Ordinary Villainy, Or How I Learned To Appreciate The Moralizing Of Realistic Fiction

One of the aspects of realistic fiction that is often appreciated by literary scholars is that realistic fiction is less moralistic than melodrama, which often explicitly punished those characters that transgressed moral and social codes. Yet there is still moralizing that goes on in realistic fiction, but it is often of a more subtle variety than we may able to recognize. One of the values of literature is that it can prepare people to deal with the difficulties and issues of living in a fallen world full of trouble and struggle. The moralizing of melodramatic fiction is heavy-handed and obvious, in that it seeks to scare readers straight into following the rules and avoiding the sort of trouble comes when one’s feelings and thoughts and behaviors escape self-control. It is easy to pillory moralizing fiction for punishing the immoral in an extreme fashion, showing such people dying of consumption or sexually transmitted diseases after having lived a life of sin and dissipation, but even realistic fiction has moral purposes. These moral purposes are more complex, they recognize that in this life, under the sun, in a world that is full of wicked and powerful people, that evil is not always punished.

At this point a digression is useful. The Bible is without a question a moral book, but it is also equally clearly a realistic and not a melodramatic book in terms of its approach. Repeatedly in the Bible, the reader is presented with the brutal and cynical reality of power and the way that morally sensitive individuals are distressed by the gap between the behavior of the wicked and the fate of the wicked. Indeed, those characters, like the disciples before receiving the Holy Spirit, the Pharisees of the Gospels, and Job’s three hapless friends, who argue for such a melodramatic connection between Job’s suffering and a resulting inference of his great wickedness, are condemned explicitly in the biblical text for making that connection. The morality of the Bible is not a morality that assumes that evil will be punished in a proportionate manner in this life. Justice is elusive. Sometimes the evil die wealthy in their palatial mansions from ill-gotten gains and sometimes the virtuous live short and miserable lives–think of the fate of David’s daughter Tamar or Uriah the Hittite, for example. That’s the way that life goes in a fallen world. The Bible’s perspective is a realistic one, and its morality is therefore more complicated than it is often given credit for, because it is meant explicitly to give us guidance on how to live in a complicated and fallen world.

Continuing on to the point of fiction, rather than scripture, let us ponder an aspect of moralizing that realistic fiction helps us to engage in. The novels of Jane Austen are famously realistic fiction. No matter how odious and obnoxious Mr. Collins is, he is still going to inherit Longbourne. No matter how avaricious and grasping John and Fanny Dashwood are, they still have a large estate of about 5000 pounds a year to pass on to their spoiled son. But there is still moralizing that goes on. Elizabeth Bennet frets over the harm that will happen to herself and her sisters because of the lack of virtue of Lydia in running off with Mr. Wickham. To be sure, the worst does not come to pass, but Elizabeth’s concerns are not unreasonable. Catherine Moreland in Northanager Abbey is tweaked for her fondness for Gothic novels, but she correctly intuits that General Tilney is an evil man. He is not a Gothic villain (unlike, say, Heathcliff), but he is an abusive husband and father and his conduct in forcing Catherine to make her way home on a Sunday unaccompanied is properly viewed as horrible behavior as a host. He is an everyday villain, of the kind that someone might encounter in the course of one’s life, and realistic fiction can help us to recognize and thus prepare ourselves for the ordinary villainy of life.

We live in a world that is full of evil, evil both within ourselves and outside of ourselves. We may all be, for one reason or another, ordinary villains in the stories and in the existence of other people. Certainly we may come across ordinary villains in our parents, our children, other family members, people we may be romantically involved in, people we may work with or for, random strangers we may meet, people who may spit on our food at the restaurant, road-raging idiot drivers we may encounter on the road, and so on. Much of the drama and interest of our lives and the lives of our friends and family come about from ordinary villains, people who do not act as they should for one reason or another and who bring difficulty in our lives through their inaction or their wickedness or their neglect or their folly. Realistic writing does moralizing in helping us to point out this ordinary villainy, whether we find it in others or, more distressingly, within ourselves. If we are all generally the heroes of our own tales, we are very frequently villains in the tales of other people. If these people are often wrong in painting us this way, not least in our eyes, this is not without reason. It is worthwhile to read fiction that shows us everyday evildoing, and we may recognize it in ourselves, or at least we may see how others may view us so, and profit by both recognizing and overcoming the evil that we see within us and around us. God knows there is enough of it.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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