All Satisfying Stories Have Morals: A Reader’s Critical Perspective

Simple stories for children, like the Brothers Grimm’s “Cinderella,” seem to have obvious themes that are also morals, instructions on how one should and should not behave. I have used these fairy tales as fictions that are easy for my high school students to analyze critically. We have looked at the stories and decided which characters are winners, those who end the story in better position than they started it, and which characters are losers who end up worse off.

This approach seemed too simple to use for more modern, psychologically complex stories. But as I’ve been thinking about how to best teach my students to analyze Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” (see also here and here), it occurred to me the other day that most traditional stories also can be analyzed by making a distinction between the morally good characters — those who get rewarded — and the morally bad characters, who get punished.

By traditional stories, I mean those stories that have a consistent point of view and tone (so it’s clear to readers what’s “really” happening in the story and how we readers are supposed to feel about it) to convey a sequence of events that can be causally explained by reference to the characters’ given traits and chosen actions.

For example, “Of Mice and Men” is a traditional story. Not that we can predict the outcome from the beginning (though there are strong hints that things will not end well for George and Lennie — and without these mood-hints, the dramatic ending may seem unbelievably abrupt), but once we get to the resolution, we can trace back the causes. Everything that happens has a cause based in the characters’ natures and their actions. George shoots Lennie because Lennie killed Curley’s wife. Lennie killed her because he thought she would get him in trouble, as he has gotten in trouble before. If he got in trouble, he wouldn’t be able to get the rabbits he hoped to tend. He wants rabbits because he seemed to have an obsession with soft things, which obsession also leads to his conflict with and killing of Curley’s wife.

Everything is explainable. There are no random acts in this story. (Stories that do have random acts are not the traditional type of stories I’m talking about.) If Lennie had gotten killed by a rattlesnake after killing Curley’s wife, that would not be directly caused by a character’s choice, and so this wouldn’t feel like a satisfying ending to readers.

And I want to suggest that satisfying endings are those that grow out of human causes — human decisions. Characters had to be free to choose their actions, so that they deserve their consequences. This is what makes stories satisfying — consequences are direct result of human choices. We readers can ask what choices the characters made, or could have made, and this can help reveal the behaviors that earn consequences. The metaphysical implication here is that we are in control of our lives, our fates.

But, of course, in real life, it does not seem that we are not in control of all aspects of our lives. Sometimes things happen to us. Perhaps we read traditional stories so as to, for a time, enjoy the feeling that events can make sense. Traditional stories are appealing because random things do not happen, and because fairness and justice are served, unlike in real life, where sometimes bad deeds go unpunished, innocent people get killed by drunk drivers, and people disappear without a trace. Hell, in real life, we don’t always even know what the right decision is.

And so these traditional stories can be satisfying. Sometimes, though, these stories may seem artificial, false — altogether too tidy, not life-like. And so there are other stories — stories told from multiple points of view, stories that end ambiguously, stories where random things happen, stories where the good guys lose. Though these stories may better resemble what really seems to happen in life, these stories tend to not be satisfying. I often get frustrated by the predictability of traditional stories, but I also wonder what is the point of reading a nontraditional story that is just as messy as real life.

A story that isn’t traditional won’t have a clear meaning, because it’s more like life and life doesn’t have clear meanings — because meaning doesn’t reside in physical things, but only in consciousnesses.

(Perhaps I cannot be satisfied by reading fiction. My friends who enjoy fiction more than I do tell me they appreciate the journey of the reading experience — they enjoy being absorbed into the story, spending time with the author’s voice, perhaps, or seeing how the narrator makes variations on the usual storytelling conventions to avoid being too predictable. Maybe I just read too much for theme to enjoy these other aspects of fiction. But if an author’s gonna ask me to read a couple hundred pages and pretend that these characters are real people, it better be worth my time. There’s a Kurt Vonnegut quote about giving readers a plot by which he can make his ideas more palatable, but sometimes I wonder why Vonnegut doesn’t just give us his ideas without the machinery of characters and plot.)

So it had never occurred to me until recently how must stories that we enjoy reading serve an ancient, eye-for-an-eye sort of morality. I should be careful not to overextend my analysis to all traditional stories, but I suspect this would be a critical perspective that might work. I hadn’t thought that so many stories could be analyzed from a punishment/reward perspective, but maybe traditional stories are that simple, and are satisfying for — but are also limited by — that simplicity.

