The Moral of the Tale

Everyone knows stories with morals. Disney's fairy tale adaptations are some of the best examples of this genre. (And if a fairy tale doesn't have a moral, someone will shoehorn one in somewhere.) Some stories weave the moral in subtly. Others are as subtle as a punch in the face. But there's nothing inherently wrong with a story having a moral.

Nerissa McCormick

Everyone knows stories with morals. Disney's fairy tale adaptations are some of the best examples of this genre. (And if a fairy tale doesn't have a moral, someone will shoehorn one in somewhere.) Some stories weave the moral in subtly. Others are as subtle as a punch in the face. But there's nothing inherently wrong with a story having a moral.

The problem begins when people see morals where there aren't any.

Two examples from my own experience:

Last year I wrote a short story about a fairy who steals clocks. I'd no purpose in writing it except to entertain. But when I showed it to a friend, the first thing she said was, "What's the moral?"

For this year's NaNoWriMo, I'm planning a fantasy/mystery story which features a ghost, a werewolf, and a monster. I was discussing the plot with a friend when someone else -- who's an English teacher, which might explain it -- asked, "What lesson do you want this story to teach?"

"I don't want to teach any lesson," I told him. "It's just a mystery with monsters."

He didn't believe me. He said, "Every story must teach something!"

I did some reading, and discovered this is an attitude that's become increasingly widespread. Many people seem to think that unless your story teaches its readers something, there's no point in writing it.

I politely but firmly disagree with them.

A book can be good without teaching a moral. What moral does A Tale of Two Cities teach? "Never go to France or you'll have to die in another man's place"? What about Pride and Prejudice? "Marry someone who once insulted you, but only after they save your family from disgrace"? Or The Lord of the Rings? "Never pick up a ring you found in a cave or you'll start a war over the fate of the world"?

Obviously, these books don't have a central moral. And all of them are rightly considered classics. So the idea that a book must teach something is clearly wrong.

I suspect the people with this idea are confusing "moral" with "theme". Yes, the majority of stories should have a theme. Though there are plenty of stories out there without a theme which became popular anyway. Twilight, anyone? And there are genres where themes are unnecessary -- mystery novels, for example, usually don't have a theme beyond inviting the reader to solve the mystery along with the detective.

To reuse the example of the three books mentioned earlier, what's the theme of A Tale of Two Cities? "Recalled to life"/"I am the resurrection and the life" and the idea of coming back from (metaphorical) death are repeated multiple times through the book. What about Pride and Prejudice? Obviously, it's "first impressions can be misleading". At first Elizabeth thinks Darcy is a jerk and Wickham is a decent guy. By the end her opinion is the exact opposite. And The Lord of the Rings? Whole books have been written on its themes.

Returning to the subject of morals, should a story have a moral?

In my opinion, this is entirely for the author to decide. If you want to write a story with the moral "beauty is only skin deep" or "don't judge a book by its cover", that's up to you. But you'd better be careful not to hit the reader over the head with the moral. People who go to church want to be preached at. People who read books usually don't.

On the other hand, if you don't want your story to have a moral, that's also up to you. And without one, you're free to write your story however you want without worrying if it ever contradicts the moral. Far too many books out there ignore the lessons they claim to teach.

But whether the author intends to their story to have a moral or not, please don't assume every story must have one.

19+ Comments


I’m a believer that every story is the child of the author and hence I totally agree with you Nerissa on this topic of “Morals”. It’s up to the writer to decide what suits best for his works and what’s not.

Though I often try to look for the moral a story shares when I’m reading it, I never disliked the idea if I can’t find one. In connection with nature of the story, the writer can manage to get it right with the choices he/she makes.

I’m doing my profession as a nanny and I write stories to be shared with the kids I’m in charge of. Sometimes I go with totally funny incidents without any teaching lessons in it as my intention is to get them thoroughly enjoyed and laughed. But I prefer to write stories that are bound to teach the kids a lesson or two as well, where I deliberately make efforts to contribute to the character development of the children.

