Worlds of Meaning


Stories help us make sense out of our lives. They can show us that our struggles and sufferings have meaning and help us make sense of morality. What kind of stories are we recommending then? Any and all kinds as long as they are animated by a sense of moral order.

"We turn to fiction for some slight hint about the story in life we live," observed Robert Penn Warren. Media theorist Neil Postman elaborates on this idea:
Human beings require stories to give meaning to the facts of existence ... ever since we can remember, all of us have been telling ourselves stories about ourselves, composing life-giving autobiographies of which we are the heroes and heroines. If our stories are coherent and plausible and have continuity, they will help us to understand why we are here, and what we need to pay attention to and what we may ignore.

Stories, in short, help to make sense out of our lives. There is a wonderful example of this in the film version of Captains Courageous, Rudyard Kipling's tale of life aboard the Gloucester fishing schooners. The story concerns a spoiled rich boy who, on a transatlantic voyage, falls overboard in the vicinity of the Grand Banks, is rescued by a fisherman named Manuel, then taken aboard the We're Here and put to work alongside the men. Except that he won't work. The boy, Harvey Cheyne, is self-centered, lazy, and manipulative. He doesn't understand concepts such as loyalty and hard work because he has no framework within which they make any sense. His transformation into a better and infinitely more likable boy comes about largely through the influence of Manuel, who not only possesses admirable qualities of character but is also a fine storyteller. Manuel tells stories about his father, about the sea, about the songs he sings. In one memorable scene he relates his life to those of the Twelve Apostles, who were also fishermen. Their story is the larger one within which his own life story makes sense.

A plot. A purpose. A sense that our struggles and sufferings have meaning. The supreme gift of stories is their reassurance that these can be found. By giving us a larger vision a story may help us find meaning in experiences that might otherwise seem chaotic or pointless. Because there are many more things that don't make sense to them, children need this reassurance every bit as much as adults. If you've ever wondered why a child wants to hear the same story over and over, night after night, here is part of the reason.

Of course, the stories we read don't have to be the same stories we live. We've already suggested why that isn't necessarily a good idea. The important thing about good literature, whether set in the twentieth century or the second, is that it opens our eyes to the significance of our own dramas and helps us to find continuities and connections we might otherwise miss.

Stories also help make sense of morality. How well do motives for virtuous behavior hold up without the sense that there is something like a plot to our lives? Not well at all. If life is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" then it doesn't really matter how one behaves. But to feel that one has been given a role to play in a meaningful story, and that one has the chance of acting one's part well-that is a considerable source of motivation.

The perfect cinematic example is the film It's a Wonderful Life. A man on the point of suicide finds renewed hope when he discovers (courtesy of an angelic revelation) that the story of his life makes a great deal more sense than he imagined. The fact that year after year this fifty-year-old classic consistently polls as one of the best-loved films suggests that its theme strikes close to home. A very different film, Casablanca, conveys, though in more subtle ways, a similar theme. The cynical and self-concerned Rick Blaine manages to transcend his bitterness because he has caught sight of a larger vision. When, near the story's conclusion, he says that "the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill o' beans in this crazy world ' " he means precisely that it is not a crazy world.

One of the duties adults have toward children is to teach them that the world is not a crazy place. A child needs the security of knowing that he lives in an ordered world. As Michele Landsberg points out, the attractiveness of order is part of the appeal of such classic stories as Madeline (twelve girls in two straight lines) and The Story About Ping (the duck who wanders away from the ordered existence of his family). The need for order may also account for the ambivalence children feel about Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Far from being the favorite children's book of all time, as some suppose, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a book that commonly upsets young children. Humphrey Carpenter, in an essay on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, writes that "many adults retain vague memories of being somehow frightened by the Alice books in childhood to the extent of positively disliking them." Why? Partly because Alice's Adventures comes closer to upsetting the idea of a natural moral ordering than any other book written for children. Nothing happens in a normal way in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Alice grows abnormally small (almost to the point of annihilation) and then abnormally large, babies change suddenly into pigs, and all the rules are utterly relative — subject to change without notice. Along with undermining notions of normality, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland attacks the sense of meaning itself. The universe that Lewis Carroll creates is a meaningless universe. All rules are arbitrary, and life is a Mad Tea-Party in which we are all condemned to the endless repetition of pointless activities. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which can be a delight to an adult or an older child with a secure sense of the way things connect, can be a shock to a younger child who is trying to find those connections.

