shakespeare 4.1.237), he realizes the link between him and the state is also in crisis. Duke wants to keep a watchful eye on Othello so as to command him home. Duke does not totally trust Othello because he is not one of them, and he is afraid that Othello might betray Venice if he remains in Cyprus. Though it is Othello who defeats the Turks, Cassio is appointed to take over Othello s position. Losing his position and his wife to Cassio, Othello has nothing. He must regain his honor, and the only thing he can do to defend his honor is to kill Cassio and Desdemona. His plan for murder is carried out. .An honorable murder, if you will. For naught I did in hate, but all in honor x (Shakespeare 5.2.290-291), Othello commits suicide after he kills Desdemona and knows the true story. It is the death of Othello that makes him regain the honor to Desdemona: he can stay with Desdemona forever; he will not be humiliated by returning to Venice as a prisoner. Twain gives us many episodes to illustrate how people deal with honor. For example, Colonel Sherburn s murder of Boggs is also an evidence of barbaric nature of society and different code of honor. Colonel Sherburn is a .proud-looking x and .best dressed man in that town. x When the drunk, .best-natured old fool, x Boggs, continues to insult and challenge him, Sherburn thinks he will lose his reputation and being looked down by the mob. To defend his honor, he issues an ultimatum, and, true to his word, shoots the retreating Boggs dead. It has hardly been a fair duel, but the Colonel has kept his word and regained his honor. Ironically, the mob lack the courage to string up the Colonel, who has shot an unarmed and retreating drunk, because .they don t fight with courage that is born in them, but with the courage that s borrowed from their mass x (Twain 134; ch.22) It is the Colonel that governs the mob and that town, like Duke in Venice, so he has all the power to make the mob believe what is honor and what is dishonor. Even he does something dishonorable or cold-blooded, the mob cannot borrow any courage from one another to catch him, or even say a word. Therefore, one s social value needs to be validated by other people, especially by the people who are high in society.
Because people s honor needs to be validated by other people, sometimes people even do not know they have honor unless their honor is be confirmed by other people. The marriage to Desdemona is the great honor that Othello ever has. Othello does not take good care of her and himself. He always thinks this marriage is too much for him. How come a white woman becomes a Moor s wife? He always questions this reality, and even suspects the royalty of Desdemona. In his last speech, he confesses: .Then must you speak of one that loved not wisely, but too well; of one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand, like the base Judean, threw a pearl away richer than all his tribe x (Shakespeare 5.2.340-345). Nobody tells Othello that the marriage fits him and Desdemona. Even Brabantio, his father-in-law, warns him: .Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: she has deceived her father, and may thee x (Shakespeare 1.3.288-289). How can Othello realizes he has the .pearl x in such society? It is the society that makes Othello blind. In Twain s fiction, we also find the same issues that illustrate the validation of honor. Jim is a runaway nigger. On the journey down the Mississippi on a raft with Huck, he is afraid of being sighted by other people, because he knows that what he is trying to do is dishonor in his society. He does not want anybody validate this dishonor; he does not want anybody releases his secret; and he wants to be a free man after arriving Cairo. His worry and anxiety blinds him. He does not discover his honor, like his good-hearted. Until the people in Phelps farm catch him, the doctor validates his honor: .I never see a nigger that was a better nuss or faithfuller, and yet he was resking his freedom to do it x (Twain 255; ch 42). .So, every one of them promised, right out and hearty, that they would t cuss him no more x (Twain 256; ch 42). Let s review what the people treats him before the doctor s speech: .chained him again, and not to no bed-leg, this time, but to a big staple drove into the bottom log, and chained his hands, too, and both legs, and said he warn t to have nothing but bread and water to eat x(Twain 255; ch 42). What does make people stop torturing him? It is only the doctor s validation, which makes the people believe Jim is a man with virtues because he does something honorable, and they forget he is a runaway nigger at a monment. What Jim has done is just something comes from his good-hearted. Jim has the honor long before; only no people care to validate it. Ironically, Tom .manages to set a nigger free that was already free before x (Twain 261; ch 43). Jim has been free when he is on the river! Nobody tells him this, so he is still a runaway nigger. He suffers more before Tom can set him free in Tom s style, which makes Tom feel he has honor in doing such thing.
After close reading Othello and The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, we realize the same critical point in these two great works: honor determines social construct, although we might argue that the other factors, like the races, the characters, the traditions and so on, also affect the social value. In fact, these factors have relations to honor, or are by-products of honor.
Shakespeare. Othello. Signet classic. New York: Penguin, 1998
Mark Twain. The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Oxford, 1999