Should stories have meaning?

Ok, jabberwockies, discussion time. When I was in 10th grade my English teacher said that only the good authors wrote symbolism and themes and metaphors and stuff in their stories. 

And here I am, three years later, and I'm still not 100% sure I agree. 

I think what this comes down to is what the point of a story actually is. Is it just entertainment? When you sit down to watch Spider-Man shoot his webs at bad guys, does it mean it's a bad story - or that the screenwriters were bad - if that's all there is to it? I know I can watch a movie or read a book that's utterly devoid of all meaning and walk away feeling satisfied, enjoying witty banter and action scenes and cool costumes. A large part of a story is entertainment, and if it fails that job then it fails as a story. 

But another role of a story is to comment on the human condition, to challenge the themes and issues we could never fully confront in real life. Does ambition always corrupt? Are we slaves to fate? These themes that we explore in fiction help us to understand our lives better and to question our reality, which is a huge part of being human. 

I think there's both a time and a place for stories with and without meaning (and by meaning I mean that the story says something about the human condition, such as ambition makes good men fall (thank you, Macbeth)). Let's be honest, there's not a huge message behind Artemis Fowl but it's still my favourite series. Does that make Eoin Colfer less of an author than William Shakespeare? 

I don't think it does. I think stories have the responsibility to both entertain and comment on the human condition, but I think its main purpose is to make someone's day a little more interesting. I'm sure we can all think of stories that had no meaning but still had a special place in our hearts. However, I find it's often the stories that have something to say which stay with me the longest. 

So in other words, I'm still on the fence about this one. 

Is a story worth any less because it doesn't explore who we are as people, or because it only makes you smile and doesn't make you think? 


  1. I think you're right--it's all about balance. Some stories need meaning and should teach something. Other stories are perfectly fine as pure entertainment value. I think it's dangerous to get rid of either type.

    I suppose it could be compared to how it's not good to get rid of vegetables (the stuff that makes you think--whether it's stories or otherwise), but life would be a lot more boring without brownies and pizza (the fun stuff). Both are needed and meant to be enjoyed at appropriate times and in appropriate ways.

    I also think that even entertainment stories can make us think, just like there are antioxidants in chocolate brownies. Very few stories are entirely without value; most have some meaning or another that will resonate with someone and perhaps reveal a truth they never thought about before.

    Anyways, that's my two cents. Good post!

    1. That veggie/junk food comparison was pretty good :)

      Yes, entertainment stories definitely do make us think, but it's a whole lot less than the other stories which go out of their way to make a point. All stories have meaning to SOME degree, and I agree, sometimes they mean more to other people at different times. I know I've completely ignored this one song on an album that I own because it was just kinda there, then different life circumstances hit and it reduced me to tears. It had different levels of meaning at different time.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, RM!

  2. I am going to have to completely disagree. XD I'm sorry.

    See, I would argue that it is only good books that use literary devices to talk about the human condition—and I can say that, including my favorite YA reads and all, because it is next to impossible to write a half-decent book about them.

    You want to look at Spiderman? Okay, let's do Spiderman. What do Peter Parker's actions after Uncle Ben's murder say how we ought to respond to death in our own lives—as heroes who choose to fight it? As people who stand up against evil before evil gets its start? As passive individuals who leave the responsibility up to others? Does Peter Parker's response to death make Spiderman more of a hero, or less? And it doesn't just have to be about that. We have Norman Osborn, who tests a chemical on himself which results in the creation of Green Goblin. Is this ethical? And when we remind ourselves that Osborn like, literally became evil because of this scenario, does this say anything about free will? Does it say anything about ethics or choice? If free will purists say that no previous event can bear upon the freedom of the next decision, can we blame Osborn himself for all his actions under the influence of the drug because he still had free will despite its influence? Was he destined to do this? In light of his situation, can we consider people in similar circumstances in our own world, like drug addicts or those under other influences to be accountable for their own actions? Do we have a choice to resist evil at all?

    Yeah, well, superhero comics are always about these things anyway and good and evil always have these battles and whatever. Like, it wouldn't apply to a YA series, because those are trash. (I KNOW YOU WOULDN'T SAY IT LIKE THAT JUST BEAR WITH ME I AM IN PHILOSOPHY MODE.)

    Artemis Fowl. Look at all the ways that we can think about the human condition just in the first book. I mean, first of all, look at Holly's entire predicament: she's the first female officer, and is this even going to work? With that in mind, are the sexes equal? What should the role of women be in regards to law enforcement, government, and other civic duties? And though women may not be like men in those roles, what are the unique things that women bring to the table that makes their contributions special, significant, or even better than what men bring to the table? Besides Holly, what about Root? If we compare his example to that we should follow... How do they measure up? How should we as leaders respond when something new and controversial comes before you? What do good leaders do to facilitate change while respecting tradition? Who do they defend when that change puts them in hot water?

    And don't get me started on Artemis. He clearly brings up moral conundrums in his everyday life (about manipulation, exploitation, bribery, on the villainous side; about friendship, service, and grief on the more personal side), and there are his schemes, his interpersonal relationships, his ambitions, his treatment of others... Like there are so many questions to ask, but I've written a lot, and so I'll stop.

    I'm not saying you have to answer these. I'm just saying they're there.

    They're there. And so yes, books can be just entertainment, books can give a message. But really, this argument is what you personally get out of the book—not what everyone gets out of the book. Some people will read a book and be entertained the end that's it goodbye. Some of us seek meaning in everything.

