Do Moralists Make Bad Novelists?

A few days ago, in the New York Times, Alice Gregory wrote a short piece on the question, “do moralists make bad novelists?” I commend the article to you, not because I necessarily agree with it, but because it’s a well-expressed and thoughtful answer to the question.

In short, she argued that there are two kinds of moralists: didactic moralists and ambivalent moralists. Didactic moralists are those who write pamphlets disguised as novels, while ambivalent moralists are those who deal with moral questions without forcing them into a novel. I find the distinction helpful, but I want to suggest an additional nuance.

Andrew Peterson, speaking a few years ago at a conference, talked about a particular way to read the Bible. Before searching for a lesson in a Biblical story, he argued, we should let the story be a story. Let the reality of what we just heard sink in. That God split a sea in two, that a blind man saw again, that a dead man came back to life. These are miraculous realities. They contain a lesson, but they are realities nonetheless.

I’m not certain, but I think Gregory expresses this same sentiment about fiction when she says:

“For [the ambivalent moralist], ethics are measured and expressed in nonliteral units: the sorts of people to whom she chooses to extend her theory of mind, the small details upon which her characters disagree, the extent to which they are willing to forsake integrity for social graces. She does not inject her fiction with moral content, but moral content is there nonetheless.”

If by this she means that moral lessons ought not be crammed into novels where they don’t fit, I agree. However, a bit later, Gregory throws a wrench in this understanding.

“We live in an era of constant online castigation and unequaled opportunity to judge and be judged. We are unceasingly exposed to our friends’ and enemies’ real-time (and seldom flattering) calibrations in self-presentation, and novels should offer a relief from that.”

This seems to imply that novels are supposed to be an escape from constant moral judgement. But how can a novel deal with moral content without making some sort of moral judgement? Gregory seems to suggest that it is through “moralism with the intent to question,” in contrast to “moralism with the intent to teach.”

If we take Flannery O’Connor’s advice, however, that distinction might run into some trouble. O’Connor says that, “for the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye.” If I understand her correctly, she means that the writer must first observe before he writes. He must write about real people, and real worlds. That’s not to say that a writer can’t write fantasy, but that fantasy must be believable. In some sense, it has to be real. Stories must begin by expressing something concrete, not abstract, like an idea.

This leads to Gregory’s point about “moral content.” If we’re writing about concrete things, like actions, we’re going to write about morality because many concrete things carry a moral value. Stealing a cookie from the cookie jar is an action, but it is not a mere action. It is a wrong action. Portraying it as a wrong action is a moral judgement, even though it’s a commonly accepted moral judgement.

This makes me wonder if writing about reality without making moral judgements is, in fact, not writing about reality. Gregory’s distinction may be helpful, but I’m not sure her assertion that novels are an escape from judgement is workable. If we are to have “moral content,” it seems we must make moral judgements. It would simply be dishonest to portray, say, an attempt to slander a friend as amoral simply because we don’t want to make a judgement.

Again, I’m not sure that Gregory is arguing against this–there are some comments in her article, however, that make me wonder if she is.

Perhaps this question–do moralists make bad novelists?–is best answered by O’Connor. O’Connor is all for a distinction between a novel and a sermon, but while she agrees that a story is not a mere statement, statements will inform our stories. Or, as she puts it:

“Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.

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Stretching Our Characters

Last night, as I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was reminded yet again of one simple rule of storytelling: never let your characters get comfortable.

The episode took all of the show’s main characters and put them in situations where we would never imagine them, situations that seem antithetical to who they are. As a result, even though the plot was exceptionally weak, the episode was enjoyable.

This is a lesson I need to take to heart. Sometimes, as I write short stories or novels, or as I read short stories or novels, the authors will allow their characters to sit in their comfort zones. Perhaps a character’s comfort zone is fighting evil, like a James Bond. In that case, giving them more evil to fight doesn’t seem to do anything except let them stay where they’re comfortable. But if James Bond had to, say, let someone else fight evil instead–now he’s being pushed. Now he’s being stretched.

It’s when characters are stretched that I find myself most engaged in a story. Seeing them do what they’re best at is only interesting for so long.

The point being this: I need to remember to always stretch my characters in every way I can think of. I’ve seen a lot of stories suffer from underdeveloped characters due to comfortable scenarios, and I need to be careful to not make that mistake. If they’re comfortable, something’s wrong and the audience will probably lose interest very quickly. I need to heed that idea, and implement it in my own writing.

