A Dying Man’s Wish February 24th, 2012
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my crush on Downton Abbey, and how watching it had started my wheels spinning on the topics of honor and pride in one’s work. Well, I’m continuing to plug my way through the series (I’m now deep into Season 2) and my wheels are spinning again. You know, for a show that is basically a beautifully costumed soap opera, Downtown Abbey really does provide a lot of food for thought.
With that, I will offer this warning before I continue my post. If you watch Downton Abbey and are current through Season 2, then read ahead because you know what happens anyway. If you don’t watch Downton Abbey and have no intention of doing so, then read ahead because I’ll explain everything you need to know to follow my moral conundrum. But, if you do watch Downton Abbey but haven’t yet made it through at least the first four episodes of Season 2, STOP, because there are major spoilers ahead.
[For those lacking context, here's the play-by-play. Daisy is the kitchen maid. William is a footman. William has a massive crush on Daisy, and while she is fond of William she doesn't share his romantic affections. But William misinterprets a friendly and innocent peck of a kiss from Daisy as an indication of greater feelings. William enlists in the British army during World War I and is about to head to France. William proposes. Daisy wants to correct the misunderstanding before he leaves but the cook intervenes and says that she can't send him off to war with a broken heart. The cook persuades Daisy to accept William's proposal so that he can go into battle believing that his true love is waiting for him back home.]
So what’s a girl to do when the boy in love with her is headed off to war but she doesn’t love him back? What’s a girl to do when that boy proposes? Does her requital bolster him for the unthinkable horrors he’s about to face? Or does it patronize him and belittle his integrity? These are questions that Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes asks with a pretty heavy hand.
Sending someone off to war is brutal for everyone involved. The soldier who is departing must believe in the cause and must be brave. He must draw upon anything he can to face the grim scenarios that await him. The people staying behind must do what they can to support the soldier. They must fill him up with enough love and comfort to last him weeks or even months. Everyone in the equation has a role to play. But do those respective roles change the morality paradigm?
Under normal circumstances a young girl wouldn’t accept a man’s proposal just to make him feel good. But in this situation Daisy is encouraged to do just that. And those of us watching are left to decide for ourselves whether she’s right or wrong.
Quite plainly, Daisy is uncomfortable with the path that is chosen for her by the others. She finds her dishonesty to William to be disrespectful and unfair. She doesn’t want to lead him on. Older members of the household staff see it differently. They see a young girl making a personal sacrifice of sorts in order ease the emotional burden of a young man who very well may be killed. And they see a young boy – one far too young to face the atrocities of war – who may hold his head a bit higher, may feel a bit warmer, and may fight a bit longer for the belief that his girl is waiting for him back home.
As William heads to war the stakes of Daisy’s lie are comparatively low. When he returns she can (and presumably will) break it off with him. He will be heartbroken, but alive. And they will go their separate ways. Little harm, little foul.
Alas, that’s not how it panned out.
William returns home alive, but dying. Massive lung injuries have issued him a death sentence. He knows his days are numbered and all he wants is to marry Daisy before he dies. He wants her to be taken care of. He wants her to get a war widow’s pension. And he wants to die knowing he married the girl he loved.
Again, Daisy can’t bear it. She doesn’t want to lie to a dying man. She doesn’t want to take a war widow’s money when she knows the marriage isn’t where her heart is. Nevertheless, she is pushed ahead by older members of the staff who see her opportunity to grant a dying man’s wish. They marry, and William passes mere hours later. Daisy is filled with regret.
“Marrying him was a great kindness,” says the head housekeeper. But was it?
If no real damage is done by the lie – if it helps a wounded man die with peace and love in his heart – then what is the harm? Conversely, aren’t moments of life and death the precise moments when truth and honesty matter most? Daisy does care for and respect William, even if she doesn’t love him. And it is out of that care and respect that she is so reluctant to lie to him.
There is an honorable path here. Is it the truth? Or is it to grant a man’s dying wish? Or better yet, is Daisy’s willingness to marry William, but heartbreak at doing so the most honorable path she could have chosen?
In some strange way, I think it is.