    And, for that matter, I do find great meaning in things. I don't blame those who don't, but I do—and so that is why I say with confidence that a book that doesn't explore the human condition is guaranteed to suck. If they don't reflect humanity, they are going to be the lamest characters with the lamest story ever.

    And again, that's not to say that's what everyone has to get out of it... but that is what needs to be in place for people to enjoy it as they will.

    1. *sighs* I knew you would disagree with me, Heather :)

      I understand what you're saying. One of the reasons why Spider-Man is one of my favourite superheroes is because of all the questions that arise from his adventures and battles and the whole question of power and responsibility and being brave enough to step up and do what needs to be done. Same thing with Artemis Fowl. There are moral dilemmas and enormous character arcs and all kinds of beautiful banter.

      I guess what I was trying to get at with those two specific examples is that their main purpose is to serve as entertainment. It's not something like Of Mice and Men or The Handmaid's Tale where the author spends a huge amount of time exploring different themes and trying to make a point about something, like dreams never working out or sexism (to hugely simplify the themes). The Handmaid's Tale is about a woman who must survive in a world where women are treated like animals where Spider-Man is about a guy who beats up bad guys. The point of each narrative is totally different.

      Of course, with every story there is going to be meaning because there's no point in writing a story without any kind of meaning at all. And like you said, different people will get different things out of stories at different times. Stories are all subjective and are constantly changing depending on our own world views and maturity.

      So alright, different people get different things out of a story. Does it make them a bad watcher if they only see Spider-Man blowing stuff up? Does it make them a bad reader if they walk away only enjoying the entertainment side of Artemis Fowl? I know my sister is one of those people, and I don't think that makes her any less of a movie watcher if she sees Marvel movies as dudes in tights fighting aliens instead of people choosing to step up and protect innocent people, even though it's not necessarily THEIR responsibility. And what happens to the innocent people who get in the way of this fight? You might see these themes, and she might not. And that should be ok.

      But I still don't think certain things always need to have meaning to be good. I just watched Batman vs. Superman, and while I didn't personally enjoy the movie I really enjoyed watching the climax where it was literally nothing but Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and another monster dude fighting. This certain battle basically boiled down to good vs evil and there wasn't much more to it than that, but I still enjoyed it. (And I know there was meaning to the rest of the movie (which was lame, by the way, I wouldn't recommend watching it) but I'm just talking about this particular scene.)

      I agree that we should look for meaning in things, we should analyze stories and try to figure out what they're saying about who we are and where we're headed and where we came from, but it isn't always bad if there's not much meaning to something. It isn't ALWAYS bad if we're just enjoying a series of explosions and cool car chases. There's not always a lot of substance, but that's ok. And it's ok if there's lots of meaning and deep, hard themes, too. It's important for stories to comment on the human condition, definitely. THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN. But not always.

      Anyways, thanks for the thoughtful comment. And thanks for disagreeing with me! Life would be pretty boring if we always agreed with each other.

  3. Ooh, I think that's a good question! Although I have to admit, I DO think that all stories should have meaning. I know some stories are more "fun" than others, kind of. Like, I mean, fluffy contemporary stories don't have the depth that some other classic or literary works do have. And that's fine, because they all fill a need, right?! But I wouldn't be able to read a pointless story. I NEED it to have a point and say something.

    And I feel like Spiderman does say things! Like what about "with great power comes great responsibility"? Because that's quite a heft theme there. *nods* But I know what you mean about it being more of a "fun/light" story as opposed to Shakespeare.

    But to answer your last question: I don't think a story is LESS if it's meant to entertain over ask deep philosophical questions. We need BOTH kinds of stories!

    1. Yeah, I think stories should have meaning and a point but I don't think stories which don't - like fluffy contemporary stories - should be thought of as less. Each story has a role to fill.

      With that particular example I was trying to get at the fact that it was made for entertainment, not for commenting on the human condition like The Handmaid's Tale. Spider-Man definitely has stuff to say but I think it's more about the beating-up-bad-guys and less the deep-and-important-themes-about-humanity. Thanks for commenting, Cait!

  4. OK, so, I think most books do have meaning. I can think of few books I've read without themes and messages, and if there are any, I really don't think they're good books. Not *because* of their lack of theme, but for other reasons. I don't think you can write a story about humans that doesn't explore the human condition, because if your character changes/develops at all throughout, then that's exploration, in my opinion.

    And just because we don't write essays about particular books, doesn't mean they don't have themes. Like, for example, Macbeth and Harry Potter are my two favourite ever things and I think they have equally "deep" themes as each other. But maybe we should stop talking about books being "deep", because what does that even mean?!

    One thing I read when I was writing my English Lit dissertation this year was about symbolism in A Farewell to Arms, and how it's "suggestive, not prescriptive." A great writer doesn't have to, like, make lists of motifs and themes and map them through the book. It just happens. (At least, it does for Hemingway!)

    1. Sorry, I think what I didn't make clear in my post (which I really should have) is that what I mean by "stories without meaning" I mean more stories made for entertainment purposes which don't have a ton of meaning and are more for the explosions and stuff. WHICH IS ENTIRELY MY FAULT FOR NOT EXPLICITLY SAYIGN THAT. *sighs*

      That is a really good point though, and I often find that as well. And I suppose character development does count as a theme :)

      Yeah, I totally think most books and stuff have themes even if we don't write essays on them.

      That's a very good point :)

      (And sorry if my comment doesn't make 100% sense, I'm still trying to pull my brain out of Nano mode and everything is just really fuzzy right now. So anyways.)


Post a Comment

Feel free to leave your thoughts and opinions! I'd love to hear from you. Please note that I reserve the right to delete comments that I think are hurtful.

Popular Posts