Afterthoughts: Here are some related ideas I want to convey, but didn’t want to clutter up the above discussion.

* Traditional stories have human characters, or characters with human-like consciousness. They tend not to have, say, animals-qua-animals, or trees, or shoes, as main characters. I suspect that this is because satisfying stories really require choices to be made. Narratives where a character is just acted upon might not seem so satisfying. Morality only involves human choices; nature is amoral, beyond moral, because animals and trees can’t make moral choices. They live not by choice but by their natures, their instincts.

* I mentioned above an “eye-for-an-eye” morality, which implies an Old Testament idea; this prompts the question what a New Testament, “turn the other cheek” story would be like. Would that be dull, because the point is to avoid conflict?

* Characters: There’s a weird dual nature to fictional characters. They are just ideas, of course, but in that way, they are not so different from those real people we know but who aren’t currently in our presence. Characters must be real-seeming enough for us to care about them, particularly in a drama that doesn’t want to be laughed at — and yet, some of my students may have reacted to George shooting Lennie with (perhaps nervous) laughter. We readers of fiction books and viewers of fiction movies can’t feel too strongly about characters, or we’d feel too strongly to watch people get killed in action or horror movies. At some level, we know characters are merely ideas and not real, but we need to see them as real if we are to take the work seriously. There’s a duality here to our understanding of characters.

* So much of fiction requires conflict, and so it sets mutually hostile characters into revealing situations. This can feel artificial at times. It’s not unlike what reality shows like “Big Brother” do — “let’s put a bunch of terrible people into an enclosed space and watch them do terrible things to each other,” as the producers might say.

* The meanings that stories often present — what choices and behaviors are good and should be rewarded, and which are bad and should be punished — these can sometimes seem arbitrary. The meanings I find even in my own experiences may change over time.

* It’s easy for us to see some traits — mutual respect, kindness, fairness, for example — as generally good, and other traits — greed, selfishness, disregard — as bad. But beyond these, I wonder how many qualities seen as good are simply cultural or situational. For example, I wonder if the resource waste and pollution that I take for granted in my life — or, I feel a little bad about it but I figure that it’s too hard for me to live without fossil fuels, say — will come later to be seen as terribly bad qualities.

* Steinbeck makes Curley’s wife seem like a bad character. The other characters complain about her, and when she talks, she says terrible things (like threatening Crooks with lynching). But somehow this makes her seem like she was partly to blame for her own murder, and I’m not comfortable with “blame the victim” mentality. One wonders how she would tell this story from her point of view. She certainly wouldn’t have lived to see Lennie killed.

* We know the main conflict is resolved when the story ends — this is partly how we know that “Of Mice and Men” is the story of Lennie’s demise. George keeps living after, but Lennie does not. This is the end of their relationship. In a way, the resolution is George choosing to shoot Lennie, and yet, this is the resolution to a much earlier problem — why George brought Lennie to this ranch in the first place. Readers want to see how the set-up, how the main conflict, turns out. A story that sets up a situation but does not resolve it is not going to be satisfying.

* Sometimes a story doesn’t end. For example, the TV version of “Game of Thrones,” which story kills off important characters, and so then I feel like this must not have been Ned’s story, or Rob’s story — I must not have understood whose story this really is, who the main chars are. When a story goes on and on, it’s tediously unsatisfying — again, it starts to seem like real life, and yet real history has at least the ending of the present moment.  If one reads English history from a thousand years ago, there’s a lot of it, yet you know that it stops at the present moment. With “Game of Thrones,” it’s not clear that it will ever end. The books that would end the story haven’t even been written yet, and once a story goes on for so long, it seems it would be difficult to have an ending that is meaningful enough to justify the duration of the story. (See also “Lost.”)

* Steinbeck says he based Lennie on a person who killed someone, but did not get killed and instead went to an asylum. So I wonder why Steinbeck decided to have a story where it seems OK for the George character to make the decision to take Lennie’s life instead? Why did Steinbeck change the story in this way — because it provides a better sense of “divide justice” than if Lennie just gets locked up?

