Moral ambiguity is often used in literature to highlight the gray areas of a character in the story.
Severus Snape is a morally ambiguous character from J.K. Rowling’s book series Harry Potter. Snape displays both vileness and goodness which the readers find appealing.
Writers often use quite a few literary devices to add depth and character to the story. One commonly used device is that of moral ambiguity. The term moral ambiguity means a situation that lacks clarity regarding the “correctness or wrongness” of a plot/person making the intentions of the author unclear. Thus, a morally ambiguous character cannot be aptly described as good or evil. Such a story can be quite complex leading to multiple interpretations on the part of the reader.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is a perfect example of this. The character of Kurtz in the novel is portrayed as mystical and one that’s worshiped by the natives for possessing supernatural powers. The other contrasting aspect of Kurtz’s personality is that he harbored excessive ambition to amass wealth and power that led to his tragic death. Thus the author successfully portrays the character to be morally ambiguous.
Morally Ambiguous Characters in Literature
Hamlet by Shakespeare
Hamlet is considered a morally ambiguous character, because though he is protecting his mother and avenging his father’s murder, he is willing to kill anyone in his path to vengeance. Ophelia’s death shows his emotional and human side. However, his revengeful actions that result in deaths of innocent people displays his evil side creating moral ambiguity in his character.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Frankenstein’s monster is made from mangled body parts and thus looks grotesque, to the readers as well has his maker. As the story unravels, Shelley makes the character hard to sympathize with. Not just because he goes on a murdering rampage but also because of his appearance. But as the story ends, the monster’s narration contradicts his appearance and acts. It is revealed that he is an extremely sensitive being and that very trait is the driving force behind his criminal actions. The kind of treatment he receives from people including his creator turns him into a bitter monster from the pure and good creature that he really was. Learning his side of the story makes the readers empathize with him, thus creating a case of moral ambiguity.
The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald
Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan both are perfect examples of a morally ambiguous character. Daisy is introduced as Nick’s cousin and is described to be attractive and vacuous. In her initial introduction, it is mentioned that her husband has a mistress in the city. This fact brings in a feeling of sympathy, and in a way validates her infidelity and cynical behavior. Later in the story she commits a crime of passion by running over Myrtle Wilson (Tom’s mistress), and lets Jay take the blame for it. This eventually leads to Gatsby’s murder by George Wilson.
When it comes to Gatsby, he is portrayed as both moral and immoral, good and bad. His love for Daisy makes him hungry for wealth and prevents him from thinking twice before getting into any criminal activity.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Mr. Edward Rochester is the ambiguous character in Brontë’s Jane Eyre. His trait of being bigamous, hiding his past and keeping his deranged wife a secret is perceived as questionable by the readers. However, given that he has landed himself in this situation, he is also portrayed to be a caring husband who doesn’t abandon or divorce his wife. Thus, he has also been shown in a positive light. He comes off as rude, disrespectful, and haughty, every time he meets Jane in an effort to brush aside his feelings for her. Eventually, his ambiguous morality is questioned on the day of his wedding with Jane, as his ugly secret of being married to a mad woman is revealed, to both Jane as well as the readers.
Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling
Professor Severus Snape is a prominent character hated by many. He does all he needs to do to become an integral part of Voldemort’s posse. So much so, his every action directed towards Harry is portrayed to be hateful and spiteful, which is also because he disliked Harry’s father. At the same time, Snape is seen to have saved Harry’s life at the Quidditch game. Since Snape loved Harry’s mother, he also loved Harry because of Harry’s resemblance with her. The presence of love-hate traits within the same character makes Snape a morally ambiguous one.
Estella from Great Expectations, Troy from Fences, many characters from Sula, the Governess from Turn of the Screw, and Jack from Lord of the Flies are just a few examples of notorious characters known for their moral ambiguity. The above examples clearly demonstrate how the literary device, ambiguity imparts character and depth to a literary work. The characters make it difficult for the reader to categorize them into a specific category – villain or hero, good or evil.