I’ve seen two examples recently of a character exercising their human autonomy through the act of choice. Both of these characters were in complex circumstances that they could have used to explain away their actions. In both cases, doing so would have weakened their position.
The first was from Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened. When Martha first proposes to Theo that she’ll pay him to get her pregnant, he questions what her options are.
“Then why do this?” He sat down again and reached for what was left of his tea. “Why not go to your brother at once?” Her hands folded one over the other in her lap and she went perfectly still, all light shuttered behind her dark eyes. “Because that is not what I choose to do.”
The effect of her autonomy is strengthened by the fact that we’ve been in her head, and know that going back to her brother is a desperate, claustrophobic thought to her. So often in fiction characters give their exact thoughts in argument – or they purposely misdirect, or simply avoid answering. She doesn’t feel the need to either confess or lie. It is enough for her that she knows her reasons, and she trusts herself to choose her own path.
Particularly for a female character, I found this to be a powerful declaration of independence.
The second was in the final Matrix movie. Neo is having his arse handed to him by Mr Smith, but he will not stay down. This enrages Mr Smith, because it’s a lack of logic particular to living things, and he cannot understand it.
MR SMITH: Why do you do it, Mr Anderson? Why? Why get up? Why keep fighting? I believe you’re fighting for something? For more than your survival? Can you tell me what it is? Do you even know? Is it freedom, or truth? Perhaps peace? Could it be for love? Illusions, Mr Anderson, vagaries of perception. Temporary constructs of a feeble human intellect trying desperately to justify an existence that is without meaning or purpose. And all of them as artificial as the Matrix itself. Although, only the human mind could invent something as insipid as love. You must be able to see it, Mr Anderson, you must know it by now, you can’t win. It’s pointless to keep fighting. Why, Mr Anderson? Why, why do you persist?
NEO: Because I choose to.
This is such a great line. I admit that in the rather dated trilogy it took me wholly by surprise. It’s especially excellent because Mr Smith has already torn down every single reason Neo might be expected to give. He harps on about love, and as we’ve just seen Neo sacrifice love for the good of mankind, you could forgive him for taking love as a reason to keep on fighting.
But Mr Smith is…kinda right. All those noble human emotions and ideals for which humans go to war and broker peace and push themselves beyond their abilities – depend on perception. They’re not true across all contexts, and for all people. Choice was the only irrefutable reply Neo could have made.
Choice doesn’t depend on morality, or truth, it just is. It is a personal action, a declaration of human autonomy.
Of itself, choice is incredibly simple. It’s always the context that makes it interesting. I think that’s probably why I’ll always root for the character who sees a situation clearly and makes the difficult, unpopular decision with far-reaching consequences. You have to be a particularly powerful sort of a human, to do so.