* Though a published narrative is fixed and unchanging, I think it is a valid critical technique to ask what options the characters had each time they made a decision. Even if George and Lennie didn’t have good options, they had options. They had to, if they are to be held responsible for their actions. And in a way, “Of Mice and Men” seems like the story is told, seemingly from George’s point of view (the narration is third person, but George is the only character we see from the beginning of the story to the end), as if it were George’s justification for his decision to shoot Lennie (though the story offers George a self-defense claim when Carlson suggests that George took the gun from Lennie, and George, knowing this is false, agrees). This entire story, then, can be seen as an argument for when a person might be justified in taking another person’s life out of love for that person. I’m still not sure this argument works, however. The story seems to draw a parallel between George shooting Lennie and Carlson shooting Candy’s dog — but of course, Lennie is a person, not a dog.

* We readers find happy endings satisfying when the characters have earned them by some means (even if that means is just by suffering, as Cinderella seems to). But an unearned happy ending isn’t satisfying. If someone struggling with poverty suddenly wins the lottery, that would be a “deus ex machina” and would feel like the author is too heavy-handedly forcing things. That’s not satisfying. A traditional story could be satisfying if it would have an unpredictable thing — lottery winnings, earthquake — happen at the beginning of the story, and then it could show how the characters react to these things.

* Another example of how we like to find control in our lives is when we hear that someone got a diagnosis of cancer, and we think of reasons that person did something to cause that disease.  We might say or think, “well, he WAS a smoker” — as if we’re looking for ways to protect ourselves — ” I won’t get lung cancer bec. I’m not a smoker,” when that’s not always true, of course. This is a terrible, petty thing to think, but we sometimes want to understand the world and feel we’re in control — it’s disturbing to our human consciousnesses to realize how much we do not control (our genes, our environments, other people who might hurt us, etc.).

* Simplistic stories sometimes make the bad characters simply, evilly bad — bad without an understandably human motivation. I prefer to think of most bad characters as not just evil but merely self-interested — more mafioso than demon. Cinderella’s stepmom doesn’t mistreat her out of pure meanness, but because she wants to advance her own daughters’ fortunes over Cinderella’s. I once had a student who said, somewhat plaintively, “But my stepmom is nice,” and I said, yes, in real life, lots of stepmoms are nice. But as characters whose interests may be suspect anyway, stepmoms can play that role of antagonist (as opposed to, say, making a mother herself opposed to her children, as was the mother in early versions of “Hansel and Gretel.” That’s just too monstrous to consider). My wife pointed out that conflicts over resources remain a significant fact for a lot of people in the world — it’s the stability of our American political/industrial/military power that allows so many of us in this country to take so many of our basic needs for granted. (As I mentioned above, this “taking for granted” may turn out to be a bad trait on our part.)

* And what IS good? Lots of modern fictional shows have anti-heroes — “Breaking Bad,” “Sopranos” — why do people watch those? (I choose not to. For entertainment, I usually watch comedy, shows that imply the world isn’t so bad.  I don’t want to spend my time and attention on grim stuff when I see so much of that in the news and in my students’ lives.) Do we come to have some respect for these anti-heroes, even if we disagree with their goals? Do we respect their code of conduct — efficiency, effectiveness, loyalty — even if their goals are selling drugs. But I’ve heard some drug gangs’ operations are similar to those of legitimate businesses, and some businesses do morally questionable things as a matter of normal actions.  We don’t really know whether we’re good — until we get judged in Heaven? Is that all we really wanna know, if we’re good or not? We know we’ve done bad things but we want redemption? — are these the reasons we find traditional stories satisfying — we can compare ourselves against these bad characters to feel OK about ourselves?

Addendum:

* Stories that are not traditional — those stories with multiple narrators, or random events, or ambiguous endings — do not contain meaning about theme and character so much as they present meanings about story structure itself. Update 16 Feb.: In the 10 Feb. 2014 New Yorker magazine (paywalled, but here), James Woods describes as “the full, familiar postmodern quiz-kit” these “metafictional questions” in a fiction work: “truth-telling, the veracity of representation, the coherence of the self, language’s relation to silence, and what we mean by innocently talking about fictional ‘characters’ as if they were real people.” These, Woods seems to say, are the markers of stories that aren’t really about characters and events but are about the philosophy and practice of storytelling itself.

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