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The Moral of the Tale -- by Nerissa McCormick

Everyone knows stories with morals. Disney's fairy tale adaptations are some of the best examples of this genre. (And if a fairy tale doesn't have a moral, someone will shoehorn one in somewhere.) Some stories weave the moral in subtly. Others are as subtle as a punch in the face. But there's nothing inherently wrong with a story having a moral.

The problem begins when people see morals where there aren't any.

Two examples from my own experience:

Last year I wrote a short story about a fairy who steals clocks. I'd no purpose in writing it except to entertain. But when I showed it to a friend, the first thing she said was, "What's the moral?"

For this year's NaNoWriMo, I'm planning a fantasy/mystery story which features a ghost, a werewolf, and a monster. I was discussing the plot with a friend when someone else -- who's an English teacher, which might explain it -- asked, "What lesson do you want this story to teach?"

"I don't want to teach any lesson," I told him. "It's just a mystery with monsters."

He didn't believe me. He said, "Every story must teach something!"

I did some reading, and discovered this is an attitude that's become increasingly widespread. Many people seem to think that unless your story teaches its readers something, there's no point in writing it.

I politely but firmly disagree with them.

A book can be good without teaching a moral. What moral does A Tale of Two Cities teach? "Never go to France or you'll have to die in another man's place"? What about Pride and Prejudice? "Marry someone who once insulted you, but only after they save your family from disgrace"? Or The Lord of the Rings? "Never pick up a ring you found in a cave or you'll start a war over the fate of the world"?

Obviously, these books don't have a central moral. And all of them are rightly considered classics. So the idea that a book must teach something is clearly wrong.

I suspect the people with this idea are confusing "moral" with "theme". Yes, the majority of stories should have a theme. Though there are plenty of stories out there without a theme which became popular anyway. Twilight, anyone? And there are genres where themes are unnecessary -- mystery novels, for example, usually don't have a theme beyond inviting the reader to solve the mystery along with the detective.

To reuse the example of the three books mentioned earlier, what's the theme of A Tale of Two Cities? "Recalled to life"/"I am the resurrection and the life" and the idea of coming back from (metaphorical) death are repeated multiple times through the book. What about Pride and Prejudice? Obviously, it's "first impressions can be misleading". At first Elizabeth thinks Darcy is a jerk and Wickham is a decent guy. By the end her opinion is the exact opposite. And The Lord of the Rings? Whole books have been written on its themes.

Returning to the subject of morals, should a story have a moral?

In my opinion, this is entirely for the author to decide. If you want to write a story with the moral "beauty is only skin deep" or "don't judge a book by its cover", that's up to you. But you'd better be careful not to hit the reader over the head with the moral. People who go to church want to be preached at. People who read books usually don't.

On the other hand, if you don't want your story to have a moral, that's also up to you. And without one, you're free to write your story however you want without worrying if it ever contradicts the moral. Far too many books out there ignore the lessons they claim to teach.

But whether the author intends to their story to have a moral or not, please don't assume every story must have one.

Posted by Nerissa McCormick 20 Oct 2018 at 01:36
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Responses to this blog

Tonin 20 Oct 2018 at 15:23  
I'm curious why you consider "first impressions can be deceiving" to be a theme, but "don't judge a book by its cover" to be a moral? They seem to convey the same meaning, the only difference being that the warning in the first is implicit, while the second is explicit.

Several of the other examples seemed odd to me as well, particularly the argument that LotR doesn't have a central moral. From my point of view, LotR practically drips with the message that it's worthwhile to sacrifice yourself for the greater good.

Perhaps you could clarify your definition of what themes and morals are?
Seanuyb 20 Oct 2018 at 20:51  
I also know a handful of people who won't read a book unless they know it has some inner meaning within the story (not necessarily a moral). I agree that books don't need a moral lesson but I think the vast majority of them would benefit from a theme (even if that theme isn't deep).

I think any story that replicates human life will naturally produce a theme even if the author didn't initially intend to make one. Every romance novel has their own definition/insight on love. Some mystery novels may show the social structures of the people involved. I think its natural for the reader to search for a theme given that mist stories out there have a theme, even if that theme is not explored in-depth.

After all, isn't the nature of human beings to find meaning and learn from anything and everything? Especially with books.

Jewells64 21 Oct 2018 at 05:40  
Hell, I’ve sat in church and listened to sermons that didn’t have a moral. Children’s Fables have morals, and authors who set out to write fiction with morals usually do so at their own risk. Morals or messages—metaphors, really—need to be used with care. Cervantes’s metaphor in Don Quixote wasn’t advising us not to tilt with windmills, but to criticize the Crown. He used a crazy fool as a messenger so he didn’t get his ass arrested.
Rellrod 22 Oct 2018 at 19:22  
Tolkien himself made a distinction (Foreword to LotR) that somewhat parallels Nerissa's. "As for any inner meaning or 'message,' it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. . . . I cordially dislike allegory in all of its manifestations . . . I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author."

Tonin 23 Oct 2018 at 02:05  
I suspect Tolkien was either unaware of the messages he was encoding into the work, or held a definition of 'message' that excluded them.

LotR is littered with characters making decisions and facing the consequences of them (as is basically all fiction). Despite his protestations, the work isn't history, and the course of events was chosen, consciously or not, by the author. How events unfold in the story is an overlapping tangle of messages about how he thought the world worked, and the values he placed on different things.