So my final verdict on this moral issue is: Author is the King

Aug-02 at 08:25


I disagree with the author of the original blog, probably not in the direction she might expect. I believe that every story does teach some thing, in fact I believe it probably teaches a dozen some things or even more. Let’s take humor how many of us have told a joke and I’ve had somebody say to us, “that’s not funny! “With a frown on their face. What is probably going on there is it the reason that you thought the joke was funny was because that you believed something that the person responding to disagreed with. You literally disagreed on the moral of the message.
One example would be what we might call ethnic Jokes. When I was young it was absolutely standard fare for a comedian to say, “two Irishmen walk into a bar.” Now the joke may or may not have been funny depending upon what the Irishman did, but today the joke would be ruled not funny because it’s about two Irishmen. Because nowadays we are not allowed to make jokes that point to genericDifferences between classes of people. Jokes about men versus women, Irishman versus Italians, those are all ruled out of bounds by certain classes of society.
So back in my day the person telling the joke would have assumed that it was a good thing that there were differences between types of people, and to laugh about them. Nowadays those thoughts are out of bounds.
So if one is telling a story about two hobos: they are sleeping in peoples barns without asking permission, drinking from their wells without paying for it, and even eating fruit off a tree; the story may not intend to be about the rightness or wrongness of those things. But if the author does not have them punished for those things then the moral is going to come across that those things were OK. That is what people are going to hear.

Aug-02 at 14:36


We used to make jokes about each other in an amiable, non-threatening way. NO demographic was exempt! Living in the rural Midwest, people like me often were as likely to be the targets of jokes about us being clueless hicks as any other demographic. Now we are being told by that worthless snowflake bag of crap Robin DiAngelo (WHITE FRAGILITY) that comedy is “just an excuse to be racist.” I’m 76. I grew up in the REAL America, the America with free speech, where if you REALLY got offensive, you might well get a bloody nose, and rightfully so! But you didn’t have some scumbag telling you “you can’t say that!”

So the moral of MY story is this. I’ll write what I damned well please. I am well aware that there are publishers out there–waaaay too many of them!–either ‘woke’ themselves or just cowards, who will cave to the demands of the ‘woke’ crowd. They are the ones who proclaim in their screeds for submissions that they are “especially interested in ‘underrepresented voices’” (BIPOC, LGBTQ, etc. etc.) In other words, they aren’t interested in anything by straight white males or political conservatives no matter how good it may be, but will publish substandard trash if it’s from the correct ‘woke’ point of view.

So be it. If I never get another thing published, I’m OK with that. But I won’t abridge or change my stuff or stifle myself to please members of the new gestapo like DiAngelo and her ilk.

Aug-02 at 15:24


I always equated a moral with a fable–it’s meant to teach.

Most people do not write fables today.

I can learn from Pride & Prejudice, The DaVinci Code, The Eaters Of The Dead–the list goes on. if they did not present what my mother called The Human Condition, they are not worthwhile as art. I keep saying this. We tell the lie to tell the truth about people.

Moral is not theme, though. I will agree with that.

My question about your story your friend commented on is this: Did the MC learn anything? Did they grow? If they did not, then this is probably a slice-of-life piece, which wouldn’t have any real growth. Sometimes the journey is the point.

Aug-03 at 20:25


As Sandra says, fables with simple didactic “morals of the story” are out of fashion today, and that’s probably a good thing. People like to learn (as Sandra observes); but they don’t generally want to be preached at. Moreover, I believe too great a concentration on the Message of a story tends to distort the story. I believe it was playwright Moss Hart who said, “If you’ve got a message, call Western Union.” (I.e., send a telegram, for those of us too young to remember telegrams. ;))

At the same time, every story necessarily communicates something – a worldview, for instance – and in almost every case there’s an evaluative aspect to that something. So we can learn from the story, even in a moral sense, although there may be no straightforward or simple “moral” to be found. It gives us something to think about.

