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Craft of Writing, Fiction, Social Comment, The Writer's Life

Is There a Place for Morality in Modern Fiction?

Fiction has traditionally pushed the boundaries of morality by questioning the worth and rights of the individual in comparison to the dictates of society and culture. That’s as it should be. But recently I’ve started to look more closely at how current fiction deals with morality in an increasingly individualistic and secular world.

By triggering readers’ imaginations and sympathies, fiction opens the door to a discussion of what is permissible in our public and private lives; what is just and what injustices should be addressed.

In the past, authors dealt with these issues by portraying characters who illustrated the struggles that an oppressive social or political order forces them to endure. Today, at least in the literary journals I read, characters seem more concerned with personal growth than societal change. I see this as emblematic of the shift in fiction’s focus over my lifetime: finding oneself as opposed to finding one’s place among others. This, in itself, is a reflection of the shift in our cultural values, and a rejection of long-held principles. A substantial part of the moral component has been removed.

Les MiserablesThe question comes from my third viewing of the movie Les Miserables, which is now available on cable. I choke up every time Hugh Jackman sings the refrain, “Who Am I?” one of the deeply philosophical themes expressed in Victor Hugo’s book of 1862[1]. The song lyrics in this case echo the Biblical concepts of unworthiness and moral truth—Jean Valjean ultimately cannot bring himself to benefit from the imprisonment of another man in his place, even though that imprisonment would free him from an unjust situation imposed on him by a corrupt system.

I know why I cry. The lessons of Catholic humility ingrained in me by family and religion, which I like to think I left behind years ago but which nonetheless turn up consistently in my stories come accusingly back with those three words. Who am I to profit from the misfortune of another; who am I to judge, as Pope Francis recently and famously said.

What has changed in the way writers think about morality? Is it no longer important? Or has the paradigm shifted so far I simply don’t recognize it? In its way is a book like 50 Shades of Grey a study of moral dilemma as much as a psychological one?

Maybe today’s writers are commenting by not commenting.

I don’t necessarily see this as a question of religious dogma, although its basis is in theology. Writers can also (and usually) make this a philosophical and secular debate, and that is the way I prefer it, despite the connection to my catechismic (cataclysmic?) upbringing.

Here’s what Hugo said about Les Mis:

[it is] … a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.

His decision to base the story on those moral underpinnings was conscious. Few writers today would plan a story or novel to reflect such blatant moral/religious themes. But every writer’s core beliefs are embedded in the subconscious, and find their way to the text in themes, characters and plot. Those beliefs are based less and less on the morals of past generations. I honestly don’t know if this is a good or bad (or indifferent) development.

After all, who am I to judge?

Note: Obviously there’s a lot more that could be written about this. For some insightful analyses of the moral themes at play in Les Mis, here are a couple of sources:



[1] I’ve ordered the book, all 1500 pages of it. Hugh Jackman read it twice; I can at least give it one read.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


17 thoughts on “Is There a Place for Morality in Modern Fiction?

  1. I was reading an essay on endings, and saw this within: “The literary theorist Jack Zipes says that fairy tales, which came along in the 17th century, were “a type of literary discourse about mores, values, and manners so that children would become civilized according to the social code of that time. Within every story with a moral was a story with resolution. The role of literature has changed over the centuries, and it no longer carries the burden of reinforcing our social structure and codes of behavior.”


    No longer needs to reinforce social structure or behavior. Sadly, this makes it sounds like we humans have it all figured out.

    Posted by Teri | September 7, 2013, 2:37 PM
    • The fact that literature “no longer carries the burden of reinforcing our social structure and codes of behavior” seems to come from our continuing distrust of the people at the top of that social order, who always seem to have their own interests at heart. But is abandoning codes of behavior a proper response to corrupt authority? I can only wonder.

      Posted by jpon | September 7, 2013, 3:45 PM
  2. A very important discussion, Joe. I too was wrenched by that film and decided to reread some old favorites. So many told by an omniscient narrator, which I enjoy, but my agent informs me is out of style. On the page perhaps, but not on the small screen—Breaking Bad delivers as well as Sophocles if you like dramatic karma lodes. And I do. Because I believe no matter how strong the narcissist periphery the social center gathers round a hearth of WE, not I. And we believe as Kant suggested that man is an end, in and of himself, Not a tool to be used toward another’ goal.

    Posted by joplingirl | September 7, 2013, 4:30 PM
    • My wife is totally into Breaking Bad. I will have to take a look, but I understand I’d better start from the beginning (she says). Whatever is happening in fiction, I think you have a point regarding real life, that people still want to have that sense of belonging. But to be honest, I don’t think that kind of story is too popular in the literary world. Thanks for commenting.

      Posted by jpon | September 7, 2013, 9:19 PM
  3. I think you’re just touching the tip of the iceberg, though in a thoughtful and intelligent way. People used to be responsible themselves for what their children learned, at home, and no, I’m not referring to corporal punishment. Now it seems the schools are to blame for everything the children don’t learn to do appropriately, including following good examples. Is it any wonder that the same is true in fiction? I myself look to comedy for hope, because when people in a group are laughing at some course of behavior they find ridiculous, they are building a consensus about what is right and fitting, and what isn’t. So, rather than taking a deep interest in tragedy–though I do like all kinds of drama and fiction, almost–which has always or nearly always glorified the individual, I pin my hopes on comedy and satire to bring us through the dark: when people are sharing a good joke (and I purposely leave out malicious and anti-social humor such as prejudiced jokes), they are agreeing about something that needs to be articulated in order to have a civilization work. And now I’ve said my say, so I’ll shut up.