What kind of stories are we recommending? Any and all kinds as long as they are animated by a sense of moral order. What does that mean? In the case of fairy tales, it means that evil is punished, virtue is rewarded, things are set straight, effort pays off, and riddles are solved. In novels, of course, whether realistic or fantastic, the moral order is not always upheld so decisively and permanently. An outstanding writer crafts a novel in such a way as to draw the reader into the process of discriminating between appearance and reality, since the wrong choices are often dressed up to look like the right ones. Even tragedies assert the reality of a moral order in the face of human failure to live up to that order.

Ironically, one of the most satisfying of all story genres is the mystery or the detective story. W, H. Auden explains why in his perceptive essay "The Guilty Vicarage." Murder mysteries satisfy, writes Auden, because they are about order. First you have an ordered and peaceful community. Then you have the crime that disrupts order. And finally, through the intervention of the detective, the restoration of order.

Perhaps this is the reason that the reading of mystery stories is reported to rank among the favorite pastimes of presidents and other world leaders. Perhaps they, especially, need reassurance that there is a structure and order to events. There's no doubt, of course, that mystery stories are also read for escape. But it's an escape from which we can come back with a better perspective on our daily lives. Like the Lord, books work in mysterious ways, and by a strange paradox stories about murder are often the most soothing thing to read. In Reading for the Love of It, Michele Landsberg tells how, after the death of her mother in a terrible accident, the only consolation she could find was in reading Swedish detective stories.

If adults need reassurance that life makes sense, so do children and young adults. The number of youngsters who are directly affected by acts of senseless violence is still small, but more and more young people are aware of the possibility of sudden and senseless tragedy. They need plenty of help in understanding that, despite the surrounding chaos, there is still purpose, plot, and meaning. The mystery story can be a real help in this regard because it shows us that although life is mysterious, it is not meaningless. It's a lucky teenager who discovers that the pleasure of reading Agatha Christie or Patricia Wentworth is not just the pleasure of suspense but also the pleasure of justice and harmony triumphant. Advanced readers will also respond to the stories of Ellis Peters — both to her medieval mystery series featuring Brother Cadfael, a twelfth-century monk, as the detective, and to her contemporary stories featuring Inspector Adam Felse. Peters's stories invariably have a strong moral backbone and are full of incident, colorful characters, love interests, and shrewd observations about human nature. There's no shying away from ugliness in her novels, but there's no despair, either. The overall theme is always one of hope: good brought out of evil, love out of hate. With Brother Cadfael the reader gets to look at life's problems sub specie aeternitatis — from the aspect of eternity. For today's youngsters, bombarded with daily reports of the latest explosions of sound and fury, it's a much needed perspective.

The worst kind of sound and fury, however, is not the kind that emanates from the streets but the kind that comes from inside one's own house. Much of life's meaning is found in family life. When we are born we are introduced into a family story and to the characters who are already part of it. just as a novel requires a theme or a narrative thread, so does a life, and home is the place where we first pick up that thread. But the family itself needs a story. If there is no family story to pass on, if the family is not tied into some larger tradition, history, or religious story, youngsters are not likely to gain much perspective on their lives. As a character in an Isaac Bashevis Singer tale puts it, "If stories weren't told or books weren't written, man would live like the beasts, only for the day."

