There’s much fretting about the moral component of literature, or its absence, and much of the confusion results from the failure to distinguish moral from moralistic. The capacity to make moral choices is what sets us apart from other species. Other animals act; humans choose then act. Moral constraints and distinctions, and the potential to ignore them and convince ourselves we haven’t ignored them, or have done so but for the best of reasons, or haven’t ignored them because they don’t exist, are the rude material of literary art.
If a writer’s principle motive is moralistic – in the vernacular, telling others how to run their lives, also known as sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong – he or she is no longer engaging in literary art, or at least is practicing a compromised, incapacitated version of literary art. Witness Tolstoy: Anna Karenina and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” are great art; The Kreutzer Sonata is bad art – a sermon, a rant, propaganda. The moral is nuanced and shaded; the moralistic, preachy, misleadingly binary and rooted in a power imbalance. My wife has just read Anna Karenina for the first time, and reread “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” We talk about Tolstoy’s people and the choices they made. Had she read The Kreutzer Sonata, we would have talked about the choices Tolstoy made. In literary terms, the great corrective to Tolstoy is Chekhov. In a Feb. 15, 1890, letter to his friend and editor Alexy Pleshcheyev, Chekov wrote of The Kreutzer Sonata:
“Reading it, you can scarcely forbear to exclaim: `That’s so true!’ or alternatively `That’s stupid!’ There is no doubt it has some irritating defects. As well as those you have listed, there is one for which it is hard to forgive the author, and that is his arrogance in discussing matters about which he understands nothing and is prevented by obstinacy from even wanting to understand anything.”
Cynthia Ozick, in “Innovation and Redemption: What Literature Means,” collected in Art & Ardor, addresses the moral/moralistic distinction with forthrightness and finesse:
“For me, with certain rapturous exceptions, literature is the moral life. The exceptions occur in lyric poetry, which bursts shadowless like flowers at noon, with the eloquent bliss almost of nature itself, when nature is both benevolent and beautiful. For the rest – well, one discounts stories and novels that are really journalism; but of the stories and novels that mean to be literature, one expects a certain corona of moral purpose: not outright in the grain of the fiction itself, but in the form of a faintly incandescent envelope around it. The tales we care for lastingly are the ones that touch on the redemptive – not, it should be understood, on the guaranteed promise of redemption, and not on goodness, kindness, decency, all the usual virtues. Redemption has almost nothing to do with virtue, especially when the call to virtue is prescriptive or coercive; rather, it nis the singular idea that is the opposite of the Greek belief in fate: the idea that insists on the freedom to change one’s life.
“Redemption means fluidity; the notion that people and things are subject to willed alteration; the sense of possibility; of turning away from, or turning toward; of deliverance; the sense that we act for ourselves rather than are acted upon; the sense that we are responsible, that there is no deus ex machina other than the character we have ourselves fashioned; above all, that we can surprise ourselves. Implicit in redemption is amazement, marveling, suspense – precisely that elation-bringing suspense of the didactic I noted earlier, wherein the next revelation is about to fall. Implicit in redemption is everything against the fated or the static: everything that hates death and harm and elevates the life-giving – if only through terror at its absence.”
I quote Ozick at length because she is a great stylist and her language moves me. She bravely addresses the question of morality in literature -- a notion long out of fashion and derided by hipper-than-thou critics – but reminds us of the fundamental reason we read fiction: Because we like, and find comfort in, hearing and telling stories about each other. She goes on to condemn the philistinism of “uplift” and “affirmative” literature. She aptly quotes Henry James: “Art is nothing more than the shadow of humanity.”