Narrative Theory: A Brief Introduction


Chapter 13: Narrative and Morality


13.1 Earlier in the Book


Moral judgments are quite frequent in our response to narrative, and have been discussed a few times already in some of the earlier chapters.

●  In the chapter on characterisation for example, I spoke of our judgments of characters as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  In spite of our belief in ‘plausible’ characters who are not entirely virtuous nor evil, we still look for such morally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ aspects of  characters, and we may even attempt to classify characters as entirely ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

●  In the same chapter, I also mentioned that some characters are illustrative, in the sense that they serve the didactic function of demonstrating certain virtues or vices.

●  Moral judgments or expectations play a part not only in our response to characters, but also  in our response to point of view.  In the chapter on cinematic narrative for instance, I mentioned Sarah Kozloff's image-maker, which can be compared to  the implied author of written prose narratives, and which Kozloff views as the moral/ideological agency of what is presented in the film. We can easily extend Kozloff's view here to  the implied author of written narratives, who is also the moral agency of what is presented in  the narrative.


13.2 Ancient Origin in Aristotle


The moral dimension of the response to narrative has an ancient origin.  As we have noted before, Aristotle's approach to narrative is fundamentally ethical:

●  Aristotle’s idea of catharsis involves the idea of a moral cleansing which is experienced by members of the audience.

●  His idea of the ‘structure’ of narrative can be said to be determined by ethics, as his idea of plot is dependent on the audience's perception of the moral goodness or badness of characters (see also 13.8 below).

Aristotle has been a major early influence on the importance of the ethical dimension of narrative.


13.3 Still with Us


Although the ethical approach to narrative and to literature in general is perhaps associated with ancient or even archaic theories of literature, and is actually problematic when employed for the analysis of some modern stories (as has been pointed out by Chatman), the ethical approach to narrative is still very much alive.  It is clearly there, for instance, in Northrop Frye's approach to narrative; for example, in the essay on ‘Ethical Criticism’ in his Anatomy of Criticism. Likewise, it can be seen in the literary criticism of Wayne Booth, whose interest in the moral dimension of narrative is uppermost not only in his later works, such as The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988), but also in his apparently more technical discussion in The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). It is also very much part of the late twentieth-century interest in narrative as part of moral philosophy amongst thinkers such as Paul Ricouer, Richard Rorty, Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum.


13.4 Universality / Innateness of Morality


One of the beliefs which has been expressed in relation to the ethical approach to narrative is that man's ethical faculty is innate and universal, and narratives usually attempt to elicit moral responses which are already there in man. Aristotle for example, believes that morality is universal.  The belief in the universality of morality may result in the view that a narrative's moral aspects are there in the text itself, that these aspects are not variable, and that they do not depend on reader's views for confirmation or proof.

However, it is difficult to establish universally upheld standards of fairness, in spite of an almost universal agreement on some of the basic principles of morality. This has been pointed out in one of the more significant works of morality in twentieth-century Anglo-Saxon philosophy, John Rawls' A Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls however, seems to believe that there is a way out of this, but his view has been criticised, as it is based too closely on liberal  conceptions of justice prevalent during what is known as the Vietnam era in United States political and administrative history, and may not be universally valid.


13.5 Is Morality Separate from Aesthetics?


Another philosophical problem which is also a problem in the analysis of narrative, is whether man's ethical and aesthetic faculties are actually separate and whether aesthetics can be equated to ethics. A related question is whether the ethical criticism of art is legitimate, and whether aesthetic concerns – such as those concerning the artistic success or failure of a narrative – should touch on ethical concerns as well.  In this connection, the audience quite often expects the good characters to be rewarded at the end of the narrative, and the bad characters punished; a dénouement that works out in this way is thus regarded as both ethically and aesthetically satisfying (see section 13.8 below). In the chapter on characterisation, it is noted that villains who are supposed to be ‘bad’ sometimes have an aesthetic, instead of a moral reason for their existence as ‘bad’ characters (cf. 4.33).  It can also be noted that children, in their early responses to narrative, usually begin with aesthetic instead of ethical responses to ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ in characters or their actions.  However, these develop to responses that are more clearly based on moral judgments, which indicates that there is some basis for the separation between aesthetics and morality, and the two are not merely interlinked when it comes to the response to narrative. In recent decades, there have been some ‘politically correct’ attempts to rectify the association of moral goodness with good looks, such as the film Shrek, directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, in which the hero is dirty and ugly. Looking at the problem from another angle, it can also be noted that some morally bad characters may arouse our aesthetic interest, whereas characters who are morally good may be boring and aesthetically unsatisfying, although this is not always true in every case.


13.6 Morality and Intentionality


The moral judgment on characters' actions are usually tied to intentionality.  For example, if a character has done a morally ‘bad’ action, one asks whether he or she has the intention to do it.  If the character has the intention to do it, then he or she is morally culpable; otherwise, we minimise the character’s liability, or even, completely free him or her from blame.

Intentionality is also a consideration in the child's response to narrative, although in  ways that may be different from adults' judgment of intentionality and moral responsibility.  Younger children's response to actions in stories may be more aesthetic than ethical. It has been argued by Piaget, for example, that children's moral judgment may be more dependent on outcome than intention, or on other factors that adults do not normally consider to be within the purview of morality or not central to it.  So the ethical responsibility for one’s actions is less of a consideration for the younger child.  Accidental actions for example, may be judged in the same light as actions which are done intentionally.  However, this does not mean that there is no separation between the aesthetic and moral faculties in children's response to narrative, but that they do not have a well developed conception of moral goodness and badness. Recent studies however, have shown that children's moral judgment is actually more sophisticated than what earlier scholars such as Piaget have believed, and the factor of negligence, and not only intention, should also be taken into consideration in their moral judgment.


13.7 Intentionality and Characters’ Plans


Characters’ plans are important in a reader’s moral judgment of their actions. In this connection, we may have an advantage in our response to narrative, especially to some forms of written narrative, when compared to real life. In real life, we can understand, to a certain extent, the intentions of other people, but in some examples of written narrative, especially in omniscient third-person narratives, we can gain access to characters' plans as they are described by the narrator.  So the attribution of responsibility – and henceforth, the categorisation of the morality of an action and of the character – may be more easily made in narrative than in real life.


13.8 Morality and Plot


The perceived moral necessity for punishment or of retribution of some kind may control the plot of the narrative. This shows that morality and plot may have a close connection. We have noted above that this connection may have an ancient origin, although it may not have been discussed according to our terms. We have noted that he Aristotelian idea of the ‘structure’ of narrative can be said to be based on ethics, and that his idea of plot is determined by the audience's perception of the moral goodness or badness of characters (13.2).  In this regard, we can note that in Aristotle's theory of tragedy, his conception of catharsis is also based on the close interconnection between morality and the plot of the narrative: catharsis involves moral-cleansing, which in turn is structurally determined by the outcome of the narrative. The idea that a good plot also has a moral structure to it continues to be discussed today, not only in relation to ancient narratives, but also, according to Ari Hiltunen, in the successful writing of film scripts.


13.9 Morality and Genre


Morality also has a close connection with genre. In the previous chapter for example, we have noted that a narrative genre like allegory, which may engage in the extended use of the personification of some moral virtues or sins, is motivated by ethical considerations. The ethical nature of the morality play is evident from the very term used for this genre of medieval drama. We can also add here that in a genre like the fable, the 'moral' of the narrative is usually clearly stated.