Sunday, July 22, 2012

Moral Relativism in Fiction*

Russian edition of Anna Karenina 
Would Anna Karenina have killed herself in the 21st Century?

Moral values change with time. They also vary according to religion, culture, geography and political inclination. Your inability to relate to a plot, or to the ending of a novel, may be linked to your own views and beliefs. So before you throw that book against the wall, consider the context of the novel and its author. Romantic relationships are not treated the same way by writers of different eras and cultures, and the fate of “forbidden” loves are dependent on the social conventions of their place and time.

I could never understand why Edith Wharton had chosen to keep Newland and Ellen apart at the end of The Age of Innocence. Hadn’t they suffered enough? (I even complained about it here). This past week, I finally understood her reasons. And I owe it all to Ronald Tobias’ 20 Master Plots and How to Build Them. (Thanks Stephanie for recommending it!)

Set in 1870’s New York, Newland Archer is engaged to May Welland. When May’s cousin, Ellen Olenska, abandons her husband in Europe and moves to New York with the intention of divorcing him, May’s family is outraged. They recruit Newland to convince Ellen to go back to her husband and forget all about the divorce. Newland, however, becomes fascinated with Ellen and the two of them fall in love. But Newland is a man of honor and marries May nonetheless. Time doesn’t subdue his feelings for Ellen and he is determined to leave May for Ellen. That is, until May announces she’s pregnant. Ellen returns to Europe and Newland stays with May until she dies (twenty-six years later!) Already an old man, Newland and his son visit Paris, where Ellen now lives. Newland’s son insists they visit her, but Newland refuses to go to her apartment and walks away.

According to Tobias, forbidden loves never end up happily and the lovers must “pay their overdue bill to society” (most of the time with death). “Society, it seems, never loses.” (Tobias, pg.224)  Since divorce was condemned during Wharton’s lifetime, she couldn’t have given her protagonists a happy ending even though both were free to be together.

For a modern viewer, the notion that divorce would have been punished with unhappiness seems unconceivable (at least in the Western world). For us, the power of love should trample appearances and societal norms. “Love conquers all” has become the mantra of most works of fiction. Perhaps if a contemporary author had written The Age of Innocence, Newland and Ellen would have been together in the end.

The Unfaithful Wife

Historically, women have been punished harshly for being unfaithful. Literature has set an example with stern consequences for this transgression. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina are the most common cases of study. In both instances, their punishment was death.

But there were other, more subtle, penalties for women who betrayed their marital vows in fiction. In Somerset Maugham’s novel The Painted Veil (1925), Kitty marries Doctor Walter Fane out of convenience. Walter is devoted to Kitty, but she is bored with him and has an affair with the charming Charles Townsend. When Walter finds out about the affair, he takes his wife to a cholera-infested village in China to punish her. With illness and death around her, Kitty goes through a transformation and realizes how altruistic her husband is. But she never falls in love with him. Walter dies and Kitty returns to Hong Kong, where once again she falls under Townsend’s charms. This encounter disgusts her (she had been welcomed by Townsend’s wife into their home). Kitty returns to England and devotes her life to her son and father. But she never knows real love and has lost her dignity and self-respect.

In the 2006 film version, starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, the director gives Kitty a second chance. During her time in the Chinese village, Kitty not only matures and helps the sick, but she also falls in love with Walter, who eventually forgives her. (He never does in the original novel.) Kitty and Walter have a few days of bliss and love, but like in the book, Walter succumbs to the disease. A redeemed Kitty returns to London where, years later, she runs into Townsend. She is courteous but indifferent, and when her son asks who that man is, she answers “no one important.” In this version, Kitty also loses Walter, but she gained his love, his forgiveness and her dignity.

In The Painted Veil,  Dr. Walter Fane has no pity for his unfaithful wife.

In Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961), both spouses are unfaithful. But infidelity is not the central issue in this novel. The biggest problem for the couple is that April wants an abortion and Frank doesn’t. In the end, April dies after getting an abortion “home kit” and doing it herself. The reader is left to wonder if Yates was making a comment about illegal abortion or April’s death was a punishment for her actions.   

More recent unfaithful wives in fiction are Connie in Unfaithful (2002) and Sheila in Elin Hilderbrand’s A Summer Affair (2008).

