#NotesOn: The “Must” of Moral Lessons and Happy Endings

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During my elementary school days, every book our class was assigned or encouraged to read in English was not complete with a list of questions, eagerly waiting for our clumsy, scribbled answers. Even book reports and reviews later on in high school had them: who were the characters? What was the setting? Where can the climax be found?

What is the moral of the story?

The last question was the one we all particularly struggled with. Enjoyment leaves more of an impact than whatever virtue being lectured subtly. Of course, it can be considered as a standard to test how much we, as readers, actually understood and comprehended the story, and how it is one to be remembered as we apply said values of trademark morals such as forgiveness, understanding, humility and compassion – important values to be learned by children, passed on by colorful stories.

As I grew up and the stories I read became more complex, the standard book reviews given to me in high school still ended with the demand of a moral lesson to take away from what I’ve read. Out of the education system, I sometimes think of writing a book review for a blog, and feel helpless at the end of the post.

Sometimes, my problem is that there are too many to generalize or pick from.

Sometimes, my problem is that there is none.

There is no moral lesson to impart. There’s nothing to gain, not even by reading between the lines. That contrasts greatly with what I’ve been trained to think: that, to recommend books means you recommend enjoyment and substance; that you’re implying through this book you’ll find your life enriched; you’ll get better; you’ll be taught this and that and ponder life’s greatness after reading it. This was the situation in our Reading and Writing class last year, where we were assigned to review books that fell under the “Self-Help” category. It was not said in verbatim, but she wanted us to read something “meaningful” and “useful” and cited The Purpose-Driven Life as an example. My The Secret review got a pretty good grade.

This was also the situation in the various book reviews of readers of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. The latter was what this post was originally about. I had steered clear from it when I first heard of it, thinking, for some reason, it was a Nicholas Sparks-esque romance, which I wasn’t – and still am not, though I have been in tears reading his books – into. I only read it after I picked Amy Dunne’s Cool Girl monologue for a school theater audition; to completely internalize the character, expecting an actual romance that, based on the monologue, went wrong. Imagine my shock after finishing it.

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I loved the book. I loved the switching point-of-views, the unreliable narrators, the gut-twisting suspense and dread, the mystery unfolding and the unapologetic, ironic, wry style of writing. I figured I’d write a review soon. After I watched the film, I went online to look up what others have already said and what I might have missed. Some reviews pointed out the weak spots I had only sensed but was too absorbed to notice: Amy’s unrealistic and abrupt return, for one, and the slow build-up that I didn’t mind much but can be dragging to some. A good number of reviews, however, centered around these things:

• how all characters were unlikable;
• how the ending wasn’t good i.e. “inconclusive,” “no payoff,” “miserable,” “depressing,” and “i looked forward to a good, happy ending and there was none;”
• how everything was miserable and;
• how they had gained nothing from reading the book, and how it didn’t add much to their lives in any way.

All of this begs answers to the following questions: must stories have a moral lesson wrapped in page after page of text? Are stories not considered “meaningful” or “useful” if they do not meet this requisite? Are books supposed to end happy or be happy, overall, to be enjoyed? Are books bought for their stories merely to comfort or bring happiness?

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It can be argued that it is an innate human instinct to want conclusions with all the loose ends of previous conflicts tied up neatly; with villains receiving retribution and heroes reaping their deserved glory and rewards, though this is hardly the case in real life. After all, people read to escape – but happy endings do not guarantee to make good stories. Furthermore, happy stories aren’t good stories, period. Though of course, it is a matter of perspective, but if moral lessons are always demanded to be given, so are conflicts. A story should at least give a semblance of reality, and hook you throughout the ups as well as the downs. You can see the tragedies, from the classics to contemporary genres, being eaten up.

Pinning a book’s worth, value or the enjoyment it can give on how positive it can make you feel seems utilitarian, stopping the purpose of a book to tell a story in itself right in its tracks. A story that can make you feel, even misery and disgust, is significant, as well a emotional and intellectual impact. It doesn’t have to be the warm and fuzzy feelings.

Books should be bought and read according to the readers’ preferences, and escaping reality is a common motive to read them. However, stories shouldn’t be put on a pedestal of positivity and morality. To receive happiness isn’t the only reason behind reading books. A book simply being fun to read, or full of excellent prose, or is educational and instructive – the list goes on and on.

Stories mean to share, to influence, to hook and to make an impact. It can manifest with happiness and smiles, or shock and rage, or the need to ponder, or a lingering feeling of existential dread. Stories have numerous purposes.

What a shame it is to dilute it to just happiness.

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