Purpose in Fiction (1898)
by Nephi Anderson
1569004Purpose in Fiction1898Nephi Anderson

In his preface to the sixth edition of “Tom Brown’s School Days,” Thomas Hughes says:

“Several persons, for whose judgment I have the highest respect, while saying very kind things about this book, have added that the great fault of it is, ‘too much preaching;’ but they hope I shall amend in this matter should I ever write again. Now this I most distinctly decline to do. Why, my whole object in writing at all was to get the chance of preaching! * * * My sole object in writing was to preach to boys; if ever I write again it will be to some other age. I can’t see that a man has any business to write at all unless he has something which he thoroughly believes and wants to preach about. If he has this and the chance of delivering himself of it, let him by all means put it in the shape in which it will be most likely to get a hearing; but never let him be so carried away as to forget that preaching is his object.”

In contrast to this view, the more modern novelist, F. Marion Crawford, says:

“Probably no one denies that the first object of the novel is to amuse and interest the reader. The purpose-novel constitutes a violation of the unwritten contract tacitly existing between writer and reader. A man buys what purports to be a work of fiction, a romance, a story of adventure, pays his money, takes his book home, prepares to enjoy it at his ease, and discovers that he has paid a dollar for somebody’s views on socialism, religion, or the divorce laws. In ordinary cases the purpose-novel is a simple fraud, besides being a failure in nine hundred and ninety-nine cases out of a thousand.”

Here are two radically different views on the province of fiction. Dr. Hughes claims that the story could be a means by which to teach nobler principles, Mr. Crawford says that amusement and interest is its main object. It might here be said that Mr. Crawford is mistaken in one thing: Often a man buys a novel because of the “purpose” that sticks so prominetly from it. Many present day critics and reviewers agree with the latter writer. Their cry is “Art for art’s sake,” whatever that means. They denounce as inartistic any novel written for the definite purpose of presenting a principle, expressing a truth, or holding up an ideal.

It is hard to see the philosophy of this last proposition. Perhaps a work of fiction wholly purposeless may conform to this strict “law of art;” but surely a story full of purpose, a high, noble purpose may also be in harmony with that art which lifts the soul into the realm of the beautiful. Art deals with beauty, and the highest beauty centers in God. Art deals with love, and God is love. Art deals with truth, and God is the source of all truth. All of the Creator’s laws are full of meaning, full of purpose. By all means let us have in literature, as in all else, “Art for Art’s sake;” only let us understand what art is.

Dr. Hughes’ little story with all its preaching, has become a classic. Will Mr. Crawford’s Italian romances ever attain to that rank?

Have the world’s greatest novelists given us purposeless stories? George Eliot was somewhat addicted to this “preaching.” It is claimed that Dickens’ novels have been great factors in bringing about the abolition of the unjust poor laws of England, of bettering the common schools, and correcting many other abuses. Undoubtedly, the motive that moved Dickens to write was a noble purpose. “Les Miserables,” surely, was not written merely to please or amuse some idle reader. Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” is a mighty sermon against sin. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was written for a purpose. It created more anti-slavery sentiment in the North than all other pamphlets and treatises combined. Bellamy has hung a score of socialistic sermons on a frail thread of romance. Not even Mr. Crawford can say that “Looking Backward” is a failure. Even that delight of boyhood, “Robinson Crusoe,” is not without its sermons, as Taine in his “History of English Literature” says:

“Robinson Crusoe is quite a man of his race, and might instruct it even in the present day. He has the force of will power, etc., which formerly produced sea-kings, and now produces emigrants and squatters. * * * Even now we hear their mighty hatchets and pickaxes sounding in the claims of Melbourne and in the log houses of Salt Lake.”

And so on down the list.

The Latter-day Saint understands that this world is not altogether a play ground, and that the main object of life is not to be amused. He who reaches the people, and the story writer does that, should not lose the opportunity of “preaching,” as the author of “Tom Brown’s School Days” puts it. A good story is artistic preaching. A novel which depicts high ideals and gives to us representations of men and women as they should and can be, exerts an influence for good that is not easily computed.