As I was reading the texts for this week, a question entered my brain: “why don’t we ever read anything happy?” At first it was only a grumbling, sarcastic question. Then I really thought about it and realized that most of the literature with a narrative or plot is rather depressing. It’s full of emotional manipulation, abuse, punishments from higher powers, unjust deaths, and the slaughtering of children. These tropes can be seen in works of both religious and secular natures. Most of this pain, suffering, and torture is used to teach the characters, and thus the readers, a moral lesson: do not commit adultery, beware of fate, do not slander religious authority or God, trust the Virgin Mary, and so many more. This teaching method is on a whole other level in the Middle Ages than anything contemporary I’ve read. It’s very visceral and painful for both the characters and the reader, instilling in them a desire to comply with anything to avoid a similar fate. I found this pattern rather interesting. Thoughts?
I would agree with you up until a point. In general it’s fair to point out that most texts aren’t going to be happy. A story about the happy protagonist who has a happy spouse and beautiful children and they all live in a great little town without complaints becomes a story that no one wants to read: it’s the conflict inherent in the plot that helps maintain our investment in the characters.
With that being said, I’m not entirely sure that I buy the argument that these medieval texts are any more heavy-handed in their moral messages than modern stories. Although capital L Literature often strives for expressive characterization, in popular lit and children’s lit there are plenty of examples for those types of messages. Watch a Tyler Perry movie where everything goes to hell until a come to Jesus movement with a wise pastor or woman of faith sets the protagonist straight (nearly all of them), or the film in which a straying wife catches HIV from her new paramour (Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor). Read one of the Chick tracks the man near Berry Hall gives out every week about how any one other than a fundamentalist Christian will perish in hell fire.
I’ll add to your list, Josh, that when I was first watching Veronica Mars (which I love), I couldn’t help but feel that each week’s episode in season one was an After School Special (from my childhood–each of which taught you not to take LSD, not to cheat on your exam, etc.). And if you read more capital-L literature of the middle ages in England, you find that this impression you’re describing, Addie, changes dramatically, with much more of the ambivalence that Chaucer ends the Clerk’s Tale with (and thus much more like our own divide between popular literature and Literature).