A Holistic Approach to Education: The Role of Fiction in the Formation of Morality and the Development of Character


I wrote the essay adapted below for my Western Civilization class. In it, I discuss four novels: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Inferno by Dante Alighieri, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. For each of these, I consider how reading them can promote morality and develop character.

Trigger Warning: In this essay, I discuss serious topics such as suicide.

Warning! Spoilers below!


As C. S. Lewis proposed in The Abolition of Man, a proper education should consist of training the mind to reason and guiding the heart to act in accordance with reason (27). Educators and students tend to subscribe to this belief, even if their acceptance of it does not translate into practice. Out of the number for whom these words are not mere lip service, many have distorted and misinterpreted education’s directive. The modern habit of valuing literal, empirical fact at the expense of all other sources of truth has infected the educational system. Nowhere is this more evident than in the disdain with which fiction is regarded, even in the humanities. Nonfiction is where students must go to find truth—the science textbook is their best bet—and fiction is depicted as an elaborate string of falsehoods. This new emphasis on nonfiction has been generally lauded as an improvement, a rational change made in the student’s best interest. Learning distilled until only the essential remains, the purely practical. After all, education claims to prepare students for “real life,” and fiction is naturally made up of what has never happened in real life, and quite possibly never will.

If education is only the accumulation of useful facts, if it is simply a system of transactions between the professor and students or a form of conditioning that rewards rule-following, then undoubtedly fiction has no place in education. But if education seeks to build character, to aid in the formation of morals, and to promote empathy through vicarious experience, then fiction cannot be removed from education without leaving a void in its place. Without fiction, the purpose of education is merely to train the mind to reason, and neglects matters of the heart altogether.

Nonfiction and fiction both have value. Nonfiction seeks the enlargement of one’s base of knowledge; it counters ignorance. Fiction seeks to provoke one’s emotions and challenges all that is taken for granted; it conquers apathy. Fiction aspires to examine the truths that nonfiction rarely aspires to. Nonfiction answers the question “What is matter?” while fiction dares to ask, “Why does it matter?” The reason that fiction is more suitable for the moral development of the individual is that it is capable of depicting truth on multiple levels—through allegory, satire, and hypothetical situations, for example—while nonfiction is typically limited to the realm of the literal. Literature has the Socratic habit of answering questions with questions, of inspiring reflection rather than the mere absorption of fact. The active reader is engaged with the writer in a wordless conversation; the reader, like Dante, looks to Virgil to show the way. Readers are invited to grapple with universal questions of morality, purpose, and humanity. 

When examining the educational and moral value of fictional texts, four great novels come to mind: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Inferno by Dante Alighieri, and Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. C. S. Lewis claimed that “Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period” (v). The power of the four aforementioned novels is partially due to their age, and partially due to their timelessness. The most recent, Brave New World, was written ninety years ago. All four novels thus range outside the postmodern view of the 21st century, and thus they have the potential of correcting the mistakes of the current generation.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is a coming-of-age story about a young boy and a runaway slave who set off to escape the cruelty of those with authority and smothering rules of society. While teaching this novel in schools today is controversial due to its demeaning language and problematic depictions of black characters, the purpose of the author and the context in which it was written must be considered. Toni Morrison opposed efforts to ban the book, saying that attempts to do so were a “purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children. Amputate the problem, band-aid the solution” (qtd in Valkeakari 29-43). Racism cannot be abolished if it is never addressed and exposed for what it is, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is ultimately about the continual subversion of stereotypes. Admittedly, as Valkeakari explains, “Twain’s irony operates on the unsaid” (29-43).

The story is told through the voice of Huck, the young protagonist, whose immaturity and inexperience make him the ideal vessel for social commentary. Mark Twain himself insisted that the book was intended for adults, despite its point of view. The reason for a mature audience was not because the book was incapable of appreciation by the young, but because of an adult’s capacity to realize that the book was a “bitter satire of the various social levels in the American South,” that Huck’s dehumanization of Jim and other black Americans was a product of social attitudes (Hearn 578).

