Given the brutal nature of human history, it’s no surprise we have a saying that absolute power corrupts absolutely; just ask the nine-fingered Frodo Baggins. The theme comes up as regularly in literature as it does on the news, daring us to imagine whether we’d act any differently in the same situation.
A classic example can be found in Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness, which follows Charlie Marlow’s journey through the colonial Congo in search of a renegade ivory trader named Mr. Kurtz. Though once a respected businessman, Kurtz is intoxicated by what he perceives to be a savage wilderness full of ignorant impressionable natives. Making the most of his status as a white European outsider, Kurtz reinvents himself as a god among the Congolese.
Despite the fact that they result is anything but pretty (unless you’ve always dreamed of owning a jungle fortress complete with impaled heads), Marlow finds himself intrigued and even impressed by Kurtz’s animal magnetism and wild abandon. Marlow eventually completes his mission and returns to prim and proper England, but his ambiguous feelings toward the psychopath leaves us wondering whether he would have fared any better in Kurtz viking shirts .
One complicating factor in Heart of Darkness is that both Kurtz and Marlow are well-to-do, white, male Europeans who perceive themselves as the cream of the human crop. In this sense, they’re both already in positions of immense power – as far as 19th century politics are concerned. To get a more well-rounded perspective, let’s take a look at some corruptible characters whose station in life isn’t quite so peachy.
Being a young, unmarried female in sixteenth-century Puritan New England can’t have been a barrel of laughs, but as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible shows us, there were certain cards a woman could play. After getting caught dancing in the forest at night, several of Salem’s young girls find themselves accused of dealing with the devil. Because of the absurdity of their criminal justice system, they have no choice but to confess to witchcraft in order to escape punishment.
Not content to simply save their hides, however, the girls make the most of their moment in the spotlight by lashing out against the community that implicated them; listing off supposed accomplices, they bring charges against rivals, nay-sayers, and anyone who happens to give them the stink eye. The accusations spiral out of control until dozens of townspeople are dead, imprisoned, or permanently humiliated. The needlessness of such attacks demonstrates that the lowly in society are no more resilient against the temptation of power than the highest.
At the risk of complicating the overall argument, however, we must remember that not everyone in Salem gives in to the hysteria; several people refuse to partake in the power struggle, thereby forfeiting their own lives for the sake of integrity. In fact, it would be misleading to suggest that power as a corruptive force is some kind of literary constant. Just take, for instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
Lovesick for his upper-crusty former sweetheart, Jay Gatz spends years making a fortune through illegal bootlegging so that he can buy a lavish mansion, throw wild parties, and take on a swanky alter-ego just to impress her. Unlike his wealthy cohorts, however, his behavior is never corrupted by his huge income and high status. In fact, Gatsby is one of the most admirable characters in fiction precisely because his motives remain entirely pure – a fact which is tragically emphasized by the rotten behavior of his entitled, so-called friends.
On the one hand, the idea that not everyone is susceptible to corruption is a comforting one – especially considering that hierarchies exist at every possible level of society. At the same time, however, the idea that power doesn’t necessarily corrupt is much more complicating than the idea that it does; after all, if absolute power corrupts absolutely, it pretty much takes personal responsibility out of the equation. The second that old saying changes to “power corrupts some and not others,” society loses one of its most time-honored scapegoats.
write by Athena Nguyen