Do Our Moral Standards Change When We Read?

Discussion Post

Many of us have fixed ideals that we believe in and that guide our lives.  Honesty.  Selflessness.  Fidelity to one’s significant other.  When we see these values being violated (especially when we are the ones being violated, we are the ones who have been lied to or taken advantage of or cheated on by a partner) we feel outrage or sorrow.  We immediately point to the culprit and say something like, “How awful of her to hurt my friend Ben by sleeping with another man behind his back.  He trusted her.  How will he ever trust someone again?”  And yet, when we consume media, when we read a book or watch a story, oftentimes the story suggests that we set aside these ideals in favor of new ones.  Below I consider some examples of stories and the values they seem to espouse, as well as the ways in which the stories manipulate audiences to reconsider their own values. (Spoilers for all the works listed!)

awakening-chopinThe Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)

Summary

In this work, Edna Pontellier finds herself unhappy in her marriage and with her duties as the mother of two boys.  She begins flirting with a young man by the name of Robert Lebrun to give her life some excitement, but he fears entering a relationship with a married woman. Edna then tries to find sexual satisfaction with a third man and  begins removing herself from the responsibilities expected of a wife and mother at that time.  Eventually Robert confesses his love for Edna but refuses to be her lover since he realizes they can never make it work.  In despair, Edna drowns herself.

Response?

This story engages the sympathy of the reader for Edna because Edna clearly has difficulty communicating with her husband.  She feels misunderstood and she does not desire to fulfill the duties expected of a wife and a mother.  She wants to find herself.  It has become a classic feminist text as it portrays a woman not content with her lot in life and wanting something more.  Teach this book in a classroom and many students will embrace an interpretation calling Edna’s adultery “liberating.”  “True love” should come before a loveless marriage.

But would many of these same students react in the same way if someone they knew in real life cheated on their husband and began to neglect their children?  Is it also problematic that, in Edna’s time, this cheating could also reflect poorly on her entire family, perhaps resulting years later in men refusing to marry their daughters to the sons of an adulterous woman?  If Edna were real, if she were a friend or a neighbor or a relative, would we see her sleeping around and shout “Freedom!” or would we wonder instead why she didn’t at least try marriage counseling before she committed adultery?

And does it matter that Edna is female?  If her husband were unhappy in their marriage and found himself a mistress, would we celebrate him for putting his own emotional needs before those of his wife and family?  Would we feel sorrier for a spouse who has to deal with an unfaithful partner if the one being cheated on is a woman?

DanteThe Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (14th century)

Summary

In Canto V of the Inferno, Dante famously depicts the two lovers Paolo and Francesca being whirled about by winds as punishment for their lust. Francesca was married to Paolo’s brother, but, she explains, she and Paolo were reading the tale of Guinivere and Lancelot one day and as a result ending up sleeping together.  Dante swoons after hearing their piteous tale.

Response?

Dante depicts the sinners very sympathetically (though it’s worth noting that he’s not celebrating their lust since they’re in hell for it and that Virgil rebukes him for feeling pity for sin) so it’s easy for readers to get caught up in the romance of it all.  Francesca, we can infer, was in a loveless marriage.  So why shouldn’t she sleep with a guy she’s actually attracted to?

Well, that narrative seems all right on paper.  Everyone wants a happy ending.  But would we respond to Francesca with similar sympathy if she were real?  If a best friend were married to Francesca and he found out she was sleeping with his brother, would we say to that best friend, “Well, she wasn’t happy with you, so good for her!  True love comes before marriage vows!” or would we be sorry that their marriage was breaking apart?  Would we see her adultery as wrong?  Would we find it problematic that she swore before witnesses to be true to him till death–and then slept with his brother?

Shakespeare in LoveShakespeare in Love (1998)

Summary

This one is not a film, but it represents particularly well how so many stories get readers to sympathize with adultery.  In this story, married William Shakespeare falls in love with an engaged woman (Viola) and their steamy affair inspires him to write Romeo and Juliet.

Response?