When Huck joins Jim on a journey that unexpectedly leads them far into the south, the boy has already been indoctrinated by the negative racial stereotypes embedded in his formal and informal education. Yet throughout the journey, Huck instinctively looks to Jim for guidance, comfort, and human companionship—when he questions these feelings, it is because of the external influence of society.  “The novel is a novel of education,” Lauriat Lane, Jr. claims. “Its school is the school of life rather than of books, but Huck’s education is all the more complete for that” (2). Huck must come to terms with the tension between what he had learned from his experience with Jim, and what his society has told him about black men.

The culmination of Huck’s struggle against society is demonstrated after Jim has been taken and sold back into slavery. Huck begins to feel like he is being punished by God for helping a runaway slave escape, and decides to write back to Jim’s “owner.” At first, he is reconciled with this plan and is relieved to be complying with what he sees as the societally appropriate response. In his mind, morality and the law are one. Yet he recalls his genuine experiences with Jim on the raft, “talking, and singing, and laughing,” and how Jim looked after Huck like his own child (Twain 317). Huck makes what to him is a terrible sacrifice, tearing up the letter he was going to send, and declaring “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” (Twain 317). The readers of the novel are not limited by Huck’s fears and simplistic understanding of religion and law, and can see that Huck is making the moral choice—society is in the wrong. Ultimately, Twain’s famous book does not support the evil it conveys, it merely uses satire as a tool to force readers to consider their own stereotypes. Truly, “Huck’s relations with Jim do not so much embody a national attitude as suggest how the nation may purge itself of one,” and thus begin to move forward from the past cruelties without forgetting the courage and pain of those who were forced to endure slavery or the slow-moving and disappointing efforts during the Reconstruction (Lane 3). Twain strikes directly at the “moral hypocrisy of ‘decent’, churchgoing, and slaveholding white Southerners and of addressing the perils of slavery” (Valkeakari 29-43).

The value of this novel is not lost today, because it addresses serious issues and brings them to the forefront of the reader’s mind. For one thing, it demonstrates that an education in the practical, without regarding the heart, is disastrous. Schools in the novel only reinforce stereotypes and injustice, failing to recognize the essential humanity of a large proportion of the population. Furthermore, Huck is brought up to believe that the law is fundamentally good, and that failure to follow it has dire religious consequences. Failure to nurture the virtues of the heart leads to corruption of the mind—one cannot stand without the other. The novel also demonstrates that just because overt racism is more apparent, does not mean that implicit racism is not equally poisonous. The book serves as a warning to those who consider themselves decent Christians—gullibility, greed, and discrimination are incompatible with Christianity. This is all gleaned from a book unconcerned with the facts, but deeply intertwined with truth.

The second novel, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, was a dystopian novel written in 1931 that offered a grim prediction of where the future would lead humanity. This dire message is delivered through a false utopia, a World State praised as benevolent by its satisfied citizens. Huxley writes as if he fully supports everything the book stands for, up until the point where John enters the novel. Having been raised outside the World-State, John is horrified by the moral degradation and inhumanity of a society in which family has been abolished, sex is a recreational activity without consequences, and drugs are distributed to combat any discomfort people may feel. John is unwilling to cope with society in this way, and increasingly alienates himself. When he is unable to find solitude due to the morbid curiosity of the people of the World State, he commits suicide.

Consideration and teaching of this novel can encourage students to take a stance on what constitutes morality. Seabury rightfully claims that “dystopias, portrayals of nonexistent societies worse than our own, have always led people to explore contemporary values and directions of change” (183). In particular, the novel demonstrates the importance of teaching children to love what is good and despise what is evil—a principle valued and defended by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man.  In Brave New World, this concept is applied in a corrupted and invasive way. Children are conditioned to enjoy their future assigned jobs, to be unafraid of death, and to seek after their own pleasure above all else. In the second chapter, Mr. Foster is providing a tour of the infant nurseries. Toddlers are placed on the floor, and in front of each of them there is a book and a vase of flowers glowing in the sunlight. Attracted to the objects, the toddler touch them and soon afterward alarms go off, terrifying them. The floor the toddlers on are is electrified, in order to “rub in the lesson with a mild electric shock” (Huxley 13). Afterward, when presented with these objects, the toddlers immediately began crying. This process is repeated throughout childhood over a hundred times, in order to breed in them an instinctive hatred of literature and the naturally beautiful. By doing so, it denies them their humanity, training them to be shallow and unenlightened, and to “abolish the love of nature” (Huxley 14). The harm in literature and nature is that both inspire reflection in the individual, leading to genuine emotion—and this is why love for either cannot exist in the World State. There is nothing practical about love, so it is removed due to inefficiency. Clearly, all education seeks to teach what is good and what is evil or harmful, and the neglect or distortion of this principle can only lead to the formation of adults with a misinformed conscience, a bestial reliance on instinct rather than any inviolable truth.

