The Moral of the Story

There is a question about art that has existed pretty much as long as art itself: should art be morally didactic? Should it teach the audience a lesson about goodness or virtue? Or is it more important to be aesthetically pleasing and/or entertaining? You can see how different cultures and individual artists have answered that question in various ways as you observe their works of art. For some, they clearly felt a moral imperative regarding the purpose of their art.The religious plays of the Middle Ages were designed to teach Bible stories and principles to a largely illiterate public. Then you have the polar opposite with the plays of the Restoration period in England, when the Puritan Protectorate was overthrown and the playwrights celebrated the end of the ban on theater by creating some of the crassest, bawdiest plays ever written.

Most artists, though, are usually somewhere in the middle. Shakespeare wrote to entertain. That was how theatre troops could make money and keep themselves running. But he also managed, in the midst of all the clever and sometimes off-color entertainment, to write some of the most insightful philosophical ruminations found in the English language. Was this because some internal force pushed him to lend his plays a moral message? I doubt it. I expect his plays are so compelling and entertaining because they have thoughtful, even moral messages. In my opinion, not only are entertainment and morality not mutually exclusive, but the most entertaining works of art are by definition moral.

But let me clarify that point. There is a difference between stories that explore moral questions, and stories that try to cram morals down the audience’s throats. We resist pure didacticism. We don’t like being preached to when we came to be entertained. And stories with a strident agenda tend to be dull, heavy-handed, or just plain badly written. I like stories that encourage me to think. I recoil from stories that tell me how to think. They should raise questions without supplying all the answers.

For example, most stories in the traditional Western format have a villain. And to present that villain as clearly villainous is making a moral statement. But the two-dimensional, moustache-twirling villain usually doesn’t make for as good a story as a complex, layered antagonist. Someone who has sympathetic motivations for their behavior, wrong though it is. I believe this helps the entertainment quality of the story and gives a better moral lesson. It’s more compelling to watch the hero grapple with a foe who’s fully-formed, believable. Their struggle becomes more meaningful. And a believable bad guy can make us examine ourselves and ask “Could I become that villain? He’s not so different from me, after all.”

Of course, the best stories are open to multiple interpretation. That’s what makes them more palatable. If the artist’s single-minded agenda is stridently clear, who wants to swallow that? But if you can take away your own message from it, it’s more empowering for the audience. I’ve read books and watched movies and come away with a message that seemed crystal clear to me, only to discover that others got a completely different message from it, sometimes even the very opposite meaning. While I do have to suppress the urge to tell them all how wrong they are and why my interpretation is the right one, I do appreciate that they’re able to own the story in their individual way. That’s a good story. Entertaining and meaningful.

The fact is, an artist’s work will always carry some sort of message. Why do we make art if not to convey meaning to others? Consciously or not, our opinions, biases and morals will seep into the art we make. Some of it, depending on your view, might be actively immoral. Some might inadvertently carry an offensive message, some might be subversive and rife with potential double-meanings. The important thing, I think, is to be conscious of it, to walk the fine balance between meaningless art and agenda-ridden screeds. Somewhere in the middle, there are stories that teach us without compelling, that make us think without forcing it.

I’ve struggled with this balance in my own work. Do my novels have messages or agendas? Some of my plotlines did, in fact, originally emerge from some philosophical or moral issue I was pondering. But once the seed starts growing, I do my best to focus on telling a good story rather than manipulating everything to prove a particular point. Of course my viewpoints still show up, and if they didn’t make an appearance my work would be pretty passionless. What I hope is that my readers can come to their own conclusions. Yes, I wrote Mortal Failings with the aim of skewering the mystique and romance surrounding the trope of the mysterious, dangerous guy, but it’s not a collection of essays about the dangers of abusive relationships. It’s a story. Hopefully a good one.

Good stories. That’s the moral of this post.