The virtues in fiction

I saw this quote at The Passive Voice blog and shamelessly stole it to post here because I really like it:

Literature embodies virtue, first, by offering images of virtue in action and, second, by offering the reader vicarious practice in exercising virtue, which is not the same as actual practice, of course, but is nonetheless a practice by which habits of mind, ways of thinking and perceiving, accrue.

~ Karen Swallow Prior

I never heard of her before. Karen Pryor, the famous dog trainer, sure. She’s one of the most influential figures in the development of modern positive training methods, which naturally every dog owner should be using, though I guess some are still into the jerk-and-drag school of training.

But moving on to Karen Swallow Prior. She’s an English professor and a writer. Here’s another quote on the same topic, this one from her website:

Reading great literature well has the power to cultivate virtue. Great literature increases knowledge of and desire for the good life by showing readers what virtue looks like and where vice leads. It is not just what one reads but how one reads that cultivates virtue. Reading good literature well requires one to practice numerous virtues, such as patience, diligence, and prudence. And learning to judge wisely a character in a book, in turn, forms the reader’s own character.

I like that as well. Of course it ties into the idea that reading helps the reader develop empathy, or at least that reading good books ought to do so. 

All right, these quotes seem to be drawn from a book of Prior’s called On Reading Well, which evidently encourages readers to read and reflect on various literary classics. Let’s take a look at the table of contents via Amazon’s handy “look inside” feature … 

These readings are organized thus:

The Cardinal Virtues:

Prudence: The History of Tom Jones. Never heard of it.

Temperance: The Great Gatsby. Didn’t like it.

Justice: A Tale of Two Cities. Always regretted not having read that one.

Courage: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Good choice.

The Theological Virtues:

Faith: Silence by Shusaku Endo. Never heard of it.

Hope: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Hmm. I don’t know. I’m thinking there are surely many books on this theme that include more actual hope. Though there is a spark of hope right at the end, so there’s that. Even so.

Love: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy. Haven’t read it.

The Heavenly Virtues:

Chastity: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Haven’t read it.

Diligence: Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. Haven’t read it.

Patience: Persuasion by Jane Austen. Good choice.

Kindness: “Tenth of December” by George Saunders. Haven’t read it.

Humility: “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” by Flannery O’Conner. I have read these. They stood out to me among assigned readings because I actually liked them.

Okay, that’s interesting, but it makes me want to do this list over again, this time with works I’ve actually read and think embody each virtue. I was trying to think of SFF choices, but in fact quite a few literary novels leaped out at me. I’m not sure if that’s meaningful; surely plenty of genre novels would also be good choices for these categories. Yet here’s a list startlingly full of literary novels.

The Cardinal Virtues: 

Prudence: Sense and Sensibility by Austen.

Temperance: Not sure. Maybe a novel where a powerful character has to, and does, exercise considerable restraint at all times … I’m actually thinking that my first-person obsessive-experience WIP would work, but since it’s not published, it’s hardly fair to put it in here. Any ideas?

Justice: The Count of Monte Christo. You are not going to get through that one without thinking a great deal about justice and revenge and the difference between the two.

Courage: Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein.

The Theological Virtues:

Faith:  In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. I love this book. You should all totally read it. It expressed to me what having a vocation might actually feel like, something I would otherwise find incomprehensible. Thus we see that reading the right books certainly can increase empathy.

Hope: The Chalion series by LMB.

Love: Perhaps one of the really good Beauty and the Beast retellings, probably Beauty by McKinley. Or do we want a broader, less romantic love here? 

The Heavenly Virtues:

Chastity: Um, coming up blank for this one. 

Diligence: The Steerswoman by Kirstein.

Patience: Cotillon by Georgette Heyer. I’m thinking of the male lead here, Freddy.

Kindness:  The Goblin Emperor.

Humility: Les Miserables. I’m thinking of Jean Valjean here, of course, but the bishop also counts as exemplifying this virtue.

If you have a great suggestion for one of the categories I filled in, share that in the comments as well! 

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7 thoughts on “The virtues in fiction”

  1. This is a major part of how satisfying books and shows are for me. It’s all about handling problems in a virtuous way, instead of the falling into vice. But yeah, I would say fiction, not literature. The literary category is more likely to frustrate me, although I love Jane Eyre for exactly this.

    As for Temperance, I thought Winter of Ice and Iron’s Innisth fits perfectly.

  2. How about that, Mona, you’re completely right. Great! That fills in the Temperance category in a most satisfying way.

  3. I’m with Mona. My taste runs that way, too.

    Having trouble thinking of fiction/genre examples of most of the virtues. Jane Eyre may fit chastity, though.

    I’d really like to find a non-romantic love to fit love… The hobbits for each other? Sam, for sure. Mabye Meridy from White Road, who saves everything but not because she’s in romantic love. But she did love her friends.

  4. A Wrinkle in Time works for love (kind of beats you over the head with it, actually).

    I’d consider hope a stronger theme than love in LotR, though they’re both in there.

  5. Okay, yes, Jane Eyre is a good choice for chastity. Which sort of implies that Shinn’s Jenna Starborn would be a genre example, since it’s a Jane Eyre retelling in SF guise.

    A Wrinkle in Time has not held up spectacularly well for me, but I grant you, it definitely hits the them of love very, very clearly.

  6. Well, it turns out that self-restraint is something I like a lot in a protagonist, so sounds good!

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