“That is what Fiction means”

The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.

– Miss Prism, from “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde

Miss Prism is referring here to a novel she herself had written – a novel later described by Lady Bracknell as being of “more than usually revolting sentimentality”. Be that as it may, Miss Prism’s view of fiction, which always gets a laugh in performance, is one that is still, perhaps rather surprisingly, widely shared. A character thriving at the end is still seen as indicative of the author’s approval; and conversely, a character coming to a sticky end indicative of the author’s condemnation.

In certain cases, such a view does indeed hold. In Aesop’s fable “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, the ant ends up well, thus indicating he has behaved well; and the grasshopper ends up badly, indicating he hasn’t. But I remain unconvinced that so clear-cut a moral distinction can, or indeed should, be looked for outside fables. And when they are seen in fictions as complex and as sophisticated as Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, I find myself moved to protest: reducing the complexity and the sophistication of works such as these to the level of Miss Prism’s simple-minded dichotomy is surely to diminish and to misrepresent them.

The latest instance of this kind of thing appears is a column in today’s Times by Janice Turner (which is, sadly, behind a paywall, though here is a link for those who can access it). Now, I do rather enjoy Janice Turner’s columns, and I regret that hers had to be the straw that broke this camel’s back. But this camel’s back is, if not perhaps broken, at least fractured to such an extent that a quick blog post on the matter does not seem an over-reaction.

Ms Turner writes about a television drama called Apple Tree Yard, and complains that the rather nasty fate visited upon its principal female character indicates the film-makers’ moral condemnation of her sexual transgression. She writes:

Although written, produced and directed by women, Apple Tree Yard contains the same 19th century moral reproach to bored wives as Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.

Now, I cannot comment specifically on Apple Tree Yard, not having seen it; but, in more general terms, seeing fiction through the prism of Miss Prism does seem a very naïve approach, to say the least. And when this rather simplistic critique is extended to cover works of such moral complexity and sophistication as Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, excitable tempers such as mine tend to get … well, a bit excited, I suppose.

I wonder what other works this critical approach may be extended to. Let us try Hamlet. I don’t think I need to put up a Spoiler Alert before saying that Hamlet dies at the end. But then again, the poor bugger was so bloody indecisive, it’s no wonder Shakespeare wanted to punish him! So there you have it, folks. Moral: don’t beat about the bush. In the immortal words of Buck’s Fizz, you’ll find that there comes a time – for making your mind up.

Claudius dies too, and that, surely, serves him bloody right: no sympathy there. Gertrude dies as well: I guess Shakespeare didn’t approve too much of her “o’er-hasty marriage”. As for Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – well, they all had it coming, didn’t they? But that still leaves Ophelia.  Now, what did Will have against her? He certainly kills her off, so he must be punishing her for something. I guess I’d better read the damn thing again, and find out.

On the bright side, though, Horatio and Fortinbras keep going. Will must, I guess, have approved of them.

For if, as Miss Prism opines,  the Good end happily, and the Bad unhappily, then it must follow, as day follows night, that those who end happily must be Good, and those who end unhappily must be Bad. And at a stroke, literary criticism becomes simple. Anyone can do it.

And, looking around the net, anyone does. Even me, for heavens’ sake!

17 responses to this post.

  1. I saw the first episode – naughtiness in a broom cupboard in Westminster, most unseemly in which the gentleman got his foot caught in a bucket which paused him not a whit. And her a scientist! When was the last time I saw a good BBC play? Last night on youtube ‘The Summerhouse’ from a book by Alice Thomas Ellis,from 1993 or so.

    Janice and her pointing of a morality the inverse of the Victorian and just as artificial.This sort of thing must stop.


    • I’m not sure how we can ensure that this sort of thing must stop – but it is, I think, worth pointing out that the fate of fictional characters does not necessarily betoken authorial condemnation, except in fables, or in very simple-minded fiction.


  2. I’ve not seen that show, but I think there is an issue that sexually active women in fiction do tend to get unhappy endings. With any given work it may not mean anything as you say, since the ending does not necessarily imply a moral judgement and much else may be going on, but when it happens in almost every work it does start to look a tad judgemental.

    On another note, I was told that Ant and the Grasshopper story as a kid. I remember then thinking that the Ant was basically a monster. Sure, the Grasshopper was imprudent, but sanctimoniously lecturing it while leaving it to die is the act of a psychopath (not that I put it in those terms at 5, but the feelings were in that territory). No wonder I grew up to be left wing.