So I think it remains fruitful to talk about, say, the “meanings” or implications of a story, despite the fact that I tend to run the other way from a story that’s designed primarily to put across a “moral.”


Aug-03 at 22:07


Of course there is a little bit of circularity here. Since no one is producing stories with explicit morals, it is difficult to know what the reaction would be if someone did. They were typically children’s books, so that would have to be where they had a revival.

Aug-03 at 22:33


Actually, the story I currently have up for critique has a moral–the same moral as THE WIZARD OF OZ–“there’s no place like home”…“home” is almost an extinct idea in today’s sad, rootless society. I’ve heard it said somewhere that the most beautiful word in the English language is “home”…if so, it’s just another beautiful thing we have lost.

Aug-03 at 22:58


[quote] Since no one is producing stories with explicit morals, it is difficult to know what the reaction would be if someone did.

I remember reading the 18th-century English novels in the university (I was just late for the 19th-century fiction seminar registration :-)) - they mandated morals in novels in those days. It wasn’t jarring.

Aug-03 at 23:13


See, now, I always thought the moral of the Wizard Of Oz was that you have the power within you to do what you want most. The Scarecrow wants to have a brain, so he gets a diploma. Suddenly he can think great thoughts. Tinman wants a heart. He gets a symbolic heart. Now he knows he has a feeling heart. The Cowardly Lion wants courage. Upon being given a medal, he feels more courageous. Finally, Glinda points out Dorothy always had the power to send herself home. The abilities were always there, they just didn’t recognize it in themselves.

Do you live a rootless existence? I don’t. I have deep roots. Also, they say home is where the heart is. My heart lived a lonely existence for 10 1/2 months in hospitals and nursing facilities while recovering from my amputations. My heart wanted to be in my home–which is wherever my husband happens to be.

I think the most beautiful word in the English language (or any language) is love. Full of positivity, heavy with desires and hopes. Something beautiful to be attained, to lift our hearts and minds and spirits. Home can be love. But love is such a high ideal we should strive for in all we think, say and do I can’t rate any other word above that.

Aug-04 at 00:32


Sending me off on a web search for views on ‘the moral of the Wizard of Oz’…

Aug-04 at 01:05


Regarding ‘home’ - I read The Wizard of Oz in Ukrainian when I was 12 (sorry, couldn’t help, but mention that :-)). It wasn’t available in Russian and I didn’t know English back then (we owned no English books anyway).
Yeah, I didn’t think that was the moral, I was just excited by the adventure. I would gladly get away from home to experience the same when I was 12.
But you’re right, probably, there’s that aspect in The Wizard of Oz as well.
By the way, The Wizard of Oz is not popular in Russia, as it was rewritten into a larger series of three or four books by a Russian writer based on the same initial premise.

Aug-04 at 09:13


So, I just read the original post, and I disagree entirely with their examples of successful stories ‘with no morals.’ I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice, but I have read A Tale of Two Cities and The Lord of the Rings, and I don’t know how they read those without picking up the blatant moral themes. It isn’t that Dickens or Tolkein went out to teach a moral, but their innate morality shines through in the themes.
This could very well just be an example of how people are able to look at both fictional stories and true history and be unable to apply their lessons to the here and now. You can’t look at the history of slavery in America, for example, and think the lesson we should learn is that white people shouldn’t ensalve black people - yes, this is a true thing, slavery was insanely horrible, but the lesson we actually should learn is that no one should ever be treat another human being as lesser than themselves. Slavery is simply one type of atrocity that proves this, but there are hundreds of other ways that we still today treat other humans as less than human by using one excuse or another as to why they aren’t quite as human as the rest of us. We still haven’t learned, because we are unable to apply that moral to a separate situation. People today can look back on the Chinese communist revolution and somehow not see it repeating itself over and over again. They read Orwell, agree with him, then go on to engage in double-speak and censorship anyway. Because they don’t see how those things - and the morals we can learn from them - apply to right now, or to their own selves.
I’m not trying to speak badly of the writer of the original post. I think they just used bad examples. If you want an example of a successful story that has no morals, try Beavis and Butthead Do America or something. Literally no morals, just a string of ridiculous events done all for laughs. But I do find it odd how people compartmentalize the morals themes of stories without seeing the whole picture. If anyone for a second thinks the lesson of A Tale of Two Cities is about not going to France during the French Revolution (somehow not seeing the theme of how the oppressed became the oppressors once they had the power), or that LOTR is about not picking up a ring (and somehow miss the themes of how no one is insignificant, and again another theme on the corrupting influence of power), they missed the ENTIRE point of both books.

