Thursday, July 10, 2008

Let's Talk About Dexter

By Jaden Terrell

Recently, on a listerve I subscribe to, there was a rather passionate discussion about Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the books (Darkly Dreaming Dexter and Dearly Devoted Dexter), the protagonist, Dexter Morgan, is a blood spatter specialist for the Miami police department. He is also a serial killer who follows a very strict code created for him by his foster father, Harry. Seeing Dexter for what he is, knowing Dexter is too broken to ever be “fixed,” but loving him too much to give up on him, Harry attempts to channel Dexter’s dark desires into a something good. He teaches Dexter how to be an effective killer, then instills the code that demands he kill only the worst of the worst, those who really deserve it—child molesters, serial killers who prey on innocents, and other human monsters. And it’s not enough to think someone is guilty of atrocities. Dexter has to have irrefutable proof. Then he’s free to do with his victims as he will, and Lindsay makes it clear that what Dexter wills is pretty darn horrible.

There are those who love the books, those who can take them or leave them, and those who know these books just aren’t their cup of tea. Then there are those who call the books “torture porn” and say anyone who enjoys them must be a little sick themselves. I think they’re missing the point. I don’t know anyone who enjoys Dexter because of the graphic descriptions of the horrors he commits on his victims. In fact, I suspect a lot of them skim or completely skip those parts. I know I do. And yet, they have to be there.

Dexter only works as a monster commenting on the nature of humanity; but if it were not for the extreme tastes of his “Dark Passenger” (his name for the dark urges that lead him to kill), he would not be a monster at all. In fact, one might argue that, if he dispatched his victims quickly and painlessly, he would be a hero. Because, while in real life, vigilantism is a bad thing, in fiction, it’s what heroes do. Think Jack Reacher. Think Joe Pike. Think John Connolly’s Charlie Parker and his assassin friends Louis and Angel. Killers all, but in the name of justice and protecting the innocent. It's Dexter’s enjoyment of his victims’ suffering that makes him a monster.

The appeal of Dexter is that he is an outsider observing and trying to understand what it means to be human. His wry, yet wistful observations of human behavior give us pause because they are fresh and funny, yet true. Then there are the contradictions: Harry insists that Dexter is a good person inside and tries to give him a moral compass, but are Henry’s actions those of a moral man? Dexter insists that he can’t love anyone and has no emotions; yet is obvious to anyone reading his words that he loved Harry, that he loves his foster sister, and that he is at least fond of several of his co-workers. He cares about his “girlfriend’s” children. When he recognizes aspects of himself in one of the children, we sense that he will try to pass on Harry’s “gift” of an artificial conscience to the boy. Disturbing as this is, isn’t an artificial conscience better than no conscience at all?

There are no real Dexters out there. This is probably a very good thing. But these questions of morality and conscience are good things too. They are, in my opinion, what Dexter really all about.

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