In the film Unfaithful, Connie (Diane Lane) has lost her passion for her husband and engages in an affair with a French bookseller she finds irresistible. When her husband, Edward (Richard Gere) discovers the betrayal, he accidentally kills Connie’s lover. In this case, it is not the wife who pays, but the husband and the lover because in the end, it is apparent that Edward is going to turn himself in to the police.

In A Summer Affair, another wife with an illicit relationship (Sheila) gets a pass. Not only is the lover portrayed in a favorable light (he is a generous millionaire who appreciates Sheila’s artistic talent more than her husband) but also, Sheila’s husband never finds out about the affair. Sheila regrets her indiscretion and goes back to her normal life.

These two modern versions of the contemporary cheating wife are diametrically opposite to the past anti-heroines who paid dearly for their betrayals.

Forbidden Loves

Nowadays, the subject of cousin marriage has become controversial in the United States (and this aversion seems to be expanding to other countries as well). But for centuries, inbreeding was a common practice in society (and in some cultures, it still is).

In the 80’s Colombian soap opera, Gallito Ramirez, the protagonist is a low-class boxer who falls in love with his spoiled and rich first cousin, La Niña Mencha, not knowing that they’re family. When the truth of Ramirez’s origins comes to light, the biggest obstacle for their marriage is still their social status, not their blood ties. If this story had been written by a contemporary American writer, would the couple have split at the end? In Colombia, the fact that they were cousins was not an obstacle for them to stay together.

Colombians have never been afraid of controversies. In 1988, they released Caballo Viejo (literally “Old Horse,” but the title comes from a popular Venezuelan song). The story explores not one, but two taboos. The protagonist, Epifanio del Cristo Martínez, is an old (and not very attractive) man who falls in love with Nora Márquez, a young, beautiful woman who happens to be his niece. The twist is that Nora, despite having the attention of better looking and younger men, also falls in love with her uncle.

With humor and a touch of magic realism, their relationship flourishes, but like most May-December romances in the last 30+ years, their love is doomed and one of the characters (usually the older one) perishes.

Uncle and niece fall in love in the Colombian telenovela, Caballo Viejo (1988)

What a contrast with the fiction of earlier centuries or even the first half of the twentieth century where  romances between younger women and older men were ideal. Just take a look at Little Women (1868), Daddy Long Legs (1912) or Pygmalion (1913).

Priests and nuns in love

Another taboo is that of Catholic priests who fall in love. Perhaps the most iconic case is Father Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds (1977). Not only was Ralph and Meggie’s love doomed from the start, but also Meggie ‘paid’ for her forbidden love by losing those she loved the most: her two most beloved brothers, her father, and worst yet, the son Ralph fathered. As if things couldn’t get any worse, the love of her life, Ralph, also dies.

But Colleen McCullough was kind to her priest in love. She built a very human and conflicted character. He loved Meggie and was kind and (somewhat) generous, but he was also ambitious and loved the power the cassock gave him.

A more negative (and more recent) portrayal of a priest in love was rendered in the 2002 Mexican film El Crimen del Padre Amaro, a film so controversial they almost banned it in Mexico. The young priest Amaro is initially a positive character who only wants to do the right thing in his new parish. He meets the beautiful Amelia, a catechism teacher who confesses she’s having fantasies about him. Amaro cannot fight the temptation and gives in to his desires, resulting in Amelia’s pregnancy and subsequent abortion. In the end, it is Amelia who pays for Amaro’s mistakes with death. Amaro becomes as corrupt as the rest of the clergy in town.

Whereas priests in love never have happy endings in fiction, nuns are a different story.

Sister Maria in The Sound of Music (1965) is not only encouraged by the Mother Superior to leave the order and marry Captain von Trapp, but the nuns even attend her wedding ceremony.

The same happens in the Mexican production Mundo de Juguete (1974-1977) where the nun Rosario falls in love with the father of one of her students and marries him.

Why do you think this double-standard exists in fiction?

From all these examples we can conclude two things:
  1. The consequences of a behavior considered immoral or reprehensible vary from one culture/country/era to another.
  2. The perception of what constitutes a forbidden relationship also depends on the variables mentioned above.
As authors we have a lot of power. Not only are we the puppeteers of our fictitious worlds, we’re also judges and representatives of the viewpoints of our era. Isn’t that something.

