Modern Morality: What Is Its Place In Contemporary Fiction?

Posted at 18:24pm on 25th February 2009

See, also, my post titled: Does Glamorising Abusive Sexual Relationships Adversely Influence Society? written in response to a recent BBC discussion about the merits (or otherwise) of a book like 50 Shades of Grey.

What do you learn about life, characterisation, plot or theme from what you read, or watch on TV? Do you, in fact, analyse such elements as, say, individual responsibilities or manipulative behaviour? Or do you see drama and literature as merely entertainment?

I ask because my eldest daughter, knowing me well and being of similar mind, has sent me a book for my birthday. Titled Friedman’s Fables (read the Amazon review), it was written by the family therapist and rabbi, Edwin Friedman, who practised in Washington DC for over 35 years until his death in 1996. Each short story – no more than two or three pages in length – is an allegory about a particular behavioural problem encountered by us all at various times in our lives.


I wrote, a few days ago, about the integrity partnership between author and reader, and looked at the historical evidence for story-telling as a fundamental human need. What I concluded was that story-telling teaches us the principles of human behaviour and psychology. I finished by affirming its significance, and saying that, as authors, we have a responsibility to our readers. A responsibility which not only conveys life as-it-is-lived-out by countless numbers of people. But also, a responsibility to impart a new, and possibly life-changing, way of looking at a particular problem.

The Friedman book does just that. The first tale is of a man who sets out on a life-changing journey: a journey which, if he completes it in time, will fulfil the reason for his life; the whole of his potential. But the caveat is the time factor. He has only one chance. If he fails to arrive on time, it will be too late.


En route, he encounters a stranger with a rope tied around his waist. The two meet on a high bridge. The stranger asks our man to take hold of one end of the rope, then promptly launches himself from the bridge. He drops like a stone, but is left dangling high above the ground below.

The man holding the rope now has a dilemma. He is full of guilt. If he continues to hold on he will fail his own purpose in life, since there is nowhere to secure the rope and no one to take over from him. If he drops it, the stranger – who by this time insists that his life is now the man’s responsibility – will plunge to his death.

The moral of the story is stated as a common human concept: that when all is going well, something will go wrong. But it’s more than that. It’s about the sort of manipulative neediness of a certain type of person who, in failing to take responsibility for their own life, expects others to take it on board, on their behalf.

In the notes accompanying the Fables, the reader is urged to consider the ramifications in real life. The author thus presents us with a scenario which we recognise – and with which we may even be familiar. But he also introduces us to some soul searching which we may never before have encountered. For instance:

  • Do we believe that we are responsible for those who simply cross our path?
  • If we fail to accept responsibility, will the consequences mean that we shall have to live with guilt for the rest of our lives?
  • If we take on the responsibility for the stranger’s life, could he be seen as guilty for the death of ours?

This simple tale raises fascinating hypotheses and serves as a model for aspects of our own creative writing. Whilst entertainment should always be the aim of our art, I believe that its integrity lies in the presentation of the familiar and recognisable in life as-it-is-lived, alongside an innovative way of looking at the morality and prime motive that drives such behaviour.

What do you think? Do you have any views you'd like to share? All comments are welcome.

NEXT TIME: We’ll continue this theme of looking beyond what makes us, and our characters, act the way we do. In the meantime, if you want to look back at other posts on this topic, see:

I Am Not A Doormat! Are You?

Your Comments:

Erich Keithly
30th March 2009
at 4:44am

I have always seen my writing as more than just entertainment.
Stories for me have always been the best way to convey my
convictions. Stories act like analogies to the reality of life, and
sometimes the reality becomes clearer using fiction. While I guess
books are there for fun, I've always wanted more from my
writing and the books I read. I want the author to reign me in,
force me to ask questions, and wonder about the truths that this
world holds. Since the first day of writing I've always seen it
as a way to draw close to God. He created me, and He has given me
the ability to create. I view it as a gift from Him that needs to
be used to do His will, or else I feel like a thief. I hope the
reader laughs, cries, and enjoys the book, but more importantly
draws them closer to God.

30th March 2009
at 11:44am

Thank you Erich for your comments. I found what you had to say
so worthwhile that I've quoted some of it in today's blog:
What is a good story? And what a good piece of writing? which was,
itself, in reply to a lady asking what she should do with her
unpublished novel.

What I've said, in essence, is that we writers write because
the urge to do so - like that of impoverished artists before us -
is too strong to resist. And we write to express our perception on
the realities of life - in such a way as to bring inspiration,

enlightenment, and information to the human condition.

However, that urge and perception

is personal. If others read our work and identify with our insights
so much the better. But that is neither the prime reason for our
writing, nor its sole purpose.

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