Unfortunately, because of high rates of illegitimacy and divorce, more and more youngsters are subjected to family situations that lack sense and order. As a result, more youngsters are living only for the day — for whatever immediate sensation they can find. Yet they still have what seems to be a built-in longing for a stable home life. As Michele Landsberg observes:

The enduring Popularity of family stories written as far back as the 1930s, such as the imperishable The Moffats by Eleanor Estes, or the 1950s, such as Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary, show us how much children still want to live, imaginatively, in a world where family love is the unquestioned basis of existence.

Can books be of help in offsetting difficult family situations? We think so. Books can provide a picture of what family life can be like at its best and, for that matter, what romance and courtship can be like. Not all writers would agree with this. Some insist that if families are falling apart, books should obediently reflect the trend. Consequently, their depictions of family life come with generous helpings of chaos and cynicism mixed in. But we think there is a danger in trying to accommodate fiction to every new social malady, the danger being that, after a while, no one remembers what a stable family looks like. It's not possible to break the cycle of broken or unformed marriages unless you have a picture in mind of what the alternative is. Children, as the author Jane Yolen observes, need a "star map" for the future. In real life, she says, "Endings are as often unhappy as happy ... babies starve and there is no resurrecting them .... Families are torn asunder and there is no mending them." But a certain kind of fiction, she maintains, tells us something else: "It tells us of the world as it should be. It holds certain values to be important. It makes issues clear .... [It] becomes a rehearsal for the reader for life as it should be lived."

The foregoing is not a criticism of realism in stories. Rather, it is a criticism of an approach that wants to give children only the slice of reality they already have. The thinking behind it goes something like this: "Your parents are divorced? Here, read this book about divorcing parents. It will make you feel better."

But too many children already know about the more disastrous facts of life. They know about broken marriages and domestic quarrels and absent fathers. What they need is not a further cataloging — that only leads to confusion or cynicism — but a way of making sense of these facts, of ordering them and judging them. And they need a vehicle for finding out what they don't know about life but ought to know.

That means giving them a broader world than they currently possess. Ever since The Catcher in the Rye, books for teens and preteens have tended to reflect back to them their own limited adolescent or preadolescent world. But in trying to depict the world through the eyes of a teenage protagonist, many authors have succeeded only in conveying the impression that there is nothing more profound in life than the teenage view of things. Young readers deserve to know that there is a grown-up world worth aspiring to, that it is not all phony, and that some things are worth waiting for.

This is not an easy thing for a writer to do. It is far easier to be cynical about the facts of life than it is to invest them with the significance they deserve. But it can be done. Consider two passages from Tolstoy. The first is from the wedding of Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina. It describes Levin's feelings as the full impact of the ancient ceremony comes down on him:

Levin felt more and more that all his ideas of marriage, all his dreams of how he would order his life, were mere childishness, and that it was something he had not understood hitherto, and now understood less than ever, though it was being performed upon him. The lump in his throat rose higher and higher, tears that would not be checked came into his eyes.

The second is Tolstoy's introduction of Princess Lise in War and Peace:

Everyone brightened at the sight of this pretty young woman, so soon to become a mother, so full of life and health and carrying her burden so lightly. Old men and dull dispirited young ones who looked at her, after being in her company and talking to her a little while, felt as if they too were becoming, like her, full of life and health.

The noted book critic Clifton Fadiman has said that Tolstoy had a "genius for the normal," and these passages are examples of that genius at work. They convey an enormous appreciation for the mysteries and blessings of ordinary life. Of course, Anna Karenina and War and Peace are not for youngsters (although some of Tolstoy's stories are); the point is that today's young people (and many adults) are sorely in need of a picture of life that conveys both depth and normality — or, better, the depth and satisfaction that a morally ordered life can offer (with the qualification that even the most normal life has its share of conflict and contradiction). The things that traditionally were thought to give adult life meaning — love, courtship, marriage, children — have suffered a tremendous trivialization in recent years, largely as a result of television. The consumer of mass entertainment learns that these things are material for jokes and gags without learning much more about them. The fact that some notable exceptions to this rule — The Waltons, The Little House on the Prairie — played on TV so well over a long period suggests a certain hunger on the part of youngsters for depictions of these ordinary blessings.