Aug-04 at 12:32


I think cross-culture literature/movies etc is very interesting. What translates well and what poorly. Why do American films do so well, and other films do so poorly cross culturally? Every French film seems to end in depression, yet the French watch US films with their happy go lucky endings. I would love to read some good research on the issue.

Aug-04 at 17:25


[quote]I think cross-culture literature/movies etc is very interesting. What translates well and what poorly. Why do American films do so well, and other films do so poorly cross culturally? Every French film seems to end in depression, yet the French watch US films with their happy go lucky endings. I would love to read some good research on the issue.

French, Italian and other European films do great in Russia. Not all of them end in depression (or probably, it’s just less depression than people there are accustomed to).
I thought about the endings a long time ago and it occurred to me that English classical novels always had a happy or, at least, hopeful, ending, unlike French, Russian or German ones. So it could be a tradition, that a story must or mustn’t end well. People get used to that.
On the other hand, happy endings are always heartwarming (unless they’re awfully shoehorned).
There’s the industry aspect too. There are no Hollywood budgets in Europe, so there are more American movies on the market.

Aug-04 at 17:46


Oh, not all French films are depressing. Seriously not depressing are the following: La Cage Aux Folles, Et Jouet, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, The Tall Blonde Man With One Black Shoe, Brotherhood Of The Wolf, Amelie, Tartuffe and I have to say, Abel Gance’s Napoleon. To name a few. Sorry, I can’t recall all the French titles, they were translated on the theater marquee.

The French were also avid Jerry Lewis fans. :slight_smile:

Aug-05 at 05:12


And La Grande Vadrouille, La Chèvre, La Gloire de mon Père…

Aug-05 at 06:10


Something I find quite common in today’s writing is that most writers (at least based upon the ones I have read) seem to be pushing their own narratives. For instance, in medieval fiction, the main characters always have to be ahead of their time (feminists in the 12th century, anti-clerical, know better than the Church, etc.). While occasionally having characters buck a common trend is fine (there were non-conformists in all ages), it gets tiring that every main character has become that. It’s clearly pushing the common thought of the 21st century rather being more authentic to the time period. Is it pushing a particular moral? Perhaps not. But it is pushing an agenda.

Aug-05 at 13:50


Not a moral, a platform. There seems to be a trend in publishing now where people ask about people’s platform. If I wrote my experiences about losing my legs, that would be my platform.

Aug-05 at 13:58


That! It’s really jarring sometimes. Although it depends on the readers’ background. If the historical knowledge amounts to long dresses for women and tournaments then it’s to be expected - modern characters are just set against an “exotic” medieval backdrop. Much like the Romantic period writers, who used medieval or Arabian settings without much authenticity, besides the visuals.
So I, personally, can’t really enjoy books that describe characters and events that could not have happened under any circumstances in that time period. Why not set them in an alternate reality then? I get that a 12th-century non-conformist would be ridiculously conservative for us, but still, stories of Joan of Arc or Eleanor of Aquitaine strike us as rather bold.

Aug-05 at 14:20
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