Looking at the children’s short story collection I referred to a couple of days ago, Best Shorts, edited by Avi with Carolyn Shute, I realized that many of the first short stories I encountered were strongly moralistic. Natalie Babbitt’s story “Nuts” reminded me–the last line of it is, “We are not all of us greedy.” I was taken aback by the pat ending, but then decided it fits with a strong tradition of children’s stories. Aesop’s fables, with their closing morals, are an obvious example. Fairy tales often had a similar quality–I remember the witch at the end of Snow White, dancing in red-hot iron shoes until she dropped dead. To me, this was a lesson about the consequences of wickedness (though fairy tales impart a large and mysterious set of rules beyond reward and punishment, the main thing I took from them as a child was that being “good” meant getting money and being able to marry the prince, while being “bad” meant horrible dismemberment).
I still sometimes read a short story as if it were a near escape. The characters go through something horrible in my place, so that I won’t have to. But I don’t expect them to be morally prescriptive, and I wouldn’t like them if they were. But I remember stories teaching me things when I was a child. And the pedantic quality wasn’t the sign of a bad story. My strongest memory of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was the novel’s lesson about the value of fresh air and play outside.
When do stories change from “lessons” to “stories”? What does that change signify? I think also of Bible stories. I used to take them as lessons that I just couldn’t understand. Now my sense of them varies. I’m more comfortable with not understanding, and with not being handed a moral. The best stories I read as an adult often don’t seem to have a clear meaning.