On One-Star Amazon Reviews Of Classics

Whenever I need a good laugh, if I don’t have a funny book close at hand, I tend to go take a look at one-star reviews of classics on Amazon. And boy, are they funny. The most humorous are the dogmatic ones that apparently have discovered the true quality of any given classic, contrary to the majority of thought on the subject. But whenever I look at these I’m always left slightly sad, at the same time as being amused. The attitude taken by many reviewers, and sadly, on occasion, myself, is that the quality of a book is up to the reviewer.

On One-Star Amazon Reviews of ClassicsThey are the ultimate arbiters of all that is good in the world of fiction. They are the ones who have the experience and taste to discern the good from the bad. It makes me wonder why we don’t accept that, in all likelihood, classics probably have something that makes them worth reading.

I think it might be appropriate, here, to point out several of the most enjoyable examples of this dogmatism.

The Old Man and the Sea Amazon Reviews:

“I will admit that Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has some compelling thoughts, but the only way I could accurately describe this book is “SnoozeFest 1952” or “That Awkward Moment When you are Holding a Book to Make it Appear Like you are Awake.” After reading this novel, I finally understand Pulitzer Prize criteria: not falling asleep during the most boring novel read within a certain year.”

“The only exciting thing in the whole book was when the sharks appeared. I cared so little for all the characters especially the old man I hoped they were going to eat the old man. But nope they ate his stupid marlin instead. When the reader is hoping for the “hero” to die your book sucks.”

“The book has no point except that humans keep fighting no matter what. The old man is catching a fish for about 80 of the 127 pages. It’s a very bad book that shouldn’t have ever been published.”

Beowulf Amazon Reviews:

“We spend the entire early years of education helping children love reading. They get to high school and we undo all the good with books like this.”

“Yes I suppose some would argue that this novel carries much culture and tradition with it, but give me a break! Jazz up the translation a bit and use language that REAL people can understand!!!!! Or don’t waste your time!!!! Unless you suffer from an extreme case of insomnia, suicidal depression, or sheer boredom, don’t come anywhere near this book!”

My Favorites are these, reviews of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories:

“An endless parade of moronic, seemingly sub-human characters. Four hours of torture, then I tossed it.”

“I read a couple of the short stories and found them to be a bit disturbing. Not at all what I expected. I do not need to have a “happy ever after” ending to stories but I read as an escape into anothter world. [sic] I did not enjoy visiting the world through Flannery O’Connor’s eyes. Sorry.”

There’s just a small sampling (and if you want more, this post provides a very nice collection of negative reviews of Fahrenheit 451) here, but enough to give you the picture. I find them amusing, but as I’ve already mentioned, also extremely sad. So again I ask, why do people refuse to accept that a classic may contain something that they just haven’t seen?

I should pause here, and point out that I am by no means completely excused from this fault. I have to remind myself constantly that the value and quality of a classic is not up to me. These types of posts are a way I remind myself, and hopefully get the thought out there.

I’ve written about this before, on why you should give a book a chance, but I want to elaborate on that. See, what I wrote about there had more to do with the approach one takes to a book, rather than what happens after one has finished that book. While I still do hold to what I wrote there–that it’s important to approach a story humbly–I want to say something else regarding our thinking about classics after we’ve read them.

And to write about this, I need the help of W.H. Auden.

Auden divided books up into five categories that my English teacher introduced me to, and I find incredibly helpful. Auden suggested that when we review books we divide them up into five categories: good books we don’t like, good books we like, books we neither like nor dislike, bad books we like, and bad books we don’t like.

The reason I’ve found this scale to be a helpful way to view books is because it allows for several things. First, it allows the reader to recognize that a book is good, but they simply did not enjoy it. This takes the humble approach to literature, and extends it to when we are reflecting on literature. Instead of judging our own personal tastes as the ultimate arbiter of everything good, it ensures that we view classics in what is probably a better light.

Sure, no one is demanding that you love every book ever considered a classic. I’m not a huge fan of Pride and Prejudice, and probably wouldn’t willingly choose to read it again. But that doesn’t mean that Pride and Prejudice isn’t a classic, or that it’s “less good,” if you will, than other classics.

All it means is that I don’t care for it.

