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Preaching in Fiction

In my last post I talked about a modernization of Pride and Prejudice that disappointed me. I said I didn't enjoy the novel because, though it had all of P&P's beloved characters and basic events, it lacked the story that makes the reading experience of the original so magical.

The modernization also rubbed me the wrong way for a second, even stronger reason: it's one of the preachiest books I've read in years.

When I say the book is "preachy," you might imagine something along the lines of C. S. Lewis and his unmissable religious symbolism, Rudyard Kipling and his not-so-subtle imperialism, or Harriet Beecher Stowe and her in-your-face paternalism. If you do, you're on the right track. This book had the heavy-handed moralizing of Uncle Tom's Cabin in a twenty-first-century flavor. Instead of "Christian charity! Christian charity!" the novel screamed "Social justice! Social justice!" until my ears were ringing.

Every story, in some way or another, is a morality tale. Stories are how people around the world express cultural values: what is heroic, what is villainous, how society should reward the heroes and punish the villains. We write books and make movies for entertainment, but also to build our collective understanding of an ideal universe.

It's perfectly natural for authors to use their stories to show the difference between right and wrong. However, there are stories with good moral lessons, and then there are sermons masquerading as stories.

Sign of Preaching #1: The "Point" Overshadows the Plot

The author of that P&P modernization ruined the story because she was trying to "make a point." Many points, actually.

  • Jane's relationship with Mr. Bingley falls apart when Jane gets pregnant through IVF. The author wanted to make the point that it's a woman's individual choice to have children or not, and everyone should respect that.
  • Mr. Wickham plays no real role in the story because, instead of finding out he's a money-grubbing cad, Elizabeth finds out he's a racist. The author wanted to make the point that racism is bad.
  • Lydia randomly runs off with a trans man because the author wanted to make the point that everyone should be allowed to love whomever they want, and no one has the right to judge.
  • Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a famous second-wave feminist with no business being in the book because the author wanted to make the point that strong women should be applauded, not reviled.

The problem with the novel isn't these "points" themselves. The points are all good points.

But instead of working her points into the story structure of P&P, which could be easily done, the author wrote a long egalitarian sermon. She could have saved herself a lot of trouble, and her readers a lot of time, by dispensing with the charade of writing a novel and simply printing big posters that say, "Racism is bad! Sexism is bad! So is slut-shaming and fat-shaming, by the way. Liberty and justice for all!"

Sign of Preaching #2: Characters "Tell" the Morals

Many times in the P&P modernization, Elizabeth Bennet pauses to reflect.

  • She reflects that her mother's racism is subtle and insidious, as shown by how she takes the maid for granted and distrusts the real estate agent because he's black.
  • She reflects that while she dislikes her younger sisters for being so vulgar, she also admires them for being so open about their feelings and so unashamed to go after what they want.
  • She reflects that anorexia is a terrible disease, and that's why she tries her best to avoid talking about diet and exercise with other women.

And so on, and so forth.

Now, the original Elizabeth Bennet spends plenty of time reflecting, but the focus of her reflections is very different. She looks back on her own behavior to figure out her heart and mind, or she evaluates the actions of other people to figure out their characters and motivations. But she never pauses to profess, in a thinly disguised way, her opinions about current social mores.

Fearing that readers wouldn't get The Point from modern Elizabeth's extensive reflections, the author also made sure some of the characters voice her morals plainly. Mr. Darcy explains that Mr. Wickham's vicious prank against a black teacher was racist, in case that wasn't abundantly obvious. He also points out that Lydia's choice of husband is no one's business but her own, in case we readers in 2017 might suffer from doubts on that score.

Like complex emotions and character motivations, morals are higher-order concepts a writer should show, not tell. Modern novels are not ancient Greek plays. We don't need a chorus at the end to sing about how fate can't be changed and hubris leads to ruin.

The Moral of This Post

If you want to make the point that racism is bad, show readers how the racist words and actions of some characters hurt other characters. If you want to make the point that powerful women are admirable, introduce powerful female characters who play heroic roles in the plot.

When you preach morals to an audience, they roll their eyes and make sarcastic snoring noises. If you instead tell an audience a riveting story and let them figure out the morals for themselves, not only will the experience be more enjoyable for everyone, but the lessons will sink in deeper and stay with them longer.


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