Here comes the big question for writers (especially of historical fiction): Do we honor the cultural and social reality of the times we’re portraying or do we become anachronistic in order to appeal to a modern audience? Do you think it’s possible for an author to remain impartial about a moral issue? Can you think of novels or films you couldn’t relate to because of your incongruent views?

*This article contains spoilers for the following novels/films: The Age of Innocence, The Painted Veil, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Revolutionary Road, Unfaithful, A Secret Affair, The Thorn Birds, El Crimen del Padre Amaro, The Sound of Music and the telenovelas: Mundo de Juguete, Gallito Ramirez and Caballo Viejo.


  1. Lorena, I loved reading this post! That was a lot to think about that I hadn't considered.

    I had one thought to add to the discussion on the double standard of priests and nuns in love. In the two examples you gave of priests, both of those priests broke their vows while they were still priests. Whereas, I think the examples of the nuns did not include them actually breaking their vows. Did the nuns leave their orders and surrender their title of nun before actually marrying their loves (whereas the priests just had affairs and fathered children with their loves).

    I am not familar with the examples, so I could be wrong (I don't know if the nuns DID in fact break their vows before leaving their oders). But, from what I can see the sins of the priests do in fact seem much worse just because they had affairs and were living double lives, decieving their parishioners. Whereas the nuns at least gave up their nunhood (not sure that's a word haha) so that didn't have to live a lie. Could that explain the double standard?

  2. Dear Catie,

    You make an excellent point, and one I hadn't thought about. Yes, the nuns in the mentioned examples did not break their vows. Their relationships with their husbands-to-be were completely platonic. It would be interesting to see if there have been other nuns in fiction who actually broke their vows.

    Thanks for stopping by!

    1. Sister Lorena,
      This is such a meaty article! I will have to answer it in sectins. Let me begin with the clerical taboo. Indeed, Catie is right; most nuns that have romances in fiction (including Don Juan Tenorio’s Ines) are novices. Even in modern novels like Jack Alain-Leger’s Monsignor, the protagonist (an American Army chaplain) has an affair with a novice, not a full nun.
      There were loose nuns in gothic novels and Alessandro Manzoni includes a vow-breaking nun in his I Promessi Spozi (The Betrothed, 1827), but La Monaca Di Monza is based in a real nun who shocked Baroque Italy by having two babies while running a convent.
      For positive portrayal of nuns who leave their convent after having taken their vows, I can only think of two examples, both taken from Spanish Literature. Armando Palacio Valdes’ La Hermana San Sulpicio (Sister San Suplìcio, 1889) follows her Mother Superior to take a cure at a spa. There she meets the local doctor, falls in love, gives up her habit and marries him. However, she does no lose her faith and does not break her vows. She gets a Vatican dispensation to become Gloria again.
      In Matilde Asensi’s religious thriller El Ultimo Catón (The Last Cato, 2001) Sister Ottavia is a mid-thirties prestigious paleographer, and a full nun. She is sent by the Vatican to investigate a mysterious wave of relic thefts. She is aided in her investigation by an Egyptian Professor. After several adventures, Ottavia loses her faith and ends up in bed with the Egyptian.

    2. Thanks for sharing this interesting information!

      In the case of the vow-breaking nuns you mention, do they have happy endings or do they suffer the consequences of their actions? And if so, how?

    3. Let´s see
      Sister Clara in Monsignor, just suffers moral pain when she learns she is sleeping with a priest (Father Flaherty kept that fact from her when he seduced her.
      Mariana de Leyva, the real Monaca di Monza was walled alive in her cell.
      Sister San Sulpicio never broke her vows; she left the convent just like Maria in The Sound of Music with the congregation’s blessing (and a Papal dispensation).
      Sister Ottavia has developed such contempt for the Church that simply goes away with her Egyptian. She loses her job, but gains tremendous happiness.