    Posted by shadowoperator | September 8, 2013, 7:08 AM
    • Interesting. Comedy (and satire) does need targets, though. Maybe in this politically correct world we’ve created we can’t even make fun of the bad guys anymore.

      Posted by jpon | September 8, 2013, 10:29 PM
      • Well, my thoughts on that are that even the best of men and women have something in their makeup that’s funny. We can all stand to be made fun of a little, and it still operates as a societal corrective, I think.

        Posted by shadowoperator | September 9, 2013, 12:37 PM
  4. Wow – great questions, Joe, for which I wonder if there is a right answer. In my study of writing for children and teens, many markets state in their submissions guidelines that stories with “heavy-handed moral themes” will be rejected outright. The message can be embedded in a character’s actions or in the story’s takeaway theme, but don’t make it a soapbox or try to project a moral opinion onto readers.

    Maybe this discussion goes along with the Americanization of the world at large. The right of the individual is a founding principle of our Constitution, and this value is reflected in every aspect of American life, including popular culture, which is available around the world through books, films, plays, etc. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. I think of the rights of the LGBT community, which only a few decades ago were subverted completely. Even discussing it was taboo. Perhaps the increasing visibility of gay & lesbian characters in pop culture has aided in the progress.

    Posted by Gwen Stephens | September 9, 2013, 3:04 PM
    • Thanks, Gwen. I’m certainly not arguing for soapboxes and polemics. Nor am I making the case for any kind of value standard (we have the right wingers to do that job). As I said, one of fiction’s responsibilities is to push the moral envelope, to get people to question if their values keep others down. That certainly seems to be a common and powerful subtext in many children’s stories. But many times I have trouble seeing what the value at stake is in a piece of fiction, apart from personal validation. Maybe that’s the answer.

      Posted by jpon | September 9, 2013, 10:05 PM
  5. Thanks for this. This is a rich area of inquiry and thought. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued that literature and art help us learn “love’s knowledge” — in other words we need art to learn empathy for others. Philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer argues that art and lit in particular asks us ethical questions that we can’t ignore and that stay with us as we try to figure out repeatedly who we are and what we stand for. I think your response to “Who am I?” gets at that dynamic precisely. Camus wrote that art was a kind of spiritual union, and this from an atheist! No matter what you believe, there seems to be a historical and sociological strong connection between art and spirituality — surely there’s no coincidence that the earliest word art is connected to religious ritual. Have we lost that? It depends. The problem of ethics, the questioning of how should we live, persists in Nathan Englander, and in George Saunders, who are the inheritors of Dickens and Hugo, as well as in our own teachers Kathleen Alcala and Ana Maria Spagna. As a sidebar, I’ll share that I wrote about the movie when it came out, and a lively conversation ensued (that you took part in!). I’m sharing that link here: http://stephaniebarbehammer.net/tag/victor-hugo/

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | September 10, 2013, 4:57 AM
    • I had, I admit, forgotten about your post. And I see that since I was the first to comment I missed much of the great conversation that followed (until now). It’s fascinating to me how philosophers and artists through history have understood the connection between art and spirituality–without that, I think, attempts at writing and art are meaningless exercises in self-aggrandizement, interesting as barometers of cultural climate, but not interesting in and of themselves. Thanks, as always, for commenting.

      Posted by jpon | September 10, 2013, 12:02 PM
  6. As stories carry more and more anti-heroes it is clear that “man” is now an island separate and distrustful of a society that betrays the individual for a different individual’s greater good. The more inward the readers move the less they care about the greater socialistic morality in their literature.

    Posted by Kevin Stewart | September 10, 2013, 2:29 PM
    • it’s interesting how the anti-hero/unreliable narrator has become a feature of 20th and 21st century narrative, at least written in the English language. Yet, isn’t the ethical questioning still there, though? Even books like American Psycho contain important moments of asking the reader about their own relationship to money, ambition, violence, hatred, it seems to me.

      Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | September 10, 2013, 3:22 PM
    • I understand why readers have moved away from a distasteful social order, but by moving inward and abandoning the larger society’s version of morality, aren’t those readers becoming smaller versions of the self-centered people they’re trying to get away from? The goal may be different, but the reality is the same–it’s all about me! The morality in literature that I’m talking about admits society is screwed up and suggests to readers that they get more involved to try to change it.

      Posted by jpon | September 11, 2013, 9:52 AM
      • I agree that this inward turning — particularly among American readers — is a problem, and it’s not just literary. But the pushback is also interesting, when we think about writers like Juan Felippe Herrera and even the Philippa Gregory books. Although they are very pop (if not pulp), the WHITE QUEEN books really make some interesting political and ethical observations. I think the big problem, as we have all discussed earlier, is getting good books to the people — which is not so easy.

        Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | September 11, 2013, 3:43 PM
      • Yes, too many choices and too much marketing. Even when I want to care and get involved, it can be overwhelming. I signed a petition on Change.org a couple of months ago for something I felt strongly about. Now I get a plea from them every day. Perhaps the solution is to become a secular monk–do good works and have time to write.

        Posted by jpon | September 11, 2013, 4:56 PM

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