Another notable aspect of Brave New World is the lack of a recognizable religion. The World State wants to remove God entirely from the minds of the public, but have found that religion fulfills a vital need for humanity. As a result, they have created a civic religion based around materialism and glorifying mass production. They have created an idol, a pseudo-deity to match: “Ford, whose principle of universal happiness for the sake of efficient mass production, is the object of greatest veneration” (King 821). “All the crosses had their tops cut and became T’s” for the Model T, materialism and consumerism is revealed to be the core tenant of this new “religion” (Huxley 35). To replace religious fervor and comfort, the World State created soma, a hallucinatory drug without notable side effects. This wonder-drug is said to have “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of the consequences” and to be “Christianity without tears” (Huxley 36, 162). While worshipping the means of production rather than a benevolent creator, the citizens of the World State cling to any pleasure they can find without guilt. There is no judge, no one to hold them accountable for their actions, and are controlled only by their own conditioning. Contemplation in solitude is as foreign a concept to them as sacrifice or loyalty. Without being religious himself, Huxley demonstrates the dangerous potential of mankind to water down any religion that asks too much of them, and over the course of the novel, readers are forced to see the results of this moral languidness.

Furthermore, Huxley’s World State is a mesh of ideologies and political theories. Huxley depicts the inadequacy of pure utilitarianism in creating moral, thoughtful citizens. Yet his vision of a society in which communist principles are applied to the point that “everyone belongs to everyone else” is equally deplorable (Huxley 26). The economy encourages a throw-away culture similar to the modern day, but taken to an extreme. Products are deliberately made to wear out quickly so that consumers purchase more, and popular mantras serve as propaganda to sustain this cycle. “The more stitches the less riches,” is a common saying, as is “ending is better than mending” (Huxley 35).

The main theme of the novel appears to be obsessed with what makes one human. If a human is simply a convenient jumble of DNA conditioned to behave in certain ways, then the World State may be considered noble for attempting to control and appease them, if only to maintain order. Babies are treated as test subjects and potential additions to the work force, and are not valued intrinsically, and birth is considered a horrific phenomenon of a barbaric age. Contraceptives are used constantly and are always effective, and there is no marriage, or even family. The word “father” is treated like a bad joke and the word “mother” is a dirty word. The issue of what makes one human is just as relevant today, and especially comes up with the ethics of abortion and cloning.

If the goal of earthly life is simply to attain happiness, then the World State must be a benevolent entity—after all, the brainwashed and conditioned citizens are generally happy, and when they are not, they have a dose of government-issued soma. This comes at a terrible price, causes the citizens of the World State to become “infantile, incapable of self-control and self-denial, lacking in artistic insight and sensibility, and devoid of the desire to be objectively free and the capacity to love” (King 821). John has insight into this when he says “But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness, I want sin” (Huxley 163). The message is that suffering is part of the human condition, and that what virtues can be rendered from that suffering is more valuable than anything mass-produced. Brave New World as a work of fiction does more lay out the facts—it predicts the direction society is going and builds a world that revolves around the greatest problems of Huxley’s time. The reader is able to picture the effects and is abhorred by them; even if he or she subscribes to these budding ideologies in real life, their end is viewed with horror. Huxley’s fictional utopia produces this reaction and reflection in a way that nonfiction cannot.

The third novel, The Inferno, is the oldest of the novels, written by Dante Alighieri in 1320. In this book, readers follow the journey of Dante through the circles of hell, with his guide, Virgil. As Dante enters each level, he sees souls being punished in accordance with their sins. For example, those who in life allowed themselves to be swayed by the influences of their passions and committed sins of the flesh are forever blown around in a dark hurricane. For many of the souls in hell, even seeing that their own vices have caused their punishment, and that the continuation of their sin only makes it worse, they still persevere against God.