    I was a bit frustrated recently when in my review of Heart of Darkness most commenters thought I was unhappy with the book because I thought the character Marlow was racist. I didn’t care about that at all – characters needn’t be sympathetic to be interesting and in context it made sense he would be – my issue was that I thought the book itself was racist.

    Clearly I should have made that distinction clearer in the review, but I suspect it wasn’t just my lack of clarity that elicited those responses but also because the idea that protagonists should be sympathetic is so widespread that it wasn’t unnatural for people to ascribe it to me even though it’s not a view I remotely share or have ever espoused.

    Glad to see you back by the way.


    • Posted by obooki on February 3, 2017 at 7:52 pm

      Admit I misunderstood this too. I thought in your review you were meaning Conrad was racist. But now I see that you meant neither Conrad nor Marlow but the book itself was racist.


    • Thank you, Max. It’s certainly good o be back.

      It is certainly true, especially in fiction of the 19th and the early 20th centuries, that women who transgressed sexually often did meet up with nasty ends, whereas men who transgressed got off more lightly. But need this be seen as condemnation of women’s sexual transgression? Surely it is just as reasonable to interpret this as condemnation of a hypocritical society that applied different moral standards to men and to women.

      And in any case, the premise could do with a bit more scrutiny. (And since I discuss fates of characters in what follows, I guess I should put up a SPOILER WARNING.)

      In Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and Effi Briest, the adulterous women certainly do wind up dead, but in each of thee cases, the death is seen as tragic: does anyone really feel any sense of moral satisfaction on reading these books? Meanwhile. In La Regenta, the adulterous woman survives at the end (although her position is not exactly enviable): it is her husband, the “innocent party”, who winds up dead. Similarly in Chekhov’s story “The Grasshopper”: the adulterous woman here also remains alive, and her husband doesn’t. And in Chekhov’s play Three Sisters, not only does the adulterous Natasha remain very much alive at the end, she is triumphant, and in complete control. In Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, it is true that Madame de Rênal dies at the end, but not before her lover Julien Sorel … er … gets it in the neck first.

      And what are we to make of Hedda Gabler? Hedda is certainly not adulterous: indeed, it is implied she is frigid. Are we to interpret her sticky end as Ibsen’s condemnation of her lack of sexual activity?

      These are all off the top of my head. I am sure that if we were to trawl though literature, we could find at least as many examples of the adulterous woman unpunished as we would of the adulterous woman punished. To interpret either as authorial condemnation does seem to me a superficial reading.

      I looked up your post on Heart of Darkness, and I think you are right. Marlowe may indeed be racist (though no more so than was the norm for a man in his position in those times), but that is not to imply that the book itself is racist. All too frequently, the first person narrator’s view is mistaken for the author’s.

      And yes, it is, I suppose, legitimate to see “The Ant and the Grasshopper” as more a condemnation of sanctimoniousness than of imprudence!

      All the best, Himadri


      • Himadri,

        Just to be clear, the argument wasn’t that Marlowe is racist. I think that’s completely uninteresting. The argument was that the book itself was. One is not implied by the other however, I quite agree. I was making (unclearly, clearly) the argument that the book was racist but that didn’t of course flow from the presence of a racist character.

        TBH, I don’t think it’s legitimate to see The Ant and the Grasshopper as a condemnation of sanctimoniousness, in that it’s plainly not intended as that, but death of the author and personal reaction and all that.

        I think the issue may be one of serious versus commercial art (as if that were a tenable distinction, but bear with me). In Madame Bovary it’s possible to read a number of interpretations into the work, that’s partly why it’s a great work. Is Emma a victim of society? A victim of trashy novels? Not a victim at all? One can make various arguments but you’re quite right that it’s not a case of the book morally castigating her (and by extension real women). That would be a crude misreading that ignored much of the text.

        In commercial art though, there I think we are in trickier territory because in so very much of it women who step out of line are punished. It’s so much a known thing that the movies Scream and Cabin in the Woods both expressly refer to it with a female character’s survival contingent on her genre awareness leading her to avoid sex.

        So with serious art I agree with you. With commercial art though, which the tv show was, I think there is an element of implicit moral condemnation.

  3. Posted by obooki on February 3, 2017 at 7:55 pm

    My Women of Trachis 2 post is going to be on a very similar subject, if I ever get round to writing it.


