Amoral Stories

One of the senior tellers at Baden, very active in his church (as active and formally recognized as he can be without being an ordained priest) told us that a young boy once said, “I like your stories. They don’t have morals.”

Ah, the joys of being with a group of word-loving adults.

Once the laughter died down, it was agreed: We tell amoral stories — stories without explicit morals.

The moral of the story does not need to be stated. If you can’t figure it out from the story alone, then it’s an awkward graft.

Also, the best stories have more than one moral. Most audiences are a mix of people. Some aren’t ready for the moral you intend, but might be ready for one that’s similar, or even one that isn’t central to the story (or at least the way you tell it) but is still there.

Explicitly stating the moral you want them to take away denies them the opportunity to take away the message that’s right for them.

The closest I get is with Richard Hughes’ The Dark Child. (It was published in in 1932 in the book The Spider’s Palace and Other Stories, so is probably out of copyright, but hasn’t yet appeared online.) I like telling it to kids ten and up. I begin by saying some people think the story has a happy ending, and some think it has a sad ending. The story is about a boy who is different, and everyone tells him to go a way. He blames himself for the problems his difference causes. Only two people cared enough to help. One met him where he was and helped him explore his uniqueness, the other forced him to become normal. After his adventures, when “there was no way by which you could tell him from every other child,” his parents are “pleased as pleased as pleased.”

Before I tell it, I prime the audience. “Some people think this story has a happy ending, some think it has a sad ending.” At the end, I ask for a show of hands.

A listener’s reaction can tell you a lot about where they are in their own journey. Do they still dream that being normal would solve their problems? Do they wish people would accept them as they are? Do they distinguish between real problems their uniqueness causes, or just the problems other have with it? Do they mourn the loss of the child’s uniqueness, or are they happy because he fits in?

You can take many messages from this story. Who am I to say what message they should take?


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