So how do stories get audiences to cheer for unfaithful partners?  Typically, one of the partners in the original pairing has to be undesirable.  The woman nags her husband a lot, meaning that he can cheat on her with a woman who’s less critical.  The man is sexist or controlling, so the woman can cheat on him with someone who respects her.  Shakespeare in Love follows this same formula.  Viola’s betrothed is arrogant, rude, and violent, and expects Viola to behave like a proper upper-class woman.  No one wants her to be paired with him, so they root for her love affair with Shakespeare. Shakespeare meanwhile is married with kids but his wife isn’t in London, so clearly she’s a non-entity with no feelings and no one has to worry about her.

Again, let’s consider how we might respond in real life.  If a partner is absent or far away, does that give the other partner license to have an affair?  If someone isn’t perfect, if they whine a lot or they don’t appreciate the other, does that make adultery acceptable?  Or do we, in real life, expect couples to remain faithful to their partners even when separated or even when their relationship is in a rough patch?  Do we expect couples to try to solve their problems before they break their marriage vows of fidelity and begin sleeping around?

Conclusion

Stories often provide us with perspectives we may not have considered otherwise.  They can bring out the nuances and complexities of a situation.  Reading a story like Paolo and Francesca’s may make us consider why someone proves unfaithful to their spouse–maybe it wasn’t sheer spite or maliciousness, but the act of a hurt or lonely individual.  But that raises the question of whether sympathy for a person means that we should change our moral standards for them.  Why do we feel bad for characters who perform acts we would condemn if people in real life did them to us or to those we love?

Krysta 64

26 thoughts on “Do Our Moral Standards Change When We Read?

  1. Risa says:

    This is such a beautifully, well thought-out theme for discussion. To put it simply, this was the reason I disliked reading many of the classics. I avoided them like the plague because the premise always put me off when I knew the story was about infidelity. And sadly, many of the acknowledged great classics revolve around this theme of infidelity…even when it is condemned, as in Dante’s example, it draws the reader in to sympathise majorly with the wrong-doing protagonist.

    I believe, sometimes, it is nice to get an insight into why people tend to behave in a certain way. It might not be true for all in such situations, but it gives an inkling about a few. But should we accept it as it is? I don’t think so. But who is to say what should and should not be done when we live in a world that is rife with doing what we “think or feel is right”?

    More and more I see and understand, without God, we are nothing but a hopeless race.

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    • Krysta says:

      Dante’s depiction of Francesca and Paolo is fascinating because he’s actually implicating himself in the sin of making such illicit love affairs look good or desirable in some of his previous works. At the same time, I’ve found that the level of complexity in Dante’s work is often overlooked by individuals who are caught up in Francesca’s romantic account of the affair. She’s so powerful that readers WANT to ignore the fact that she’s in hell. A common response I’ve received, even after explaining the nuances in this canto, is “Dante is a big ole meanie for punishing true love!” with no distinction between love and lust.

      But I think you’re right to suggest that we can understand people without condoning their actions. It seems like this a distinction we are unwilling to make anymore. If you tell a person, for example, that shoplifting is wrong and they should consider stopping, their first response will probably be to say that you’re an awful friend for not supporting them. But why should a real friend support you in actions that will harm you?

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  2. Kristen @ Metaphors and Moonlight says:

    THEY DO. OUR MORALS STANDARDS SO DO CHANGE WHEN WE READ. At least mine do. This is such a brilliant idea for a post topic, by the way. I definitely let characters get away with things that I would never deem ok in real life. I feel sympathy for them or I end up on their side or I feel hurt for them… even though they’re not good people or they’ve hurt other people or they’ve done cruel things. It’s like you said, we get to see things from a different perspective and understand *why* the characters acted that way or did that thing. And that’s what I love most about books. But, at the same time, it still doesn’t make their actions ok. It’s just so much easier to forgive and forget characters and let our morals kind of slide a bit since we’re not actually experiencing it in real life.

    I do have to disagree about Edna though. I read the book many years ago, but I still remember thinking she was incredibly selfish. So she didn’t get a pass from me lol.