  3. Dear Lorena, you have managed to prove that political correctness, just like shoes, follow fashion cycles. You can’t wear last century’s morals.
    For example, I could create a fictional story around an interracial, interreligious or even gay romance and give it a happy ending, something unheard off in early 19th century USA. However, in that same period of time I could have written about a cousin marriage with no problem whatsoever.
    In Victorian literature, cousin marriage was possible since its society did not frown upon it, but marrying a sister-in-law was forbidden so you could not write about it. In Hardy´s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Tess asks her husband to marry her sister (after her execution), but he reminds her it's against the law. In Catherine Cookson’s The Wingless Bird (1964) after her husband’s death, Agnes falls for her brother-in-law. Since they are not permitted to marry, they live together for decades, have two children out of wedlock, and finally marry after the law is revoked in the late 40’s.

  4. Great article and great discussion. I think you bring up a good point Catie, but it seems to me that it is still more taboo for a priest to give up his vows and then marry etc.

    I think that this may be because strong male characters are more likely to be viewed as predators than women. A priest by nature is going to be viewed as a strong male character and if he is tempted, hence a predator of some sort...nuns on the other hand are female subordinates to the priest, who is the leader of the parish. A nun would rarely be viewed by anybody to be predating on men. In other words not threatening at all.

    I know that in modern context this may seem very old fashioned and politically incorrect, but in the context of times before it makes sense to me. Hope all is well back home.

    Major H

  5. The re-emergence of antipathy to cousin marriage, may be due to the spread of the knowledge of genetics in the general population, particularly in regard to the diseases such as Tay-Sachs. where each parent must be a carrier for the child to be stricken. Documentaries about hereditary disease from consanguineous couplings among isolated groups such as the Amish, and the Huntington's disease cluster in Venezuela, have made the genetic considerations more important than the moral ones. There also seems to be an innate urge in most animals to seek mates from a different gene pool—a drive which may lie deep in the subconscious of us all. A thought provoking post, Lorena,

    1. Throughout history, the stigma associated with cousin marriage has had many faces.
      Indeed, the eugenics movement played a crucial role in banning first cousin marriages in the USA (the only Western country that prohibits such union, and only in 30 states), but recent medical research including the definite study carried by the University of Washington (2002) proves that unless endogamy is endemic in a family (such as it would happen in closed isolated communities like the Amish, or the Old World shetls) or that there is a history of hereditary diseases, there is no reason for cousins to produce malformed offspring. I have met children afflicted by Tay-Sachs whose parents were not related
      In the Classical world, sometimes parallel cousin marriage was banned in order to prevent large fortunes remaining in one single family. For many centuries the Catholic Church (and other Christian denominations) banned cousin marriage, but “sold” dispensations for such unions to take place.
      Nowadays, the genetic issue is no longer used, instead a "moral” aspect has risen in the debate. There are those who think that allowing cousin marriage would be like legalizing incest. In truth, the major modern stigma against it is that it’s widely practiced by Muslims. The true motives behind England and The Low Countries recent talks of banning consanguineous marriages is to impede the growth of their Muslim (mainly Pakistani) populations. Studies have also shown there is a high fertility factor present in cousin-marriage.

  6. About The Age of Innocence
    Tobias is right, social mores would require punishment for the immoral just as the Hays Code, which ruled Hollywood until the 60’s, demanded that in films no sin should go unpunished; no wicked character should be rewarded. However, in Wharton’s case the author´s ethics plays a more important part in its unhappy ending than social demands do.

    Divorce was common in America in 1920 when the novel was published, and was legal at the time the story takes place (late 1870’s). Newland tells as much to Ellen Olenska: “Our legislation favors divorce, our society don’t.”

    The Age of Innocence is a nostalgic longing for the past, not a condemnation of a closed stern society. Wharton identifies with Newland more than with free-spirited Madame Olenska. Although he sees through the hypocrisy of his milieu and clashes with some obsolete rules, he embraces his society and I don´t think he could have been happy living in its fringes. Moreover, he is a man of principle, running away with Ellen would have gone against his principles and he could have never been happy.

    1. "Moreover, he is a man of principle, running away with Ellen would have gone against his principles and he could have never been happy."

      This makes a lot of sense, Malena, and after all this time, I can finally say I UNDERSTAND THE ENDING of this novel!!!

