The moral of the story

I’ve just read Little Women, Good Wives, and What Katy Did, and I’m halfway through What Katy Did at School.  I hadn’t revisited these American classics for some time, and in spite of a grating moralising sentimentality, I’ve found them as engaging and nourishing as I did when I first read them. The lessons I learned from them still guide me.

Even as a child I think I enjoyed a book more if it gave me something besides entertainment; some nugget of truth or instruction that I could carry with me. Of course the moral is no good without the story, but the best stories have morality (either affirmation or subversion) at their core. That’s why authors like Austen, Dickens and Henry James are so enduring. Couched in hugely entertaining prose, they always feature violations and restorations of morality, in varying degrees of subtlety, that manage to transcend cultural and historical conditions. Avant-garde stories with absent or amorphous moralities might intrigue, but they rarely captivate us in the same way that tragic moral desecrations or comic moral restitutions so lastingly do.