The moral of the story

‘Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.’ — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

In times past, teachers, parents and moralists frowned upon fiction because it was not considered elevating writing.  It neither taught concrete skills nor high moral lessons.  By the 17th Century, writers started to find a way around that problem — they wrote books that had moral lessons.  Daniel DeFoe’s Moll Flanders may have been an R-rated picaresque adventure story, but the book’s subtitle clued the reader in to the fact that, despite the various raunchy scenes he (or she) would read, there would nevertheless be some elevating lesson by book’s end:

Moll Flanders : Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and dies a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums . . .

By the 19th Century, it was a given that, in a fiction book, the protagonist’s experiences in the book would work a change on that character, leading her (or him) to a higher moral plane — and, moreover, a plane that the reader would do well to emulate.  (Although, off the top of my head, Alexander Dumas’ utterly delightful Three Musketeers is an exception to this rule, since D’Artagnan and his fellows remain perpetual, adventurous adolescents, with no moral growth whatsoever.  Maybe that’s a French thing….)

Two of my favorite 19th Century books have very pronounced moral lessons indeed, and they remain enormously popular despite (or maybe because of — but more of that later) those lessons.  The first is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and the second is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  Both of them, no doubt, are familiar to you too, although the latter is likely more familiar to the girls than the boys reading this.

In Pride and Prejudice, as you recall, Elizabeth Bennett is so put off by Mr. Darcy’s haughty demeanor and the insults he hurls her way that she is incapable of seeing the moral virtues that underpin his character, no matter how often those virtues are called to her attention.  Likewise, she is so flattered by Mr. Wickham’s attentions that she turns a deaf ear to all warnings about the manifest moral failings in his character.  Only through some hard won life lessons is she able to view the men correctly and, once having achieved that lesson, she is entitled to her reward — marrying the good man.  (Darcy, too, learns his lesson, realizing that there is a difference between mindless pride and the ability to develop a clear-sighted opinion of someone’s true moral worth.)

In Little Women, Jo March is a wonderful, enthusiastic, energetic girl (and, eventually, woman) who gets into a lot of trouble because she runs off half-cocked all the time.  Indeed, her impetuosity results in her being denied her heart’s desire:  an all-expenses paid trip to Europe.  However, she learns that life has consolations and that they may be much better than merely getting what one wishes.  By subordinating her own uncontrolled desires to the demands of hearth and home, she enriches her own character, learns better to appreciate those around her and, of course, is entitled to her reward — marrying a good man.

The lessons in both books are pretty clear to anyone who bothers to read them.  You don’t need an advanced English degree, and hours spent analyzing symbolism and myth, or even more hours deconstructing whatever is written, to figure out the moral lessons Alcott and March were making.  Those lessons lie at the core of each book, with the stories around them intended both to entertain and to accentuate the moral the reader takes away.

If Elizabeth just had a frivolous romance with Wickham, and disliked Darcy to the end, the story would be morally stagnant, and would fall in the category of junk romance, rather than great literature.  Austen’s charming writing is made worthwhile only because of the moral steel that underlies it.  Likewise, if Jo simply frolicked from one misadventure to another, Little Women would probably remain an unknown, shallow work of 19th Century children’s fiction.  What makes it interesting are Jo’s epic struggles to subdue her immature self to realize a truly fulfilled adult life.

What irks me is that so many remakes of these two books work assiduously to hide from the reader or viewer these core moral lessons — lessons that have kept these books vital for centuries. I’ve grumbled for years about Winona Ryder’s adaption of Little Women, which is a visually beautiful movie but which completely reverses the story’s moral unpinnings.  Jo goes through the movie just trying to do what she wants, and the viewer is given to understand that it’s just so unfair when events stop her.  At one point, she explains to Professor Baehr that her father’s philosophy was something along the lines of “if it feels good do it” (and I’m quoting liberally here, because I can’t remember the actual line in the movie, just the sense of it).  At that moment in the movie, I simply shut down.  No beautiful costumes or charming scenes could make up for the fact that Winona Ryder had turned on its head the book’s actual message, which is that, if it feels dutiful, morally appropriate and mature, do it.

Pride and Prejudice has also been severely reduced.  There’s a whole new genre of books out there in which people try to write about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy after their marriage, or in which they try to update the story.  Without exceptions, these books are dismal failures and they are failures because they are morally vacuous. The marriage genre tends to have sex, sex, sex, and doesn’t even deserve consideration here.  The “remakes,” which are allowed sex because they are updated, also fail, but for different reasons.

I just slogged through one the other day, something I normally wouldn’t have done but, between a $1.29 Goodwill price tag and a long wait at a swim meet, it seemed as good a thing to do as any.  It serves as a perfect example of the failings inherent in all of these remake books.  I’m not going to embarrass the author by giving away the name of the book.  Suffice to say that the plot revolves around a modern-day woman who adores Pride & Prejudice, but who unwittingly repeats all of Elizabeth’s mistakes:  being blind to the hero’s virtues and ignoring the cad’s vices.

Aside from the bad writing, what prevented the book from being even halfway decent was the absence of any personal growth or morality.  The book’s protagonist (I can’t make myself say the word “heroine”) had no value system driving her beliefs about the two men.  At the beginning of the book, one is nice and one is mean.  By the end of the book, she’s decided that the mean one is nice and the nice one is mean, but without coming to any greater understanding of her own failings. Elizabeth Bennett, as you may recall, realized that she was culplable in grossingly misunderstanding the two men.  Darcy may have been too proud, but her quick, witty persona made her guilty of easy leaps into dangerous prejudice.

Indeed, there’s only one P&P update that comes close to catching Austen’s spirit and that is Bridget Jones.  Unlike Elizabeth, who is a woman of discernment, intelligence and wit, Bridget is a pathetic, good-natured numbskill.  However, what distinguishes Bridget’s story from the sorry legion of P&P wannabes is the fact that the story marks her self-improvement.  When she hits the abyss with the Wickham character, rather than just castigating him, she works on improving herself.  In other words, the story has a moral.  Bridget never gains any insights into her own personality, but she does stop being pathetic, thereby making herself worthy of the better man.

The larger problem, of course, is that in a values-free society, where morality cannot exist without the accusation of being “judgmental,” it’s impossible to present to people the old-fashioned moral lessons.  There is no morality, there is only your own navel compass telling you what to do.

Think, for example, of the enormously popular Disney movie High School Musical.  On the one hand, it’s mercifully harmless, without swear words, violence or in-your-face sexuality.  On the other hand, the message is clear:  all you have to do to be a good (and, more importantly) popular person is to be yourself.  But we parents know that our children’s selves, unpolished by self-discipline, morality and compassion, can be pretty ugly.

It’s the ability to look outside of ourselves, to walk away from our prejudices and abandon our base passions, that makes us decent humans.  And that’s why the great books will always be great, and the modern adaptions will be flat, pathetic and uninspiring.