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Morality

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"Morality" is a 12-page short-story originally published in the July issue of Esquire magazine on 19 June 2009. The story was later included with a mass market edition of "Blockade Billy" released by Schribner on 25 May 2010, and in the short story collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

Plot

The story concerns Chad Callahan, an aspiring writer who is teaching school until he lands a publishing contract, and his wife, Nora, who is working as a home nurse for a retired minister named George Winston, who are like most people these days struggling financially.

Nora is approached by her employer with a proposition that could make their dream of a home in Vermont a reality. Being a reverend, Winston states that he has largely lived his life without sin—though he also states he has not gone completely without it—and seeks to experience one major sin before he passes away. However, given his current condition, he is unable to leave his house, making committing any worthwhile sin impossible without outside aid. This is where Nora comes in, according to Winston, who states that he intends to commit a sin vicariously through Nora's actions, therefore committing "sin by proxy" and effectively "doubl[ing] his sin quotient" in the eyes of God. Winston makes it clear that for Nora's help, and assumption of risk in this deed, he will pay her a total of $200,000 should she accept his offer.

Initially, after Winston reveals what the sin involves, Nora is shocked and appalled at the desires of the old man, assuming that he must be insane. However, after discussing the pros and cons of the offer with Chad—and reasoning that with the money they would be able to pay off all their debts and move to New England—Nora agrees to go through with the proposal.

After committing the act with Chad, Nora returns to Winston with a videotape as evidence of going through with the plan. While viewing the tape, it is revealed that the sin Winston chose to commit consisted of Nora going up to a small child in a park in the middle of the day and punching him in the face very hard, causing the child to apparently suffer abloody nose.

Seemingly satisfied with the outcome of Nora's actions, Winston agrees to pay her the money and concedes that Nora will no longer wish to work for him now that she has seen his true face. Nora states that she finds the whole situation repulsive, and goes home wondering why Winston would ever want to commit such a senseless act and whether or not the police will ever find out about it.

Shortly after Nora stops working for Reverend Winston, she learns from his housekeeper, Ms. Granger, that Winston had apparently died from kidney failure; though Ms. Granger confides in Nora that Winston's body was found next to an empty bottle of pills—strongly implying that he had committed suicide after going through with his plan. This leads Nora to wonder about the fate of the videotape she gave Winston, and whether or not it will be uncovered after his death.

As time passes by after the business with Winston, Chad and Nora are wracked with guilt over their complacence with the sin, so much so that their previously optimistic mindsets grow darker and more pessimistic as their fear of people discovering their part in Winston's deed increases. Chad starts drinking more often, and Nora commits adultery with two different men and develops a tendency for masochistic satisfaction during intercourse. This eventually leads to the dissolution of their marriage, with Chad blaming the failure and poor quality of his book on guilt and Nora's lack of faith in his writing talent. After getting divorced, Nora is seemingly happy to be rid of Chad and begins working full-time at a local hospital. However, on the way home from work one day, Nora notices an old book in a used bookstore which she had previously seen in Reverend Winston's study called "The Basis of Morality." After taking it home and spending much of the following summer and fall reading through it, Nora sadly concludes that there is little or nothing in the book that she didn't already know.

References

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