Purposely Failing — Is it Ever Okay?

Recently in class we read a short story called “Three Skeleton Key” by George G. Toudouze. It is about three men who find themselves trapped in a lighthouse on a small key off the coast of South America. They happen to get trapped in the lighthouse when hordes of man-eating, ravenous rats manage — with the help of a derelict ship, whose crew they already ate — to crash upon the key, swarming off the boat en masse, making a beeline for the scent of fresh human. The men close themselves off inside the lighthouse, but begin to wonder how they might get out with their lives. They decide upon a solution. The narrator writes

“There was only one thing left to do. After debating all of the ninth day, we decided not to light the lantern that night. This is the greatest breach of our service, never committed as long as the tenders of the light are alive; for the light is something sacred, warning ships of danger in the night. Either the light gleams a quarter-hour after sundown, or no one is left alive to light it.”

The question is, then, were the men justified in committing the “breach” of their service (purposely not lighting the light for the lighthouse)?

In my opinion, the men were justified in not lighting the lighthouse. That is, it was okay for them to purposely NOT do their job. The human will to survive is strong, and these men wanted to survive. It is true that the consequences of not lighting the lantern could have been disastrous. After all, as the text mentions, this is a lighthouse that does not welcome mariners to safe harbor, but instead warns them away from treacherous shoals. If the men did not light the lantern, and if there happened to be a ship passing nearby, the loss of life could have been tremendous. What is worse? The loss of three lives, or the loss of 80? Most would say the loss of 80, but isn’t each life precious? Isn’t the tragic death of even one soul something to be mourned? If even the slightest opportunity exists to save a life, it should be seized. These men took the opportunity to save their lives. There have been other instances in life where people have purposely not followed the rules when the situation called for it. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person; the rules said she needed to move to the back of the bus. She refused. Mohandas Ghandi defied British rule in an attempt to inspire others to fight for Indian independence. We celebrate those people today for their daring and how their actions inspired others. Society changed for the better — and many people’s lives became arguably richer — because of a simple act of disobedience. Yes, it went against the lighthouse guidelines to leave the lantern unlit, but that was a chance the men needed to take. It was worth it, if it meant that the men would have a chance at living the rest of their lives as planned. In the end, we know that one of the men went insane because of the experience and one eventually died from infected rat bites. But at least they got a chance to die with dignity, rather than to be eaten alive twenty miles off the coast of South America in a desolate tomb of a lighthouse.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *