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