The concept of judgment and eternal consequences for sin has increasingly fallen out of favor in the postmodern world. Even large numbers of Christians lately have emphasized the mercy of God, while tiptoeing around the justice of hell, and the Judgment. The trend could even be considered a variation of “Christianity without tears”: the redemption without the Fall, mercy without judgment, sin without shame, love without discipline, prosperity without suffering (Huxley 162). This laxity prevents acknowledgement and repentance from sin, and distances man from God. Its

As a result of this watered-down sense of religion, few modern-day students read The Inferno without consternation, especially the famous line: “Abandon hope, forever, you who enter” (Alighieri 34). Educator Valerie Ostarch noted this in her classroom, but found that having the students write a canto of their own, complete a sin and corresponding punishment, provided them with insight into how sin leads necessarily to consequences. She goes on to explain that “it is impossible to divorce what a man thinks from what he is, and it is because we have illogically asserted this separation that we have become as careless and inert in our own thought as we are lazily tolerant of the thought of others” (Ostarch 22). To not be aware of one’s own sin or the sin of others is not a sign of tolerance, but rather is due to spiritual apathy.

Susan Blow similarly asserts that Dante’s “implicit argument is this: If man is free he is responsible. If he is responsible, justice requires the return of his deed upon him. To spare him the result of his own activity is to insult his ideal nature by denying his freedom” (135). Seeing this through Dante’s grueling journey through hell can be far more moving. There is truth to be found in allegory, which can affect the heart and mind in a way that literal truth often cannot. Ostarch’s students, after writing their own cantos, found themselves taking a stance similar to Dante’s own, and no longer were abhorred by spiritual consequences for temporal sins (Ostarch 22). The logic and justice of the punishments, in light of the sin, finally made sense to them. The reason that this book is so valuable to moral formation and the development of character is that if “the tendencies of any given age may be comprehended, they must be surveyed from the standpoint of an age different in its habits of thought. Drifting with his generation, the individual cannot gauge its strength, and sees neither the direction in which it moves nor the goal towards which it tends” (Blow 121). Dante’s deepening understanding of sin provides him with a different perspective than many Christians are familiar with today, but that is what makes his work so pivotal. It often happens that apathy is best countered with shock.

The fourth and final novel is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, which was written in 1817 during the Romantic period of literature and contained early elements of the genres of horror and science fiction. One of the main characters, Dr. Frankenstein, aspires to create life from inanimate matter. He achieves his dream by animating corpses he has painstakingly formed and stitched into a man. However, he ends up creating a horror, a sentient being that is hideous and disturbs him immensely, “a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived” (Shelley 117). Frankenstein’s monster will begin from a mind like a tabula rasa, and gradually lose his innocence as he becomes frustrated at being alienated from mankind. Eventually, he will destroy all that Dr. Frankenstein loves, and they will both end their days miserable and alone.

This novel follows the rise and fall of a man of science who attempted to become like God, determined that “a new species would bless me as its creator and source” (Shelley 110). The tragedy of the ending is brought about by Dr. Frankenstein’s folly in attempting to use science to deify himself, going beyond the ethical boundaries of respectable practice, and giving in to his monomania to the point of seclusion from society. Goldberg believed social crime was the greatest of these errors, “assuming that knowledge is a higher good than love or sympathy, and that it can be independent of the fellow-feeling afforded by a compassionate society” (33). His creation is not spared from this tragedy, and just like Dr. Frankenstein, “whose original intentions were directed at benevolence and sympathy, the creature initially bears the seeds of virtue” (Goldberg 33). It is only continual rejection and alienation that twist and corrupt the monster. Percy Shelley responded to the story by pointing out “Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked. Requite affection with scorn; let one being be selected, for whatever cause, as the refuse of his kind—divide him, a social being, from society, and you impose upon him the irresistible obligations—malevolence and selfishness” (qtd. in Goldberg 37).

