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Your Story Doesn’t Need A Moral

I think I’m going to like this novel.

The star character of Atonement is clearly Briony, a 12-year-old imaginative girl who writes short plays and novellas in her spare time. She’s 12. So that means she has a lot of spare time.

Having Briony as the protagonist, at least early in the book, allows author Ian McEwan to talk up writing and creativity. McEwan does that early and often, which makes Atonement, at times, feel like a handbook on writing more than a novel.

This quote from early in the book jumped out at me. Great insight on writing a story here:

“There did not have to be a moral. She need only show separate minds, as alive as her own, struggling with the idea that other minds were equally alive. It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding, above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you. And only in a story could you enter these different minds and show how they had an equal value. That was the only moral a story need have.”

On the heels of The Grapes of Wrath–a novel that I loved, but a novel that definitely had a moral (a preachy moral at that)–it’s nice to encounter a fresh perspective like this from McEwan.

I love that third sentence: “It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding, above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.”

You have to wonder how many times in life we become unhappy over a simple misunderstanding that, in our mind, we’ve turned into some scheming manipulative plan crafted by someone who is out to get us. It’s interesting how much quicker we’ll give grace to ourselves than we’ll give grace to someone else, failing to realize that we’re all human with flaws, imperfections, and the propensity to miscommunicate and misunderstand.

Anyway, I’m not trying to get preachy myself…that passage just took my mind down that road. It’s such a great insight into the tension in story and how a developed character might think.

What stands out to you from that passage?

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11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Teresa #

    “Enter those minds and show how they have an equal value”. Reminds me of how Malamud worked with his characters in The Assistant. Very nice. I’m looking forward to reading this one.

    Like

    September 5, 2012
    • Great point. Didn’t think about the comparison to Malamud.

      Like

      September 5, 2012
  2. I love the point that “only in a story could you enter those minds.” As a student of English and also a service-oriented individual, I sometimes find myself having to justify (if only to my own conscience) spending so much time on something with no obvious useful component…McEwan sums up the whole argument right there.

    Like

    September 5, 2012
  3. Beth #

    That’s such an interesting passage. The part “the simple truth that other people are as real as you.” just hits on such an interesting idea. Reality.
    I really do need to read this book.

    Like

    September 5, 2012
  4. Kim #

    “Other people are as real as you.” I know several adults who need this reminder. At times, I’m sure I could be counted among them.

    Glad you’re liking Atonement so far, after being afraid it’d be a sappy story. I’ll be interested to see how your perception of the characters shifts throughout the novel. There were definitely times I wanted to throttle some of them.

    Like

    September 5, 2012
    • I quite often want to throttle characters, so that shouldn’t be too different.

      Like

      September 5, 2012
  5. Mandy Berman #

    You are going to like it. One of the best.

    Like

    September 5, 2012
  6. onehistorynerd #

    I absolutely loved this. Couldn’t put it down!
    I hope you enjoy it.

    Like

    September 6, 2012
  7. May #

    I think I need to re-read it. Knowing the ending, that passage evokes a lot of things, which means McEwan did some foreshadowing that I didn’t pick up on.

    Like

    September 10, 2012
  8. That’s so interesting. I read this book but I didn’t pay as much attention to the first part. I found it a bit slow, and I was skimming I guess.

    But this really is a wonderful quote you have highlighted

    Like

    September 17, 2012

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  1. Atonement: A Handbook On Writing | 101 Books

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