Should Stories Be Moral?


Should Stories Be Moral?

All of us began our story-reading lives reading very moral stories. We probably began with Aesop's fables about the fox and the goose, or fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. In all of these stories, Good Guys and Bad Guys are very clearly defined. The scary wolf is bad and threatens to eat you up; the brave little girl, or the innocent pigs, are good. But often, the good guys are naughty in a way that gets them in trouble. They are foolish or imprudent or they don't listen to their elders. And later, they are punished. Little Red Riding Hood, for example, gets literally gobbled up by the wolf and needs to be rescued. In all of these tales and fables, the moral is abundantly clear. Aesop even spells it right out for you, telling you that the moral of the story is that haste makes waste or that we should listen to our parents more. It gets downright boring, having these heavy moral lessons pushed on us as we get older and a little more rebellious.

We tend to think of stories with such heavy morals as childish, or as lesser works of art. But the debate rages on whether great art does require some kind of moral, even if the moral is more subtle. Work that inspires us, that leaves us moved, tends to have some wrestling around with moral choices. Harry Potter deals with good and evil, with honesty and deceit, and with courage and cowardice. The Hunger Games deals with power, authority, and its corruption, as well as whether the desires of a powerful few outweigh the rights of the many. These are ancient and fundamental moral questions. So why don't these stories feel like The Three Little Pigs? What's different, and how can we juggle moral issues subtly in our own work?

I think one of the main differences is that while WHAT is moral is still very clearly defined in more sophisticated stories, WHO is moral is much more unclear. In children's tales, it's easier to understand morality as a fixed part of identity. The wolf is a wolf; therefore, he is bad and does bad things. The girl is a little girl; therefore, even if she does a bad thing, she is still good at heart, still our hero. In books like Harry Potter, or in classic novels like The Lord of the Rings or Moby Dick or Wuthering Heights or The Great Gatsby, everyone knows morality is out there somewhere; but who chooses to act morally or immorally could shake out to be anyone. Sometimes Harry does the right things, and sometimes he messes up and does the wrong thing. Sometimes the good guys help Frodo in LOTR, and sometimes the good guys become doubtful or greedy and they do the wrong thing. This feels more subtle, more sophisticated, because it is more REALISTIC. All of us encounter moral questions in our lives every day, and it's very rare to find someone who is purely, intrinsically immoral. Even the kid in class who bullies or has cliques, the one who is selfish or vain or aggressive, has good days and bad days. Each new day is a chance for a new choice, and that's what we find fascinating in truly great stories.

So how do we get this excellent complex moral wrestling in our stories? Remember, it's not about WHAT is moral, it's about WHO is moral. Who is moral could change at any time; we need to feel the danger of this possibility. Even as we still feel certain that lying is wrong, we need to wonder who will be the next to lie.