Along with "reality," children also need a diet of normality — not Dick and Jane "normality," but stories in which children take part in a larger cycle of life. A number of recent children's books offer this experience. In Waiting for Hannah, a mother recounts for her daughter the preparations the family made for her arrival, including the planting of a morning glory vine, which blossoms on the day Hannah is born. Yonder, another picture book, follows the life of a nineteenth-century farmer and his bride as they marry, have children, and eventually see their children marry and start their own families. To mark each important family event, prayers are said and trees are planted. In My Mother's House, a collection of verse sung by the Tewa children of Tesuque Pueblo near Sante Fe, celebrates the ordered domestic life of these Native Americans. "In my Mother's house" begins one poem, "there is a fireplace: ... The fire is always there, . . . / To keep me warm."

Although it plays little part in the lives of television families, religion plays a significant role in the lives of real families. This is reflected in Hello Amigos! , a picture book about a Mexican-American family's celebration of a birthday. Frankie, whose birthday is the cause of the celebration, tells how, after the party, "Papa and I walk to our church. He helps me light a candle, and I count my blessings." In The Happy Funeral a Chinese-American girl comes to terms with her grandfather's death by participating in family rituals and remembrances. For middle readers, All-of-a-Kind Family depicts the daily life of a Jewish family in the Lower East Side of New York City at the turn of the century.

"Normality" as we are using it here does not mean an allegiance to the status quo or to suburban living, but a recognition of norms that guide and also limit our behavior, a sense of moral fixity in the midst of flux. The Depression years in Mississippi are the setting for Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a story about the Logan family's efforts to teach goodness to their children in the teeth of racism and poverty. In one heart-to-heart talk Mrs. Logan tells her daughter Cassie, "Baby, we have no choice of what color we're born, or who our parents are, or whether we're rich or poor. What we do have is some choice over what we make of our lives once we're here ... I pray to God you'll make the best of yours."

It is interesting that some of the strongest presentations of ordinary domestic blessings can be found in fantasy stories. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH is one example. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is another. Despite whatever adventures or misadventures come, there is always time for cakes and teas and fireside chats. Or, at least, time to think of them. In fact, there is a strong suggestion throughout these books that this is what all the trials and perils are for: so that hearth life and home life can be protected, so that in the end the adventurers can return to just such a life. So too in the Odyssey. After all, it is Odysseus's keen desire to get home that drives the plot. More than a simple adventure story, this prototype of all adventure stories is also about the restoration of family life. It anticipates by twenty-five hundred years Samuel Johnson's observation that "the end of all endeavor is to be happy at home."

Odysseus was a navigator trying to find his way home. It took him a very long time to do it — more than twenty years. Today's navigators are luckier. They have a framework of longitude and latitude, and a prime meridian from which to take their bearings. Children, likewise, need a prime meridian — a fixed standard — to reach their destinations in life. The voyage from childhood to responsible adulthood is long, difficult, and stormy. Good stories provide compass, chart, and bearings for the journey.


Kilpatrick, William, & Gregory and Suzanne M. Wolfe. "Worlds of Meaning." Chapter 4 in Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories (New York, Touchstone, 1994), 46-54.

Reprinted by permission of William Kilpatrick, Gregory Wolfe, and Suzanne M. Wolfe.


William K. Kilpatrick is Professor Emeritus of Education at Boston College and the author of four previous books, including , Great Lessons in Virtue and Character: A Treasury of Classic Animal Stories, Books that Build Character: A Guide to Teaching your Child Moral Values Through Stories and Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong. His areas of interest include: the use of stories in moral development; psychology and literature; and character education. William Kilpatrick is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1994 William Kilpatrick, Gregory Wolfe, and Suzanne M. Wolfe

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.