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PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: ethics, Aristotelian virtue theory

CHARACTERS: Grace (gangster’s daughter), Tom (self-declared philosopher and moral authority), Chuck (apple farmer), Vera (teacher, Chucks wife), gangster boss (James Caan, Grace’s father), assorted townspeople

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR LARS VON TRIER: Dancer in the Dark (2000), Manderlay (2006), Washington (2007)

SYNOPSIS: The film is intended as the first in a trilogy to include Manderlay and Washington, all three of which are criticisms of America. However, the characters and the issues they outline could conceivably be from anywhere, and a more productive analysis is obtained by dismissing this aspect. Grace, a helpless, frail woman being pursued by gangsters, finds herself in a secluded mountain town called Dogville. The local self professed author and philosopher (despite having no written work to provide as evidence) takes it upon himself to use her as a model to teach the town a lesson in morality. His theory is that if they will only accept her into there hearts, they will all be the better for it. The town agrees, and as a token gesture, Grace offers them all an hour of work a day, divided amongst eight households. Pressure increases as her status changes from “Missing” to “Wanted: Dangerous” indicated by flyers brought by a local law man. While the people of the town know full well that Grace has not committed the crimes she is accused of, they feel it is incumbent upon them to ask more of Grace, now that their own risk is increased. The situation escalates and degenerates until Grace is regularly raped and used as slave labor. Despite all this, Grace cannot hold them responsible. She forgives them, and makes excuses for there weakness. Finally, the town decides to turn her in for a reward from the gangsters. The gang boss turns out to be her father, and after a fascinating discussion and internal debate, Grace decides once and for all to remove Dogville from the world.


1. Twice in the film, once near the beginning and once near the end, the narrator describes a “change of light” over Dogville. What does this represent?

2. Tom views himself as a philosopher and moral authority. While he may have no grounds to do so, is it still permissible for him to engage in experiments with the lives of others to prove ethical points? If so, would it still be permissible if the participants were unaware of the experiment?

3. Chapter three is entitled “In Which Grace Engages in a Shady Piece of Provocation”. This refers to her goading Jack McKay into admitting that he is blind. When Grace opens his curtains and realizes what it is Jack has lost, she is ashamed and apologetic. Did Grace engage in this provocation out of malice (because she was tired of listening to Jack fake his ability to see) or because she wanted to prod him toward bettering himself?

4. Jack McKay constantly speaks of the quality of light and the beauty it creates in various locations and times of day. Does he do this to try and fool himself and others into thinking he can see, or does he genuinely love light? If both, then which more than the other?

5. A meeting takes place to decide if, after two weeks of labor, Grace is eligible to stay in town. Grace leaves the meeting after a citizen expresses concern at her being there. Grace thinks that no one should be prevented from speaking his or her mind out of politeness. Is this an error of virtue? That is, would I be too polite if I couldn’t directly face the person that I am formally criticizing?

6. As Grace’s status changes from “Missing” to “Wanted”, the Dogville citizens require more complex hours of Grace with less pay. Does the change in Grace’s status warrant this change?

7. At what point does Graces’ situation in Dogville stop being Tom’s social experiment and begin as an exploitative abuse of Graces frailty and situation? Is there a specific turning point, or is it a gradual slide?

8. After Chuck rapes Grace, Grace tells Tom “He’s not strong, Tom. He looks strong, but he’s not.” Thus Grace excuses Chuck’s behavior, and she continues to excuse much of her treatment in Dogville. Is lack of strength ever a legitimate excuse for abusing someone?

9. The citizens frequently imply that the situation is out of there hands, and they can do nothing to prevent Grace’s abuse. When Bill rapes her in the back of his truck, he attempts to make it a matter of business, and implies that he cannot help but take what’s due him. By comparison, when Nazi death camp operators were questioned, they implied that they’d only done there jobs, what needed doing, and that they couldn’t have stopped it, and certainly couldn’t be held responsible. Is this a valid comparison? What other situation comparisons could one draw?

10. After the gangsters were called -- but before Grace was aware of it -- the townsfolk abruptly start treating her with an unheard of level of kindness. They give her several days off work, and lighten the regular insults and abuses. What is the purpose of this calm before the storm? Are they easing their consciences? Attempting to placate Grace?

11. When the mob boss comes to Dogville, he and Grace finish a discussion they started the night she ran from him. She had apparently called him arrogant, and he contended that she is also arrogant. His reasoning is that, by not holding other people to the same measuring stick as she would hold herself, she is automatically implying her superiority over them. That is, she implies that they are victims of circumstance and incapable of rising above it, although she herself is able to rise above her circumstance. Is Grace’s father correct? That is, if viewed in Aristotelian fashion, does an excess of forgiveness (a virtue) become arrogance (a vice)?

12. What are the exact motives behind Grace’s final decision to have the town utterly destroyed? Does she want revenge? Is she, as she claims, trying to make the world a better place by removing Dogville from it? Are there other possible motives?

13. The entrance to the mine reads “Dictum ac Factum”, “Said and Done”, or, roughly, “Sooner Said Than Done”. What does this refer to? Does it involve the mine in particular, or the town as a whole?

Author: James Erickson
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