Honor a powerful concept, both in the real world and fiction. We love knights who cling to their ideals, and villains who spit upon the concept gain an extra patina of despicability. But it’s also a very fuzzy concept — so let’s talk about what it actually is. Because in broad terms, a person’s or character’s honor can be referring to two different things . . . which don’t always go together.
The first sense of the phrase is an ethical framework. When someone says their honor won’t permit them to do a thing, what they mean is that they wouldn’t be able to face themself in the mirror afterward. This is “honor” in the sense of right and wrong, good and evil, and an honorable person is one who chooses to hold themself to that ethical standard, regardless of whether anyone is around to observe them doing otherwise.
What exactly the standard encompasses does vary, but not as much as you might think. Certain virtues are something like universal — perhaps honored more often in the breach than the observance, and you can definitely name off places and times where people have spat upon such concepts, but ideals like honesty, generosity, compassion, self-control, loyalty, and courage are widely admired and held up as goals for people to aspire to.
Which isn’t to say that “ethics” are synonymous with “honor.” The former is a much larger concept, and one that ties into religion and philosophy and law as well as individual behavior. I only mean that sometimes, when people talk about their sense of honor, what they mean is what they do and do not think is right for them to do.
We’ll come back to that in a moment, but first let’s look at the other thing we sometimes mean when we talk about someone’s honor. In contrast to that inner sense of honor as ethical framework, this one is external: “honor” as reputation or face.
This is the type of honor that leads people to have duels, because their honor has been insulted. It isn’t about facing yourself in the mirror afterward; it’s about facing everybody else. It pushes you to take certain actions, not because they’re ethically right, but because they’re necessary for the preservation of your standing in society. If you don’t defend your honor, you lose it.
These two senses aren’t wholly separate. One of the easiest ways to insult someone’s honor is to accuse them of violating certain agreed-upon moral standards: calling a man a coward or a liar, for example. But at the same time, these concepts aren’t wholly contiguous, either; otherwise you’d see more duels fought to defend someone’s reputation for compassion or generosity. (Sort of an ironic concept, isn’t it? Fighting a duel to prove your compassion. Reminds me of a My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic meme I saw, whose caption was “I am going to love and respect the SHIT out of you.”)
I suspect you can chalk that up to the different significances attached to different virtues. Compassion and generosity are virtues largely practiced by those in a position of advantage to those in a position of disadvantage, whether permanent (e.g. class differences) or temporary (helping a friend through grief). Honesty, by contrast, is necessary even between peers, as a kind of glue: too little of it, and things fall apart. I may not need your charity, but I do need to know that when you make a promise, you’ll keep it. Ditto courage, which is theoretically used in the mutual defense of our society.
The significance is also exceedingly gendered. Courage is a manly virtue; so is honesty. Therefore, questioning them questions the target’s masculinity. Compassion and generosity, on the other hand . . . those are squishy, feminine things. If a guy isn’t compassionate enough, well, who cares? That’s what his wife is for. And if she argues too strenuously for compassion, he’ll just ignore her. Women’s honor has most frequently been mapped to the virtues of chastity and fidelity — but because of patriarchy, the responsibility for defending that virtue when it gets impugned falls on some man who is considered to have ownership of her sexuality, whether it’s her husband, father, brother, or son. Her lack of chastity means he hasn’t been controlling his property, and thus we’re back to his masculinity being threatened.
Internal and external, private and public. These two types of honor map fairly closely to the distinction some people have made between guilt and shame. Violating your ethical sense of honor induces guilt. Losing honor in the reputational sense induces shame.
Both of these forms are useful tools for controlling people.
Which is a cynical statement, but also a true one. Ethical frameworks are often consciously drafted by theologians or philosophers, with the conscious intent of figuring out how people should behave and then persuading them to go along. Parents teach their children these codes in order to control their actions — not maliciously, but because it’s part of being a functioning member of society. Reputational codes are often fuzzier in their origin, but no less powerful. They arise from a society’s need to police the boundaries between groups, e.g. establishing what a man should be like vs. what a woman should be like, or a gentleman vs. a common man.
But the control isn’t just societal; it’s interpersonal. The specter of cowardice can be used to impel soldiers into battle. The fear that he might be thought a cuckold causes a man to restrict his wife’s freedoms. Fear of the consequences for breaking one’s word at least theoretically makes a person more cautious about when they give it, and to whom.
There’s all kinds of narrative blood in that. In the role-playing game Legend of the Five Rings, where the setting is based on historical Japan and the bushidō code of honor holds sway, samurai frequently fight duels to defend their honor . . . and one of the favorite political tools of several clans is to bait someone into a situation where they have no choice but to fight a duel. Even if it’s only to first blood, the loser loses face, which gives the winner political advantage. Or consider the wildly popular musical Hamilton, which hinges on the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr: erstwhile friends, but ultimately estranged to a lethal breaking-point, which drives them to defend their honor against each other with pistols.
You don’t have to use honor to kill characters. But it’s a great tool for finding ways to give them strength, make them suffer — or both.