Regular ISLF readers know that I like to muse about an artist's responsibility from time to time, the ethics of releasing narratives out into the world. Well, life just dropped a prime example of it right into my lap. A few weekends ago, I got up early with my two-year-old so that my wife (dear, hardworking woman) could sleep in. I had just ladled a scoop of pancake batter into a hot skillet when my high-chaired tot exclaimed, "Curious George, he ... he let the bunny out? He let the bunny out of the cage?"
"That's right," I said as bubbles appeared around the edge of the pancake. We'd recently read Margaret and H.A. Ray's Curious George Flies a Kite, wherein the titular monkey clambers into a neighbor's backyard and swipes a baby rabbit from its hutch.
The rejoinder came quickly: "I ... I let the bunny out."
Wait a minute, that didn't sound right. "What did you say?"
My little one grinned broadly. "I let the bunny out of the cage!"
At first I thought that must be a mistake, a kind of youthful misunderstanding to which children are particularly prone. Nope. When she got up, my wife confirmed that earlier in the week she'd taken our little one to a you-pick-it farm and had a close encounter there with a jailbroken bunny. Who knew that a child of 28-months could work a latch that fast? Fortunately, she'd come to the rescue before the rabbit had gotten properly free of its prison.
You know the moral here, right? Of course you do, and I can already hear the objections to it. Yes, children are far more susceptible to all sorts of media than adults. Sure, stories don't directly cause individuals to behave in certain ways. And, no, narratives don't need to be squeaky clean or devoid of gritty verisimilitude to pass moral muster. I get all that.
Consider, though, what my old lit prof Leland Ryken has written about storytelling in general: "A ... presupposition that I make of stories is that the characters (especially the protagonist) undertake in experiment in living. This experiment is tested during the course of the story. Its final success or failure is a comment on the adequacy or inadequacy of the morality or world view on which the experiment was based." Now perhaps we can find exceptions to this presupposition. After all, the sea of literature is broad and deep, and I doubt anyone has plumbed its every nook and cranny. But it strikes me as a generally sound assumption, one that we need to take into consideration when we write. The actions of our characters tell readers what we think is normative about life, and some of them will take that to heart.
As for Curious George, the naughty little monkey who always seems to escape any lasting consequences for his actions, I think we might read a little less about his adventures.
(Picture: CC 2007 by youngdoo)