The second thing Auden’s scale allows for is us to like bad stories. Sometimes, while we recognize that a book isn’t necessarily quality literature, we still enjoy it. And in and of itself, I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. But instead of having to defend everything we like as a quality book, Auden’s scale allows us to say, “you know what, I know what I’m reading isn’t good, but it is enjoyable.”

W.H. AudenAnd perhaps this is what the one-star reviewers are missing. Because what Auden does, fundamentally, is separate the objective quality of a book with someone’s subjective experience of that book. Our experience of a book doesn’t determine it’s quality, and neither does the quality of a book necessarily determine our experience (though it often does). Ultimately, what Auden’s scale seems to do is allow a better conversation occur surrounding any given book. Instead of a battle over the quality of a classic, it might be more beneficial to have a discussion about a certain person’s taste, or why they didn’t enjoy the book.

And perhaps, along the way, someone will discover that they actually did really enjoy a classic. That’s happened to me several times, where I walked into a class either disliking or apathetic about a classic we had just read, and after the class, after discussing the book and what it means, I saw what the book had to offer and truly began to enjoy it.

But note, the book did not become a good book when I started to enjoy it. Classics don’t need my affirmation. Maybe that’s what it boils down to, then. Classics stand by themselves, it is our enjoyment of them that can change. So, to all the one-star Amazon reviewers, I’d like to request that next time you sit down to write a scathing review of a classic that contradicts the majority of thought on said subject, and provides fodder for posts like these, do one thing.

Take a step back. And give the book a chance.

Writing As Respect

Recently I wrote a short story in which my main character took a position I personally completely disagree with. The details were unimportant; what is important is something that happened after I finished the story. Even though I ended up critiquing the mindset my character had, writing from his perspective brought something to mind.

Even though, by the end of the story, I still disagreed with the viewpoint, I respected it a bit more. It wasn’t that writing from his perspective had changed my mind, but rather it had shifted my perception–even if only a little bit. I saw the rationale behind the ideas he espoused. I understood the frustrations the ideas were born out of.

And really, this shouldn’t surprise me. It’s not anything new to say that writing is empathy–in fact, I’ve written on it before.

Pablo Picasso is often quoted as saying, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” I want to take that in a way that Picasso probably didn’t intend. When I wrote this character, which all his flaws, with all his opinions I disagreed with, I thought that he was lying in many of his declarations.

To put it simply, I thought, and still think, that many of the things he said were wrong–in the sense that they were not accurate representations of reality. But now let me apply Picasso to this story to explain precisely what I’m trying to get at. While this story was hardly art, it was, in a sense, a lie to (hopefully) tell the truth. My character may have been wrong, but through displaying the opinion of my character, I understood a little bit better the rationale behind that opinion.

Through writing what I believed to be a lie, I understand better the reality of why people hold the idea, or at least I hope so. So perhaps this is something else we can add to what is quickly becoming a list of “Writing As [Blank]” posts. Writing is thinking, writing is empathy, and maybe writing is also respect.

Could I be completely misguided in this? Absolutely, and because of that I’m curious to hear what you have to say. Is it valid to think of writing as respect?

The Strange Case of Mr. Chesterton and Dr. Frankenstein

In Romans 1:18, the Apostle Paul makes a universal–and quite startling–statement. He speaks of those who lack belief in God, and challenges an assertion often made by them. Many believe that atheists simply lack a particular belief. To put it differently, they believe in nothing. What Paul says is that atheists are a myth. There is no one who doesn’t believe in God. Paul tells us that all men, regardless of their stated beliefs, know God exists. According to Paul, people simply suppress this truth.

But Paul doesn’t just stop there, instead going on to say that those who suppress the truth “exchange the truth about God for a lie.” In other words, people do not simply lack a belief in God–they replace that belief with something else. English journalist and philosopher G.K. Chesterton got at this same point when he said, “When people stop believing in God, they won’t believe in nothing, they’ll believe in anything.” In other words, when people suppress the truth of God they don’t just forget about it, rather they replace it with something else–they replace it with a lie.

G.K. Chesterton Photo

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson I believe show their main characters displaying much of the same behavior that Paul talks about in Romans 1. Specifically, these two literary works deal with the concept of self-deception. Though they approach the subject in slightly different ways, it seems that the theme is quite obvious.

