By Nick Sparrow, IV Form
The Nickel Boys: The Formation and Destruction of Elwood’s Moral Compass
Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Nickel Boys, is a story based on true events, which follows a bright and promising African-American boy with a strong moral code growing up in the Jim Crow South. The main conflict of the story is his sentence to a reform school where he finds himself facing a racist and corrupt sovereignty, which uses torture to discipline students. Elwood Curtis was on his way to college when nothing but bad luck and prejudice got him arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. Throughout the novel, Elwood seems to be the only person willing to take a stand and face the system, unable to see that everyone else had already been defeated. After his first week of trying to do good at The Nickel School, Elwood is taken to “The White House” where he is flogged until he passes out. He ends up in this situation as a result of his bravery and nobility, which is what ultimately causes Elwood to lose sense of his moral compass and any hope of escape. This novel tells details the ways in which hate, racism, and prejudice will find a way to take good people down, even when they live sincerely and by the book.
Elwood’s moral code was largely shaped by his upbringing and the Civil Rights Movement. Elwood’s grandmother, Harriet, had an immense influence on his values and morals. One Christmas, she gave Elwood a record filled with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches on the Civil Rights Movement. That record was Elwood’s prized possession, and it built the basis for his moral code as “Dr. King gave that code shape, articulation, and meaning” (Whitehead 27). Although this influence gave Elwood good intentions, it only landed him in trouble at The Nickel School. Growing up in his hometown, however, following his moral compass presented no issues as life was tedious and dull. The most significant moment in his life of him doing right in the real world was when he stopped two of his peers from shoplifting. When he saw them stealing, he “couldn’t restrain himself” from calling them out (Whitehead 25). While seemingly insignificant, this was a large victory in Elwood’s head, and it enabled him to feel more confident to intervene when he came across injustice later in life.
When he first arrived at Nickel, he thought he would be able to get through his time there by being brave and following his moral code. He was not expecting exactly how vicious the administration and society would be. Overly ambitious, Elwood thought he would be able to “make the best of it,” even planning to “ask Desmond how many points he needed to move out of Grub, how long it took most people to advance and graduate. Then he’d do it twice as fast. This was his resistance” (Whitehead 64). Because of his superior intelligence and morals, Elwood had always thought of himself as a special kid who stood out from his peers back home. He arrived at The Nickel School with this same mindset, thinking that his ability to excel and be a model student would somehow show Nickel that he didn’t deserve to be there. By setting such high expectations for himself, he undermined the power and severity of the administration. Of course, his efforts were to no avail, as it took just one week of him being there and attempting to do good for the administration to take him down. At one point, he tried to break up what he thought was a fight because “it was something his grandfather might have done in one of Harriet’s stories: stepped up when he saw something wrong” (Whitehead 64). This sense of moral righteousness and goodness is what lands him in trouble. He is even described by his employer as being “thick-witted” and not knowing “when to stand back and let things be” (Whitehead 24). Although his employer noticed these traits in him before he was sent to Nickel, they stayed with him on his journey there. If he never developed his moral code, he could have avoided being taken to The White House altogether.
Once he was taken to the White House, Elwood realized the only way to survive at The Nickel School was to keep to himself and give in to the injustice that reigned over everything. The experience broke Elwood, causing him to no longer stand up to intervene when he saw something wrong. He finally understood that “The White House delivered the law and everybody obeyed” (Whitehead 66). In his mind, he was now just another poor kid sent to Nickel to suffer, no longer the special kid he had once thought he was. Even when his grandmother, his only remaining family, came to visit him, all he could tell her was that “he was okay but sad, it was difficult but he was hanging in there, when all he wanted to say was, Look at what they did to me, look at what they did to me” (Whitehead 83). When faced with corruption and malevolence at The Nickel School, Elwood was powerless despite thinking he would be able to do good. The fact that Elwood could not speak up to anyone about what happened to him shows that he had lost his moral compass and given in to the system. Although this book is set nearly 60 years ago, similar cases of corruption and discrimination still occur today. Elwood’s inability to combat the corrupt regime which reigned over The Nickel School is just one example of how the black community has historically been oppressed by ruling powers. For instance, a 2015 study of police shootings over the span of four years discovered a “significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans,” as the probability of being shot as an unarmed black person is about “3.49 times the probability of being white” (Washington Post). This absurd discrepancy exemplifies how today’s government and justice system is corrupt and biased, similar to the authority of The Nickel School. In the 60 years since the events of this story, we are still living in a world where hate and discrimination allow those in control to oppress others. The Nickel Boys highlights this fact and aids its readers to understand that this has to change.
Nick Sparrow is a IV Form boarding student from Hong Kong. His favorite subjects include chemistry and religion, and he enjoys spending time with his friends, family, and dog when he gets to go home.