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    • Krysta says:

      I was in a class where The Awakening was taught and I was the only one who suggested Edna’s actions might be selfish. The instructor then compared me to a class full of (presumably white based on the location of the school she referenced) males she used to teach who would agree with me. The underlying subtext was that I had aligned myself with the patriarchy by suggesting that we should consider the harmful effects of adultery.

      Even so, I sympathized with Edna. I didn’t want her to be in a loveless marriage where she felt trapped and misunderstood. I just didn’t see what she was going to gain by ruining her social reputation and tearing apart her family if the affair came out. Would she feel “freer” on the streets if she were cast out? It’s not likely her lovers would take care of her if her husband told her to leave.

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  3. alilovesbooks says:

    Interesting post and I agree that books do let you see the other side but I’m not convinced they’ve ever changed my views. The examples you’ve given are all kind of classics from a period when often people were forced into a marriage for advantage rather than love or respect and divorce wasn’t possible. In those cases adultery does seem more understandable or maybe that’s my dodgy morals. I’m wracking my brains for a contemporary book that had similar themes but in all of the ones I can think of I disapproved.

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    • Krysta says:

      The interesting thing is that we tend to impose our modern understanding of marriage and love onto these works. Shakespeare in Love for instance, may be depicting Elizabethan England, but it’s a modern film that works because it knows that the audience is going to root for an upper-class woman who for some reason wants to leave her life of ease and luxury behind for the hard life of an actor. We see this as “feminist” and “liberating” even though it’s kind of silly because Viola really has the best lot of anyone in society at the time and she’s trying to throw it away. If she really had to work for a living, working for a living wouldn’t look so romantic to her! And it knows that we’re not going to understand that people of the time expected arranged marriages and would likely have tried to make it work since that’s what they were given, so we’re going to support Viola and Shakespeare’s affair based on a contemporary idea of what the role of love in marriage is.

      I personally find it very difficult if not impossible to root for adulterous affairs in books and literature, but I can see how the works are trying to play upon my sympathy and I understand why so many of my friends don’t see anything problematic in some of these portrayals. We’re so caught up in wanting “true love” to win that we don’t always stop to question if love is even involved in some of these scenarios.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      But, remember, Will’s wife is in Stratford so we don’t have to care that he’s married! It’s amazing how easily the film glosses over Anne.

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  4. Geraldine @ Corralling Books says:

    For me, books have never changed my moral standards. They’ve definitely made me reconsider my views, and see things from others’ perspectives, but personal experiences have been more instrumental in changing my moral standards.
    Still, books help me become a better person, a person who understands the reasons behind others’ actions, etc.
    Wonderfully written discussion, Krysta!❤

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    • Krysta says:

      I really can’t root for adulterous affairs in works of fiction, but I certainly see how these works engage the sympathy of the audience. Usually I can think most clearly about the moral implications of a work only after I’ve finished it because until that point you’re being asked to assess it from the perspective of the work.

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  5. Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    I had to skim a bit, because I admit I have not read these, so I hope it doesn’t effect my contribution here😉 But I do not feel that stories have altered my morals or standards to any degree. I do agree it is easier to “relax” when reading. We know there is no real consequence.

    Books provide multiple angles in and perspectives, so it can be easier to find empathy. But if I am going to be honest here, I am a very empathetic person in real life. I can be angry or disappointed with someone’s choice and still grasp the underlying hurt or frustration that may have driven them to make their decisions. Sometimes we do not have to agree to be able to see ulterior motives. I think we have all made mistakes (to a degree). Of course there are some crimes/decisions that I cannot sympathize or find empathy for. We all have limits.

    Books may actually have to power to remind the reader that their is more than one side to the coin, and I think that is a valuable lesson. But I would be concerned and consider what I am reading if I found myself accepting behaviors that go against my moral judgment after reading a book.