Frankenstein’s self-deception is blatant, ultimately leading to the destruction of his happiness and the lives of everyone around him. Dr. Jekyll’s self deception is subtler, and played out on a smaller and more intimate scale. But Dr. Jekyll’s self-deception leads to the same thing that Frankenstein’s does: it leads to his own destruction. I believe these two works show us different aspects of the concept of self-deception, as well as different consequences of it. Ultimately what ends up happening, I believe, is that both stories affirm Chesterton’s words, though slightly augmented. When people stop believing in the truth, it’s not that they believe in nothing. When people stop believing in truth, they will believe in anything.

Before we examine self-deception in light of these two works, a definition of self-deception is needed. Collins English Dictionary defines self-deception as, “the act or an instance of deceiving oneself, especially as to the true nature of one’s feelings or motives.” Only a few comments are needed on this definition. First, even though Collins Dictionary explicitly states that self-deception often concerns emotions or motives, this is not the only type of self-deception. Rather, one can deceive oneself as to just about anything, which is what the first part of the definition gets at.

The second thing that needs to be said is that the definition makes clear that this is a willful action. Self-deception is an act perpetrated by the self-deceiver. Those who lie to themselves do not do so accidentally–rather it is a definite and specific act of believing in a false reality.

With an understanding of self-deception set, seeing it in Frankenstein and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde should be fairly easy. Let’s start with Frankenstein, primarily because the self-deception is blatant, as I said before. Frankenstein’s plot is well-known: Frankenstein, an obsessive scientist creates a creature, then rejects that creature. The creature runs off, seeking to integrate himself into the world. But everywhere he turns he meets only sorrow and hatred–people do not accept him in the least. The anger and vitriol begins to build, until finally the creature goes on a murderous rampage, killing all of Frankenstein’s closest friends.

Where does the self-deception come in? It begins, I believe, when the first murder occurs. Frankenstein receives a letter telling him that his nephew William has been killed, and immediately sets out to go comfort his family. But on the way there, Frankenstein sees the creature and realizes that he must have killed William.

Immediately the self-deception begins. Frankenstein is sorrowful that he created the monster, bemoaning the sadness it has brought him. When Justine, a good friend of Frankenstein’s family, is framed by the monster the sorrow only increases. The guilt piles up, but even here Frankenstein refuses to face reality. Though he is sad he created the beast, he fails to recognize that he is directly responsible for both William’s death and Justine’s conviction.

His rejection of his own creation started the monster on a trajectory of murder and destruction. But throughout the story, as the bodies pile up, Frankenstein still refuses to accept this. The deception is subtle, but it is most certainly there.

Instead of taking the blame for the murders, Frankenstein shifts it to the monster. When he meets the creature in the mountains he reviles him, going on and on about how evil the creature is. The blame is no longer on Frankenstein–the murders aren’t his fault, they are the monster’s fault.

Now to be sure, Frankenstein feels guilty for creating the creature but there is never an acknowledgement that it was his ambition–his obsessive drive to control life–that led to the death of his nephew, his friends, his father, and even his wife. All that is the monster’s fault. Where does this leave Frankenstein at the end? At the end of the book Frankenstein is alone and lost. His obsession is still there, though it is reversed. Now he is obsessed with destroying the creature, but he still has failed to take the blame on himself. He believes that justice will be served with the death of the creature because he believes that all the murders are directly and solely the fault of the creature. He does not consider that he may have acted unjustly himself. His self-deception has left him destitute and tormented by grief.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, like I said, plays this self-deception out on a smaller scale. Due to the unconventional nature of the story structure, the deception only becomes obvious at the end. When Dr. Jekyll discovers a way to split his personality, incarnating all that is evil in him in the person of Mr. Hyde, he believes he can control it. After all, Jekyll reasons, Mr. Hyde will only appear when I take the concoction, and he will disappear in a definite amount of time.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Book Cover

Slowly, however, Mr. Hyde begins to take over. This, of course, relays a more conventional message: playing with evil is like playing with fire–someone is going to get burned. But I also believe it touches on something else. Dr. Jekyll, despite the slow loss of control the audience sees going on, still believes he can control Mr. Hyde. He tells himself over and over again that he is in control. Of course, this is all a lie. Mr. Hyde eventually completely takes over leading to the death of Dr. Jekyll.

Jekyll played with fire and deceived himself into thinking he was immune to the heat. But deception is just deception, and eventually he was burned. It’s a tragic ending, but perhaps an inevitable one.

Reflecting on self-deception as displayed in these two works brings something interesting to light. It seems that Frankenstein displays an outward self-deception, while The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde displays an inward self-deception. What I mean by this is that Frankenstein deceives himself about the true nature of events going on around him. He forces himself to believe that the murders occurring are not his fault.

