Tobacco Talk: Ethics and Aesthetics

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You must have a cigarette. A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?

– Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray

What does morality have to do with smoking? Is smoking unethical, or dare we say, sinful? I’m sure many of us could respond to this question with the health risks of various forms of smoking and then form a very compelling ethical argument from those risks. But what if the way a character approaches the act of smoking tells us something about their inner ethical landscape and worldview? This week the students in my honors class are exploring the ethical dimensions of depictions of smoking by reading Chesterton, selections from Daniel Deronda, and doing a distant reading of instances of “cigar” and “cigarette(s)” in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

When considering if smoking is a sin, you might have guessed that Chesterton’s answer was a resounding no. He even goes so far to contend that “Nobody who has an abstract standard of right and wrong can possibly think it wrong to smoke a cigar. But he had a concrete standard of particular cut and dried customs of a particular tribe.”

Georg Eliot’s (Mary Ann Evans) 1876 novel, Daniel Deronda, is deeply concerned with ethical behavior (like all of Eliot’s novels) and works with tobacco differently than Chesterton’s essay. We don’t have enough time during this class to read the whole novel together (though I highly suggest it as a brilliant and beautiful example of the form!). Instead, we are going to focus on two chapters that use tobacco to showcase the differences between characters. Two well-off characters (signified by the access to cigars) use those cigars very differently just as they treat other human persons very differently. As further contrast, we meet the Philosopher’s Club, a proto-Zionist Jewish community, engaged in vigorous debate while smoking from clay pipes, a sign of their financial status and communal tavern culture.

And then Oscar Wilde, being Oscar Wilde, treats us with witty and alluring aphorisms like the quote above that makes us wonder if we should try to figure out what it really means or just enjoy it.



Further Reading and Resources

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