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January 1, 2004

the moral value of literary themes

For several years, I've been developing a moderate version of moral particularism, which says that the appropriate things to judge are situations, choices, or events, not concepts or categories (such as lying, happiness, or justice). I am therefore skeptical about the more ambitious forms of moral philosophy, which do focus on concepts. Lately, I've become interested in literary themes as an alternative.

It's not easy to explain how any story can provide moral guidance for people who are not actually named in it. Unless one is an elderly land-owner with three daughters, it is not morally illuminating to learn that Lear should have given a third of his kingdom to Cordelia. If King Lear has moral value, the value lies in its themes, not its direct messages or "morals." Stanley Cavell demonstrates good thematic interpretation when he shows that Lear depicts several people who are moral skeptics. They refuse to act kindly toward others until they can prove to themselves that these others have good natures and that nature itself is good. This search for proof, Cavell says, is just one way of "avoiding love" that is portrayed in the play. If we wanted to base a moral rule on Lear, it would be something like this: "Act kindly without seeking ultimate reasons." But as general advice, this seems unsophisticated and unpersuasive, especially compared to the way that Shakespeare handles the "avoidance-of-love" theme in his concrete fictional world. Among other things, he shows that moral skepticism can result in distance, coldness, and cruelty.

What is a theme?

In a nice 1989 article entitled "The Story of the Moral," Roger Seamon argues that a story's theme is not some general proposition that we derive (validly or invalidly) from the words on the page. Rather, our emerging sense of a theme helps to tell us what literally is going on.

No narrative can supply sufficient information to tell us what to imagine as we read or listen. For example, the Inferno doesn't tell us about Francesca da Rimini's appearance, facial expressions, or tone of voice. Another story might fill in some of those details, but it would necessarily omit others. Thus readers must supply information, and much of it will depend on our evolving sense of the story's theme. Some readers have seen Francesca as a regal figure, suffering with dignity on account of her selfless but forbidden love; others have imagined her as a carnal sinner who refuses to acknowledge her sexual misbehavior. When she says that she and Paolo "read no more," some readers imagine a sly wink, while others are deeply offended by that very suggestion. Each camp might choose a different actress to play Francesca and would expect her to utter her lines in a different way.

As we read, we develop such assumptions and judgments, influenced by the text but not completely constrained by it. These assumptions are sometimes moral judgments, yet they influence our view of what happens in the story. (For instance, how we imagine Francesca's tone of voice depends on our interpretation of the overall themes of the Canto.) Thus, in narrative, fact and value are deeply intertwined; and it is not simply that facts imply values--the reverse is also true.

To detect a moral doctrine in Francesca's story (e.g., "Adultery is wrong") would mean reducing the text to the most trivial moral message. Yet the story is extremely challenging and useful for thinking about adultery in conjunction with related concepts or themes, including sentimentality and the abuse of literature. Because it describes a concrete case, the text can explore these ideas together, without analyzing or defining them abstractly; and then we can look for roughly similar situations in the real world.

January 1, 2004 7:55 PM | category: philosophy | Comments


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