You’d think that by the horrific length of my last post, I would have had my say already on this topic, but I realized that I had assumed we all were using the same definition for “moral.”
Mb commented on the previous post, “To me there is a huge difference between theme and moral. A theme gives depth to a story, ties it together, and hopefully provokes thought. A moral comes out and says, "This is the lesson you should take away." A theme raises questions; a moral purports to give answers. When I write a story, the theme(s) tends to grow out of the story, often surprising me. Once I notice it, I might add more threads of it, but I don't start out by saying, "I'm going to write a book about loyalty now." I think some very talented authors are able to pull off a decent story despite such intentions -- but never because of them.”
I agree with every word of that insightful comment and I appreciate the distinction.
Let me give you an example of what a moral is, as I learned in a college creative class. In each episode of the old TV show, “Lassie,” Timmy would get into some kind of trouble, Lassie would save the day, and back in the family kitchen, Mom or Dad would sit Timmy down and tell him what he needed to learn from the events. “You see, Timmy, if you’d listened to me when I told you to avoid that abandoned shed, you never would have stepped on that rusty nail,” or, “You see, Timmy, when you don’t finish your chores, you end up neck-deep in quicksand,” or “You see, Timmy, not all black people are murderers.” Obviously this kind of instruction wasn’t terribly impactful, since Timmy continued in trouble for so many seasons.
If a person gets insight from a book, it’s so much more powerful if that person gleans their own message from the story itself rather than if the author offers a “You see, Timmy…” kind of summation. Like mb, I want my stories to ask questions, not force answers. I write stories that interest me, and what interests me most often is not ideas that are old and obvious, things I’m sure about, but things I’m unsure about. I write the story to understand, and I don’t want to force any conclusions I have on the reader, or I get in the way of the story. Writers who try to say what their story means are trying to seize more than their share of the storytelling, taking away from that 50% that is, in my opinion, the reader’s portion.
A theme, on the other hand, is the language of story--repeated ideas, threads of understanding, adding layers of depth. A story, I believe, should be fundamentally entertaining, but have substantial layers to explore beneath, if a reader is inclined to look. What your high school English teachers are trying to show you is that within the story itself, the author has woven questions and ideas that make the story more profound. Like mb, I never set out to write a story with a theme in mind, but as I’m writing, serendipity and grace lead me to interconnected ideas and repeated images that I began to tie together. Ack, you see how I end up talking in metaphors to try and explain!
Although I do think about themes as I write (even if I don’t think of them with that label necessarily) I am uncomfortable naming the themes in my own books. I prefer letting the reader do that. And often they won’t see the themes I struggled with, but find other themes that didn’t haunt me. That’s the magic of reading for me, and one reason why I think it’s unfortunate when someone tells a reader “You’re wrong” for what they took from the book. On one hand, in English class, you need to examine and prove your point from the text. In class, intuition is not evidence, nor should it be. But reading alone in your room, a story can inspire thoughts that aren’t in the actual text. While that may not be relevant for some English class papers, it is very cool, and one reason why I love to read.
But I fall back to the question, is an author responsible for the morals a reader takes from her book? Writing only about perfect characters who make good choices is boring--and unhelpful, really. It is instructive for me as a reader to read about characters who do things I wouldn’t and make mistakes. It’s a positive and enlightening way for me to think through it all without doing it. But when an author shows characters doing things, as a previous commentor said, that we would warn our our own child against, is that a problem? Is it okay as long as in the end we show the consequences of such actions? Not show the consequences in a didactic way, but in an honest way, a cause-and-effect way. Is the author the guardian of not only the story but what the story might teach?
In the last post, some commentors called me on using the phrase “it’s just a story,” (in a thoughtful and respectful way, I might add. Thank you.). I tried to put that phrase inside questions because I realize it’s a provocative phrase. Is there ever “just a story”? And what exactly is a story, its power, its inherent meaning? Worth considering, and perhaps the topic of a future post. I really appreciate all the great comments on this topic, because it’s not one I’m settled on myself. I think it’s complicated and abstract and worth thinking about.