Frankenstein’s monster’s life was one marked by abandonment, alienation, and cruelty. Through no fault of his own, he is shunned. The writer did not make her character unsympathetic, and under this creature’s hideous frame is a quick mind and an inclination toward good. Mary Shelley gives a troubling depiction of how the outsider is treated in human society—how humans react to anyone who is not one of their own. Throughout history, there have been those in society considered less than human, and treated as such; for example, due to a disability, a differing physical characteristic such as skin color, or poverty. Understanding man’s tendency to be wary of the unfamiliar will help readers navigate the text and will aid them in considering issues of human rights.

In each of these four fictional texts, the reader is challenged to expand their thinking to look critically at their own lives and society. Lasting change in an individual can only be enacted when the mind and heart are both involved, and fiction is remarkably adept at stimulating both. It uses layers of truth beyond the mere literal, tends to particularize the universal, making it more relatable and comprehensible. Fiction’s fundamental capacity to lead to improvements in character and a strong system of morals is unmatched by nonfiction.

Works Cited

  • Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno. Translated by Mark Musa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.
  • Baym, Nina. “The Head, the Heart, and the Unpardonable Sin.” The New England Quarterly 40, no. 1 (1967): 31-47.
  • Blow, Susan E. “Dante’s ‘Inferno.’” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 18, no. 2 (1884): 121-138.
  • Bollinger, Laurel. “Say It, Jim: The Morality of Connection in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” College Literature 29, no 1 (2002): 32–52.
  • Gilbert, Pierre. “Mere Education: C. S. Lewis as Teacher for Our Time.” Direction 44, no. 1 (2015): 113-115.
  • Goldberg, M. A. “Moral and Myth in Mrs. Shelley’s Frankenstein.” Keats-Shelly Journal 8, no. 1 (1959): 27-38.
  • Hearn, Michael Patrick. “Twain, Mark 1835-1910.” In Writers for Children: Critical Studies of Major Authors Since the Seventeenth Century, edited by Jane M. Bingham. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), 573-582.
  • Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. New York: Buccaneer books, 1946.
  • Lane, Lauriat, Jr. “Why Huckleberry Finn is a Great World Novel.” National Council of Teachers of English 17, no. 1 (1955): 1-5.
  • Lewis, C. S. Introduction to On the Incarnation, i-ix. Translated by John Behr. New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012.
  • Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1947.
  • King, Almeda. “Christianity without Tears: Man without Humanity.” The English Journal 57, no. 6 (1968): 820-24. doi:10.2307/812030.
  • Ostarch, Valerie. “To Hell, with Dante and Students.” The English Journal 70, no. 1 (1981): 22-24.
  • Park, Andrew Sung. “A Theology of the Way (Tao).” Interpretation 55, no. 4 (2001): 389-399. doi:
  • Pelser, Adam C. “Irrigating Deserts: Thinking with C. S. Lewis about Educating for Emotional Formation.” Christian Scholar’s Review 44, no. 1 (2014): 27–43.
  • Reese, Diana. “A Troubled Legacy: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Inheritance of Human Rights.” Representations 96, no. 1 (2006): 48-72.
  • Reznitskaya, Alina and Ian A. G. Wilkinson. “Truth Matters: Teaching Young Students to Search for the Most Reasonable Answer.” The Phi Delta Kappan 99, no. 4 (2017-18): 33-38.
  • Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. The Annotated Frankenstein. Edited by Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012.
  • Seabury, Marcia Bundy. “Teaching Dystopias: The Value of Religious Questioning.” The Journal of General Education 44, no. 3 (1995): 180-188.
  • Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Modern Library, 1993.
  • Valkeakari, Tuire. “Huck, Twain, and the Freedman’s Shackles: Struggling with ‘Huckleberry Finn’ Today.” Atlantis 28, no. 2 (2006): 29-43.
  • Watson, George. “The High Road to Narnia: C. S. Lewis and His Friend J. R. R. Tolkien Believed That Truths are Universal and That Stories Reveal Them.” The American Scholar 78, no. 1 (2009): 89-95.
  • Yeager, D. M. “‘Art for Humanity’s Sake’: The Social Novel as a Mode of Moral Discourse.” The Journal of Religious Ethics 33, no. 3 (2005): 445-483.

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