Dr. Jekyll, however, deceives himself about his own nature and his own power. Instead of feeding himself a false reality about the reason and motive for events going on around him, he tells himself a story about his own abilities and desires. Frankenstein lies about the world around him. Dr. Jekyll lies about himself.

I do not believe it is necessary to ask the question as to which is worse. In fact, I believe doing so would miss the point entirely. Self-deception is dangerous and destructive. Whether that destruction touches everyone around us, or whether it simply wrecks ourselves can differ from scenario to scenario. But what these two works say loud and clear is that reality needs to be recognized, and when it isn’t Chesterton is right.

Frankenstein tells us that failing to recognize reality as it pertains to our own culpability doesn’t lead to us simply having no opinion as to who is culpable–it leads to us blaming the wrong person. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tells us that failing to accurately assess our own abilities doesn’t lead to us having no view of ourselves. Rather, it leads to us overestimating or underestimating who we are.

And so, from this cursory examination, it seems like Chesterton was right, as he often is. When we stop believing the truth–whether that truth is about our own guilt or our own frailty–we do not believe in nothing. Instead, we believe in anything. And that may be far, far more dangerous.

Writing As Empathy

I’ve talked about this before a little bit, but I think it’s worth mentioning again. This past weekend I was at a debate tournament with several fascinating people. In between debates I ended up simply sitting down and talking to most of them, hearing their backgrounds, and letting them tell their stories.

And once again I was reminded of the simple fact that stories are all around us. The people we walk by in, I don’t know, Wal-Mart have stories and stories–entire lives surrounding them. They’ve hurt and cried, they’ve laughed and rejoiced. People have stories richer than we could ever imagine. So often I, at least, find myself simply walking by these people. They’re just other shoppers. People who I’ll never see again, and probably won’t remember anything about them tomorrow.

But they’re not. They’re real people that have had real experiences. I need to remember that. Why?

My Dad will, on occasion, whenever we go to theme parks or something of the like, tell me about a game he plays. He’ll look around at the people surrounding him and make up stories about who they are, where they come from, and what they’ve experienced. Of course, he doesn’t think that these stories are really their stories, but it’s an exercise that’s always caught my attention, because it applies that basic belief: that everyone has a story. Even if we don’t know what it is, we can guess because there is one. But when we forget that, what happens?

Right now in Africa there are thousands who have died due to Ebola. But how many of us simply think of them as numbers? How many of us realize that they lived lives, that they had plans?

I know I have a tendency to simply think of numbers, and I need to stop. I need to remember that everyone has a history.

I tweeted out a link to an interview recently, and even though I can’t endorse the book or even everything that’s said in the interview, this one thing did stand out to me. The author being interviewed said this:

“There was a study done recently that shows that people who read fiction have a greater capacity for empathy, right? We all knew that; we just didn’t have the data to back it up. To learn about the lives of people who are nothing like you does teach you to understand that the world doesn’t rise and fall with you, and that you have to be charitable to others.”

In a sense, that’s why we write. It’s definitely not the only reason, but it’s an important one. Writing can help us see other people’s live, who they are, what they do, and why they do what they do. Which leads me to ask a question: is writing a form of empathy? I’ve talked before about how writing is thinking, and I still hold to that. But writing certainly doesn’t have to be just one thing–maybe it’s both thinking and empathy. I’m sure this has been talked about before, but this is the first time I’ve really examined it. So what do you think? Is writing a form of empathy?

Macbeth, Two-Face, and Beowulf

In the film The Dark Knight, Director Christopher Nolan includes a character that embodies a phrase. That character is Two-Face and the phrase is “there are two sides to every coin.” The embodiment is rather obvious, but the lesson is well-taken, and the saying seems to hold true. There usually are at least two sides to every issue, and every concept.

Over the past school quarter I’ve read two books that seem show two sides of the same coin. I’d like to look at how Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, and Beowulf, by an unknown author, embody two sides of the concept of stoicism.

Before I go any further, though, it might be helpful to define what I mean by stoicism. Merriam-Webster defines stoicism as, “the quality or behavior of a person who accepts what happens without complaining or showing emotion.” I mean something slightly different by the term, but I can’t think of another word to describe what I’m trying to get at. When I use the term stoicism in this post, I’m referring to two things primarily. The first is a staunch and unwavering–stoic, if you will–commitment to one’s actions, despite any adverse consequences. The second is a commitment to some sort of fatalism, some sort of acceptance that what happens will happen and that there’s nothing we can do to stop it.