    2. Archer´s last words in the novel “Tell her I’m old fashioned” are very telling about his adherence to old codes of behavior.
      Last night insomnia sent me to watch the film for the eleventh time. I had always thought that Newland´s reason not to see Countess Olenska in Paris was because he wanted to keep an image of her as she was in older days, but last night I realized that he decides not to see her after he finds out his wife had known of his adulterous love all along. He was very moved by those news and perhaps he felt that even seeing Ellen again was a betrayal of his commitment to May. Re-watching The Age made me realize for the first time what a powerful character May Welland Archer is. She is stronger than her husband and Ellen, and very similar to her grandmother (Mrs. Manson Mingott is my favorite character in the whole book.)

  7. It's interesting how you interpreted the central conflict of Revolutionary Road. When I saw the film and read the novel, I didn't see the abortion as the axis of the story. I saw it as the final nail in the sham of a life April and Frank lead. They have been lying to each other for years when it comes to what both of them want, to the point that they can actually believe everything is fine and they can restart their lives in France, leaving all their problems behind them. Each wants something different but concedes defeat to the other and it's a game they've played back and forth throughout their marriage. I.e., April wants to abort the first child, Frank does not, so she keeps it. Frank hates his job, but it gives his family what they need, so he keeps doing it. For me, I saw a relationship sliding downhill right from the beginning. We just happened to join in when the story's getting good!

    On a different note, maybe somebody can help me with this one: There's a novel and a film about either WWII or the Vietnam War where a nurse (who I think is a nun) falls in love with one of her mentally ill patients, who is a soldier scarred from the war. They end up having a torrid affair and I think there is murder involved. Does anyone know the name of this book or the author?

    1. I think you are referring to Colleen McCullough's An Indecent Obsession (there is a film too) She is the head nurse at a medical facility for combat fatigue cases (I believe is in New Guinea right after World War Two)and has an affair with one of her patients. But you also reminded me of two WWII films with nun-nurses sort of falling in love: Heaven Knows Mr. Allisson (Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum) and The Sea Wife (Joan Collins and Sir Richard Burton)

    2. Ha! We must have both come up with it at the same time!

    3. Sister Mary, I agree with you that Frank and April have several other problems that escalate throughout the plot. (MORE SPOILERS) But like you say, when the abortion issue comes along, their differences become irreconcilable. My point was that their mutual infidelity never develops into a huge problem (like it does in many marriages). Frank never learns about April's fling, and she doesn't seem to care when he confesses (it just adds to her overall disillusionment with him).

  8. Found it! An Indecent Obsession by Colleen McCullough, the author of The Thornbirds (the film came out in 1985). In this novel, the nun engages in the affair while still a nun -- if you're looking for exceptions to the nuns' rule of leaving the order before taking up with a man.

    McCullough certainly had a thing for setting the loins of priests and nuns on fire!

    1. Yess. But Honour Langtry was not a nun.

  9. I heard once that morality was like grammar: we are born hardwired with a tendency to acquire language with a grammar structure (called "the language instinct"), but the specifics of those structures vary from culture to culture. And grammar evolves from century to century. So it is with morals: we are all born with a moral instinct, but certain moral codes exist across cultures (the golden rule is common to virtually all cultures) and not to change with time, but there are trends which are affected by the vagaries of culture. Moral relativism, then, isn't all it's cracked up to be: it's not completely arbitrary, and it can't change on a dime.

    On the nun issue: isn't it true that nuns were often girls who were shipped off to convents against their will? When people are coerced into something, that grates against many of us. (There's the golden rule again.) So when they escape their confinement, we cheer them on. They are not breaking an internal rule, they are breaking free of oppression. Priests, on the other hand, are considered to have A Calling. They go willingly to their fates. When they break a rule they agreed to follow with full knowledge and consent, that irritates the rest of us. We see a lack of integrity: they are cheating, in a sense.

  10. "I heard once that morality was like grammar: we are born hardwired with a tendency to acquire language with a grammar structure (called "the language instinct"), but the specifics of those structures vary from culture to culture. "

    Very interesting. I'd never heard of this before, but it makes a lot of sense.

    "Isn't it true that nuns were often girls who were shipped off to convents against their will?"

    Good point. I can see how this may be a contributing factor to why romance is more 'acceptable' for nuns in fiction. The examples I mentioned in the article were two cases where both characters wanted to be nuns, but I've seen others who didn't.


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