    • I look forward to it. (I am very bad at responding to posts – especially in the last few months – but I do read them, and I enjoyed your Women of Trachis, Part 1. I never really understood the play, to be honest, although I do like Handel’s oratorio based on the story.)


  4. Posted by obooki on February 3, 2017 at 9:16 pm

    Oh, and two other things. Horror films (particularly American ones?) Are notorious for the young and sexually promiscuous being killed, which is no doubt something of a reflection of society’s morals (whether the film is agreeing with them or not.

    Also, Aristotle in his Poetics I seem to remember argues that if a character is shown to deserve his fate, then it’s inherently not tragic.


    • Despite all our sophistication, deep down, at gut level, we feel a woman is more vulnerable than a man. And therefore, a woman being menaced, or killed, is more frightening than a man being menaced, or killed. This may no doubt be very naïve, and our reason should tell us otherwise, but it’s hard to reason with our instincts. In Hitchcock’s Psycho, say, a woman is murdered, and, later, a man. The murder of the woman is the stuff of cinema legend; the murder of the man hardly anyone remembers. In short, horror film-makers go for what they know will frighten the audience most.


  5. Posted by Janet on February 3, 2017 at 11:16 pm

    Obooki, I think the reason tender young sexually active things die in American horror movies is because it’s kinky. I’m not sure judgement comes into it so much as the brainless thrill of a titilating object being seized, preferably tortured, and then killed. Although I suppose you could say that if a writer entertains the fantasy of a sexually active woman being, well, sexually active (apparently if they are doing that they aren’t doing much of anything else), killing her off may be both the culmination of the fantasy and a means of making peace with a private perversion. In other words, the judgement against the character is actually a judgement of the author against his/her own indulgence.

    I haven’t seen the show, nor am I familiar with Turner’s column. I have heard/read plenty of pat dismissals of literary works based on superficial readings. Reading literature as evidence of a narrow slice of human experience isn’t in itself a bad thing–it can shed a very bright light on a specific area under investigation. But it’s a disaster to stop there and say Anna was bad and therefore had to die according to some formula. Flannery O’Connor said a good writer starts at the surface and goes deep; the same should be said for good readers.


    • Posted by obooki on February 4, 2017 at 1:27 am

      Maybe so. (Spoilers) Now I think of it, my perfect moral work of art is Quentin Tarentino’s Death proof, where the first set of young women are killed because they’re not possessed of the essence of Tarentinoism (they are cool, but they are not film geek cool), whereas the second set of young woman survive because they have Tarentinoism in abundance. At least, I find it hard to determine what else the film is about – unless you’re going to argue that people just like car chases.


    • Hello Janet. I just read you comment having responded to Obooki’s. And yes, now you mention it, I guess kinkiness has something to do with it. When, say, Jamie Lee Curtis is pursued by the killer in Halloween, it is genuinely frightening; would it have been equally frightening if it had been a man rather than a woman pursued by the killer? looking at it rationally, it shouldn’t be, but, for some mysterious reason, it is. And, as you say, kinkiness may well play a part in this.

      But I agree with you about pat dismissals of literary works based on superficial readings. having been on various online discussion boards before starting this blog, I am well accustomed to thos!

      All the best, Himadri


  6. A thriller like Apple Tree Yard begins with the heroine in some terrible situation, just a brief flash of it, and then the title on the screen 9 months earlier. By fictive reverse engineering the story is told. If her present condition were blithe then there would hardly be a story. Not having got away with it is the starting point.

    Having got away with it is the starting point for Rodion Romanovitch and Anna but now they must live as a murderer and as a woman who abandoned her child. Those novels are moral engines unlike thrillers which are not concerned with the soul.



    • thanks for that, Michael. Once again, I cannot comment on the series, but if a causal connection is implied, as you say, that certainly does put a somewhat different slant on matters. (Although I think thrillers can be concerned with the soul – although I do accept that is not usually the case.)


  7. Posted by alan on February 14, 2017 at 9:12 pm

    I stopped reading for plot decades ago and I think you did as well.
    However, decisions have to be made and novels have to end and these decisions and endings are rarely satisfactory.
    I think I’d probably be disappointed if it was satisfactory. I want unanswered questions, I want mystery.


    • Well, it depends on the nature of the fiction, I guess. Tom Jones demands a neat ending; neat endings would be quite out of place in Chekhov’s plays.

      Endings – that’s a good idea for a future blog post, isn’t it? I know it’s been written about before by lots of very learned people. but I’m always happy to rush in where angels fear to tread…


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