Monday, June 25, 2012

For Better or for Worse: A Book's Ability to Influence Its Readers

Dante's Inferno has always been a favorite of mine. I read it in high school, read it again in college, and taught it twice in a medieval literature class to secondary students. One scene that always stands out in my memory is the fate of Francesca da Rimini.

When Dante passes through the second circle of hell, he sees the punishment of the lustful ones, twisting about in the wind perpetually. The last couple he encounters are Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, two thirteenth century Italians who were caught up in an adulterous relationship and murdered by Francesca's husband. Canto V finds Dante pitying the lovers' punishment:
When finally I spoke, I sighed, "Alas,
all those sweet thoughts, and oh, how much desiring
brought these two down into this agony." 
And then I turned to them and tried to speak;
I said, "Francesca, the torment that you suffer
brings painful tears of pity to my eyes.  
But tell me, in that time of your sweet sighing
how, and by what signs, did love allow you
to recognize your dubious desires?"
A little further down, Francesca replies to Dante's question and describes the scene that sparked the adulterous affair:
"One day we read, to pass the time away,
of Lancelot, of how he fell in love;
we were alone, innocent of suspicion. 
Time and again our eyes were brought together
by the book we read; our faces flushed and paled.
To the moment of one line alone we yielded: 
it was when we read about those longed-for lips
now being kissed by such a famous lover,
that this one (who shall never leave my side) 
then kissed my mouth, and trembled as he did.
Our Gahelot [the knight who arranged the first secret meeting between Lancelot and Guinevere] was that book and he who wrote it.
That day we read no further."
Paolo and Francesca da Rimini
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

By reading of the adultery between Lancelot and Guinevere, Francesca and Paolo fell into the sin of adultery themselves--or at least, that's the way Dante chooses to tell it.

Dante's point? Stories have power. Stories affect their readers and change their lives either for the better or for the worse.

The Bible is one excellent example of a story that radically alters its readers' lives. Many people unfamiliar with the Bible assume that it is a rulebook laying out a moral code. But although the Bible does teach men how to live, it does so in a way one might not expect--it teaches through story. The majority of the Bible is in narrative form, with law sections like the Ten Commandments making up only a small percentage of the text.

The effect of a story on its readers is one thing that authors must consider as they bring their books into being. The oft-quoted phrase "With great power comes great responsibility" is not just a motto for Spiderman to live by.

This is not to say that there should be no evil in a story--to omit ugliness would be to deny the reality of the world we live in. But how does the author present the evil? Does he call evil evil, or does he call evil good?  In one sense, every tale is a morality tale and every author a preacher.

The responsibility that lies with the author does not divest readers of their own responsibilities. It is up to the reader to be aware of how a story is affecting him and to immerse himself in stories that will improve his character.

If Francesca and Paolo had been reading a different story, would their own story have been different? If Francesca and Paolo had been reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, would they ever have committed adultery?


  1. I certainly think stories have an effect- I was musing today on all the people who think Prima Nocti was really practiced in 13th century Scotland becaise it is in Braveheart, and do not seem to stop and ask whether this was actually the case.
    Or how about the novel that is said to have given birth to the popular belief that Medieval people thought the earth was flat?

    IMO calling evil good in a Christian story cant easily work, because there always has to be some kind of mental gymnastics in some way.

    I remember one series in which a 'good' character was thoroughly odius and had no redeeming features at all, and all the excuses the author had to make, and lenghths they had to go to to make the character's actions seem 'good' or else just excuse and condone them.

  2. I feel an author has a moral responsibility toward readers. It doesn't mean everything we write needs to be clean and happy; it means we need to consider the effect it'll have on others. I wish more authors felt that way!


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