Morality is the theory that every human act must either be right or wrong, and that 99% of them are wrong. – HL Mencken
By Maria Amir
According to a famous study conducted by Gerald S. Wilkinson in 1984, some vampire bats fail to feed on prey on certain nights while others manage to consume a surplus. In these cases, the bats that do eat proceed to regurgitate part of their blood meal to save the others from starvation. Since the bats live in close-knit groups, most can rely on the ‘favor’ being returned at some point in time. Based on this premise, behavioral psychologists Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce have classified basic mammal morality as a ‘a suite of interrelated other-regarding behaviors that cultivate and regulate complex interactions within social groups.” This suite of behaviors traditionally includes empathy, reciprocity, altruism, cooperation, and a sense of fairness and apparently it has always been there… in one form or the other. In other words, human morality, though sophisticated and complex compared to other animals, is essentially a natural phenomenon evolved sufficiently enough to restrict excessive individualism. This is how ‘moral codes’ were formed based on emotional instincts and intuition to serve a greater good. Nowhere does the notion of ‘the greater good’ hold more sway than in literature. For many, it is the evolution of language and imagination that sets the bar for how we, as a species, view and foster morality.
Yet, in spite of its importance, there is nothing as ever-changeable in literature as the concept of morality. What one considers ‘good’ or ‘evil’ has shifted from decade to author and each work of fiction has introduced its own brand of group-think and group consciousness pitted against what we normally identify as the ‘moral center’ of a story i.e. the Gandalfs, Dumbledores and Good Witch Glindas of fiction. It certainly begs the question ‘what exactly is moral’? Is it simply the sensation of guilt before we act or is it how our actions and reactions are weighed by others that classifies someone as moral enough? Either standard seems an utterly arbitrary barometer for character assessment and this inconsistency has been captured by all great writers most effectively. As the decades have progressed and ‘morality in literature’ has become less and less stringent, it appears that characters have become more human and intriguing. Simultaneously, however, much of literature seems to have lost its power in terms of its ability to inspire. Modern books by Marquez, Coelho and Rushdie appeal to the vanity in their reader as the latter keeps seeking out similarities with a protagonist rather than wait for the inspiration that comes from being driven by the intricacies of a plot or being moved by the ‘other worldliness’ of a character. There are advantages to tuning into this increasingly individualist, often narcissistic lead voice in a novel as it caters to the emotive more than the intellect and yet we as a society appear to have lost out on the lessons that literature was once able to teach us. It appears that as the years have progressed readers no longer draw morality from the books they read but rather distil their own into the characters they relate to as flawed.
If one had to put a pun on it, we could say that the most obvious evolution of ‘morality’ in literature has been the felling of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters into just ‘characters’. Indeed, today’s television and literature practically pulsate on the premise that an interesting character must be flawed, layered and ruthless… the term ‘bad boy’ is usually a good start. In some manner this also reflects a societal shift in morality and towards ideas like chivalry – now most certainly dead; honor – no longer to be traced in battle or oath keeping; loyalty – now denigrating when used in a master-servant neo-colonial nuance, or nationalism – now a most naïve, somewhat obscure ideal to cling to for the bourgeoisie. One can argue that this evolution has made our literature more interesting and gritty but it begs the question of why no single novel of the last 50 years can be set against opuses like Don Quixote, Anna Karenina or Wuthering Heights. Perhaps, unlike life, literature isn’t supposed to keep reinventing morality and its many faces but engage in perfecting it by exploring its depths and peaks. The purpose, naturally, isn’t to produce cookie-cutter characters but to provide characters with a purpose and readers with closure. Modern novels tend to take the opposite route with monologues and abstract reminiscences framing entire plot lines.