    As always, this is a fantastic discussion post! I love how you can really bring people together to think about things❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I can never root for an adulterous affair in a book, but whenever I’ve been in a class that discussed such a work or talked with friends about one, the response generally seems to be that everyone else wants “true love” to win and that marriage vows don’t need to be taken seriously. Did you promise publicly to be faithful until death? Oh, that just means that when your relationship gets rocky, you can ignore the vows! I certainly understand feeling sympathy for the characters, but I can make a distinction between understanding one’s actions and condoning those actions.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Stefanie says:

    I love this discussion! I don’t think that I’ve actually ever had my morals changed by a book, but books have made me think about them. Adultery for example is never acceptable, but I like how the books show certain reasons that can cause it to happen. Does that mean I agree that this was the best action in the situation? No, not at all, but I can understand it to a certain extent. Of course, these books you mention were written in a time when divorce wasn’t an easy (or even possible) thing. This does play into the reason why understanding comes easier. If these were contemporary pieces my first thought would be “get a divorce, then find out who you are/true love/etc.” but it has to be said that for these people that wasn’t a readily available option. It’s unfair of us to look at these people and forget that they might have had less options than we do today. It still doesn’t make it okay, but it eases the perspective.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think it’s interesting to look at how stories work to gain our sympathy for something like adultery even if we close the book still thinking it’s unacceptable. For instance, Shakespeare in Love is a modern film that makes adultery more acceptable to viewers by relying on precisely what you mentioned–our modern understanding that marriage should be based on love. Viola wouldn’t have thought that. People in her society would have largely accepted marriage arrangements and tried to do the best with what they were given. People in Viola’s society in fact would probably have thought that Viola was lucky because she was an upper-class woman and it was stupid of her to try to become an actor. But we contemporary viewers see her actions as an indication of female agency and don’t stop to think that her life is pretty good as far as her time period goes.

      The movie also needs to have Will’s wife physically invisible so that we forget he’s actually married. He may or may not have married for love. We don’t know because he never talks about his wife. Do we assume then that he doesn’t care about her so it doesn’t matter if he cheats? Probably, or else even if we accepted that Viola’s engagement is irrelevant because she didn’t choose it, the love affair still wouldn’t work for viewers.

      I think that the same sorts of things play out even in modern stories. Stories depicting love affairs in any time rely upon garnering audience sympathy to some extent or they wouldn’t work. The same types of tropes play out even in more contemporary pieces. The wife nags the husband so he’s allowed to cheat. The husband belittles his wife so she’s allowed to cheat. You have to make one of the partners unsympathetic to “justify” the adultery, which is fascinating to me from a storytelling perspective.

      I think we see this played out a lot more in dating situations in modern stories? Maybe the boyfriend/betrothed is distant, neglectful, or mean, so we cheer on the female protagonist as she starts falling for another man. I’m thinking something like Letters to Juliet where the protagonist is engaged but she’s essentially dating another man because her fiance is too busy for her. She should have called off the engagement way before she does, but we don’t think about that because no one likes the fiance!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Stefanie says:

        You’re very right on this. These stories all rely on something to “vilify” one of the partners to make it more okay for the cheating to happen. But as you put it in your post, if that same situation were happening to you or your friend we would all be appalled! but in books and movies that’s just all okay apparently. Now I really feel like reading/watching something with cheating in it, but where the spouse/partner really isn’t doing anything bad, just to see how that would be portrayed.

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        • Krysta says:

          I can’t think of any book offhand where both partners seem kind of nice unless we count a love triangle. I would argue that it’s, if not cheating, at least unfair of, say, Katniss to be kind of encouraging Peeta and Gale at the same time (and I suppose you could change the names for any number of other books). But inevitably these triangles seem to resolve themselves by having one of the two men do something awful, thus eliminating the choice. It even happened in Pocahontas II! 😉

          Liked by 1 person

          • Stefanie says:

            Yeah, love triangles suck that way. It’s not a real decision if it’s made for you by the other person being horrible or whatever. I want books with love triangles that don’t resolve themselves this way but that end with the one person actually having to decide for herself between equally good people. Or maybe just books without love triangles, or the main character just not being able to pick anymore because the other people are like f*** no I don’t want you to have to take this long to pick me. But that might just be me…

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            • Krysta says:

              Hahaha! “No, I don’t want you to take this long to pick me!” It’s funny because that’s what I would probably say: “Well, if you can’t decide if I’m good enough, I’m sure there are plenty of people who appreciate me a lot more. Bye!” 😀

              But you’re right. I think it could be really moving to have to see someone make a choice between two equally worthy candidates. Think of the emotional impact for the readers. It’s not just, “So long, terrible man who just had to go become a serial killer and thus break up a perfectly good love triangle!”

