Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The "Moral" Story

The Moral Story, in spite of the beautiful examples left us by Hawthorne, is usually too baldly didactic to attain or hold a high place in literature. Its avowed purpose is to preach, and, as ordinarily written, preach it does in the most determined way. Its plot is usually just sufficient to introduce the moral. It is susceptible of a high literary polish in the hands of a master; but when attempted by a novice it is apt to degenerate into a mess of moral platitudes.

(a) The Fable makes no attempt to disguise its didactic purpose, but publishes it by a final labelled "Moral," which epitomizes the lesson it conveys. In Fables the characters are often animals, endowed with all the attributes of men. It early lost favor because of its bald didacticism, and for the last century has been practiced only occasionally. To-day it is used chiefly for the purpose of burlesque and satire, as in George Ade's "Fables in Slang." Æsop is of course the immortal example of this sort of story.

(b) The Story with a Moral attempts to sugar-coat its sermon with a little narrative. It sticks rather closely to facts, and has a slight plot, which shows, or is made to show, the consequences of drinking, stealing, or some other sin. Usually it is either brutally realistic or absurdly exaggerated; but that it can be given literary charm is proved by Hawthorne's use of it. Maria Edgeworth is easily the "awful example" of this class, and her stories, such as "Murad the Unlucky" and "The Grateful Negro," are excellent illustrations of how not to write. Many of Hawthorne's tales come under this head, especially "Lady Eleanor's Mantle," "The Ambitious Guest," and "Miss Bullfrog." The stories of Miss Wilkins usually have a strong moral element, but they are better classed in a later division. Contemporary examples of this style of writing may be found in the pages of most Sunday School and Temperance papers.

(c) The Allegory is the only really literary form of the Moral Story, and the only one which survives to-day. It has a strong moral purpose, but disguises it under the pretense of a well-told story; so that it is read for its story alone, and the reader is conscious of its lesson only when he has finished the narrative. It usually personifies or gives concrete form to the various virtues and vices of men. Examples: Hawthorne's "The Birthmark," "Rappaccini's Daughter," and "Feathertop." Allegories which deserve the name are sometimes found in current periodicals.