So how exactly do Macbeth and Beowulf display this?

For Macbeth, the first part of the definition becomes obvious near the beginning of the story. When we first see Macbeth, he is loyal to the king. Even after he hears the witches’ prophecy, he still remains loyal. But then, after his wife pushes him over the edge and convinces him to kill the king, he never second-guesses that decision. Sure, after he kills the king he feels guilt for it, but he is unwave

Macbeth and Beowulf seem to say something about stoicism.

ring in his commitment to what he has done. He stands by it, even though he knows it is wrong. This is an interesting twist in his character. One might think that Macbeth, who seems loyal at first, would at the very least constantly regret what he’s done. But he doesn’t. Does he feel guilty? Sure. But it didn’t seem to me that there’s much, if any, regret.

The fatalism comes in a rather interesting way. The obvious first appearance of fatalism is the witches’ prophecy. Macbeth treats it as a non-negotiable. He doesn’t seem to think that there’s anything he can do to stop it, but that it will happen, regardless of his actions. All his wife convinces him to do is speed up the inevitable.

But more fascinating to me is what happens after he kills the king. In his besieged castle, Macbeth is urged to flee, but he refuses. Why? Put simply, because he thinks that what will happen will happen. Macbeth says:

I pull in resolution, and begin

To doubt the equivocation of the fiend

That lies like truth: ‘Fear not, till Birnam wood

Do come to Dunsinane’; and now a wood comes toward Dunsinane. Arm, arm, and out!

If this which he avouches does appear,

There is no flying hence nor tarrying here.

It seems like a fatalistic sentiment, but a slightly less obvious instance fatalism comes in earlier in that scene.

She should have died hereafter.

There would have been a time for such a word.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.

Macbeth is here speaking of Lady Macbeth’s death, but it’s of great interest to me how he puts it. The first line, “she would have died hereafter” followed by a monologue on the inevitability of death must be considered in our discussion of fatalism.

To sum up what appears to be said about stoicism in Macbeth, Macbeth’s staunch commitment to his actions lead to his ultimate demise. In addition, it seems like they seal the audience’s opinion of the character. We might have forgiven him if he had been so riddled with guilt he wasn’t able to operate, and ultimately repented. But there’s none of that. Sure there’s guilt, but he is committed to his actions. The fatalism seems to actually be one of the causes of his death. Perhaps he would have lived, at least a bit longer, if he had fled from his castle.

We’ll come back to Macbeth in a second, but I want to look at Beowulf. This one’s easier, but presents the other side of the coin to Macbeth’s rather tragic approach to stoicism. Beowulf is stoic in his commitment in a much better way. At least, it is looked upon more favorably in the book.

When Beowulf arrives in Hrothgar’s land he is irrevocably determined to kill the monsters or die trying. Before all three of the fights in the book, he expresses his fierce determination and unwavering resolve. He will do what he will do, regardless of any opposing forces. It’s far more obvious than in Macbeth, but still provides what I believe to be an important part to this discussion.

The fatalism is slightly less pronounced in Beowulf, but to me it definitely seems to be there. At multiple points in the story Beowulf speaks of how his battles are predetermined, to an extent. He’s going to fight as hard as he can, but he doesn’t seem to think that the outcome is ultimately up to him. It’s a subtle sort of fatalism that might not even be worthy of the name, but it’s similar to Macbeth’s.

So what’s the point? The point is simply this: I found it fascinating how these two stories provided the opposite views on this issue of stoicism. Macbeth shows the dark side–the staunch commitment to his actions ensures his total descent into evil, and his fatalistic beliefs appear to be one of the causes of his death. Beowulf gives us a better view of the first part of stoicism. His stoic approach to his battles inspires hope in his friends, and seems courageous to us. The fatalism seems to be neutral in the story–not commented upon one way or the other.

Thus, we see two sides to commitment, and two sides to fatalism. We see how unwavering commitment can destroy, and how it can be courageous. We see how fatalism can also destroy, and how it can simply be accepted and lived with. Whether or not the authors intended these themes to be present in their story, I couldn’t help but notice the way they apparently unintentionally play off each other in regards to this theme. It’s not a mind-blowing thought by any stretch of the imagination, but it stood out to me as I read these works.