              Liked by 1 person

            • Stefanie says:

              “So long, terrible man who just had to go become a serial killer and thus break up a perfectly good love triangle!” LOL!
              But I know right! I think it would be pretty awful to have someone take forever to decide whether or not you’re “good enough”, it wouldn’t make me happy in any case.

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  7. Emily | RoseRead says:

    Fascinating discussion! It reminds me of a panel I watched with several authors talking about their moral responsibility as storytellers. One of the authors, Patrick Rothfuss, discussed how he had his hero save a girl from a fire (have you read “Name of the Wind?”) and he felt bad writing about that because he didn’t want to perpetuate the damsel-in-distress trope. But he decided there was no better way to develop the relationship between those characters, so he kept it in. He also talked about how his young son expressed the desire to start smoking because he wanted to blow rings like Gandalf in The Hobbit! That made Rothfuss question the decisions he makes as a writer. While talking about children is a whole other topic because they are so easily influenced, I think to an extent, we certainly shape moral standards as we read. The storyteller wants our sympathies to lie with whomever they chose, and sometimes that means transversing moral gray areas. For example, I’m watching the BBC show Poldark, and the hero just did something I can never forgive him for, but the show clearly wants you to root for him (at least up until this point). I mean, Satan is clearly the “best” character in Paradise Lost, even though you know you aren’t supposed to like him, and IRL you denounce him, the story frames him as the hero of sorts. I’m always intrigued by stories that do this. It opens up these moral discussions that are so important in literature – after all, literature reflects life, and life is full of gray moral areas.

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    • Krysta says:

      I guess in a way we can never know how our words will be used–I’m guessing Milton didn’t mean to make Satan sympathetic–but it also seems impossible not to consider possible effects when we write. I’ve certainly met people who told me LotR made smoking seem attractive or comforting. Of all the things in LotR, it seems funny that something small like that should end up being what influences people, and yet it does! It seems easier to consider larger moments such as the potential to play into the damsel-in-distress trope (though I think we sometimes overthink this–I’m not opposed to a female being saved if she does more than get rescued during the course of the story. I just rewatched Castle in the Sky and while the girl is often rescued by the boy, she does her fair share of saving him in return, so it seems more like a partnership.). I haven’t read Name of the Wind, but I would assume that an author who was sensitive to that type of question in the first place handled the material sensitively as well. But I suppose now he is worried about all his choices and it’s just impossible to know what people will latch onto. I’ve always thought it funny that I once read somewhere that C. S. Lewis was encouraged to put in a disclaimer in LWW about not shutting yourself in the closet, but I suppose better safe than sorry??

      I haven’t watched season two of Poldark yet but I can guess the plot point because I saw spoilers and the funny thing is they supposedly changed it from the books to make it less offputting to viewers. But I am intrigued about how characters manage to do things we might find repugnant, but still garner enough of our sympathy that we want to keep following their story.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. TeacherofYA says:

    Wow, those are incredibly accurate points! I never thought of it that way…
    It’s so true. I read The Awakening and pitied the heroine, but I also thought the husband was being treated like garbage: he gave her all sorts of freedom to make her happy but there were only so many roles for a woman in Victorian society, I thought he was pretty considerate letting her do what she needed to do when most husbands would have been a lot angrier and might have done something horrible (back then of course).
    The infidelity is another problem: we DO root for the separated lovers…we never think of the actual cheating. Makes me mad I never realized this earlier!
    Thanks for the insightful post. I’m going to be more aware of my moral reading compass!

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