Those messages run on countless levels, but the largest and most obvious boils down to the hero accepting a quest he believes is needful, even though he knows he'll be harmed by it (lost time if nothing else). Ultimately, the quest is shown as successful, affirming the rightness and nobility of the hero's thought process. It's a moral, or a message, or whatever you want to call those sorts of things. I suspect the vast majority of readers are aware of its presence and take pleasure from the way it reinforces their beliefs, even if they don't recognize the message at a conscious level.

It's not just Tolkien, either; nearly all fiction contains messages about the author's values, with the implicit (or sometimes explicit) suggestion that the reader should share them. Encoding your world view is almost unavoidable in the act of writing.

That's my take on the subject, anyway. It's possible that other people define moral and message in such a way that what I've said here doesn't apply. I'm pretty sure the concept is valid, though, even if agreeing on the words to describe it may be ticklish.
Tommigirl 23 Oct 2018 at 06:01  
I totally agree with the author of this blog. A story does not have to have a moral. I've written one myself, a short Christmas story, that was for no other purpose than good humor. To the best of my knowledge it was received as such.
Readers may search the content for a take away thought, moral, but in doing so may have missed the point...humor.
Onalimb 23 Oct 2018 at 06:33  
It's been decades since I read "A Tale of Two Cities" but if I recall correctly, the theme—or the moral, if you prefer, as if has moralistic implications—is that one city ignores the other at its peril. The hopeful part of the message is that the city, and by extension the country, can be resurrected in a new form.

In any reading, there are two minds involved. The author's assumptions, prejudices, and ideas certainly influence the direction a story takes, but the reader's assumptions, prejudices, and ideas also influence his/her interpretation of the text. It's possible to go overboard in trying to dig out meaning (sometimes, the curtains are just blue) and sometimes theme falls out of a story, rather than being deliberately introduced by the author. Trying to purposely avoid it, however, suggests to me that it will also avoid the things that make a story resonate with the reader. It can work in a short story, but without some emotional hold, I'd expect it to be difficult to sustain a reader's interest.

Alice90 26 Oct 2018 at 08:42  
I just came from gothamwriter website and they also basically said the same thing. You are totally right that the story does not need to have meaning. Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz was not intended to have a meaning but it definitely has a theme. And like you said, people tend to shoehorn meaning when there aren't any. Most people just think that they know the meaning of the book and judge people who write it even though the author said nothing about moral or teaching something. Unfortunately for some reason, people seem to want every story to act as a teaching moment, forgetting why we create fiction in the first place (to entertain). Most old fairy tales are said to have bad morals, dismissing any possibility that the story was not meant to teach but a mere entertainment. Most people think the moral of Wizard of Oz meant there is no place like home even though L Frank Baum already said that the story was for entertainment only and has no moral. And yet that didn't stop people from examining the meaning behind it. The author of Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, also reject the utilitarian idea when he wrote Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The stories are no more than the combination of rhymes and poem that he recited for Alice Liddle but due to the insistence of the later, he decided to release the book. The complex poem, vocabulary, and plot make a lot of literary critics gone nuts. People keep searching for the meaning of that book until today not knowing there is no meaning behind it. Some just give up and decided to make an adaptation that have a generic plot like Wizard of Oz or Peter Pan (Disney remake).

Alice90 26 Oct 2018 at 08:45  
Nerrisa, next time if any of your friends asking for moral again just ask them back "what do you think the moral is?" If they keep insisting they just said "I don't know, never think one." it happens to me and it drives them nuts. I am sorry this sounds mean. It just that a lot of people using my writing to keep judging me even though they never met me personally or know what my life looked like.
Alice90 26 Oct 2018 at 13:07  
"Those messages run on countless levels, but the largest and most obvious boils down to the hero accepting a quest he believes is needful, even though he knows he'll be harmed by it (lost time if nothing else). Ultimately, the quest is shown as successful, affirming the rightness and nobility of the hero's thought process. It's a moral, or a message, or whatever you want to call those sorts of things. I suspect the vast majority of readers are aware of its presence and take pleasure from the way it reinforces their beliefs, even if they don't recognize the message at a conscious level"

that is a nice interpretation. But you forgot one thing. This is your own words, not the author. This is how you view it through your lens and your prejudice and your experience that influence you how you view the story. Just like the OP said of how some people shoehorning moral when there is none, this is the moral that you shoehorning to the novel even if there is probably none. A moral is a message that you got at the end of the story. Things that the story try to teach you or convert you or indoctrinate you. For example: "Be good and you will be rewarded", ". A theme is a topic or the concept of the story. Example: bigotry, death, reincarnation, fight for freedom, heartbreak, the power of love. Like the bone for your story. Example: In Wizard of Oz movie the theme is "Searching for a way home" and the moral (The book don't have it though) "There is no place like home" or "Home is the best place" or etc.
Éirinnj 28 Oct 2018 at 16:44  
From reading previous responses, I get the feeling that Tonin was right in thinking that not everyone defines a moral or message in the same way. Some people seem to think it has to be something that the author deliberately put into the story. Can a moral not simply be something that the reader can take away from the story, regardless of whether the author intended it to be there? (This is just a supposition) If we take this definition, there's always a moral to a story, always something something to take away even if it's light-hearted. While I don't stand for the approach of your whole story having to be built around a central lesson, I don't think it hurts to step back and see what you're saying through your story, because we can often say one heck of a lot without meaning to.
Venlik 9 Nov 2018 at 08:50  
Let them find the deeply hidden( i.e. non-existent) lesson in your story.

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