The Story of a Life

I have been reading some more Stanley Hauerwas (this book), which is a dangerous thing to do if you do not want to be convinced of the thing for which he is arguing. One of his main themes (for which I do not need much convincing) is the idea that virtue or vice plays itself out over the course of a whole life, and not so much in the individual actions—although, of course, the individual choices and actions make up the habits which make up the character of the person who lives that life (an idea he develops from Alasdair MacIntyre). In other words, one’s character cannot fully be seen in the choice of an action isolated from the rest of one’s past and future, nor can in it be understood except within the community that forms such a moral life.

This is Hauerwas’s argument on behalf of fiction, specifically the moral character of Trollope’s gentlemen. He surveys Karl Barth on honor, and concludes “that Barth’s account of honor is characteristic of his ethics in general, as it is at once a mixture of extraordinary insights about human behavior and theological claims that make one unsure about the status of such behavior. … What we need to know is how honor in this or that context may or may not be appropriate to the service to which we are called as Christians. Such concreteness is exactly what I hope to show Trollope offers” (Dispatches from the Front, 67).

In another essay, and closer to the point I want to make, Hauerwas speaks of the virtue of constancy among Trollope’s gentlemen. “His novels instruct us morally not simply because we identify with the characters he draws and thus learn some of our own proclivities, but because their very form exhibits the virtue he commends” (Dispatches, 55).

Thus, the very reading of the novel is a moral training. By forcing our eyes from one word to the next, one sentence to the next, one paragraph to the next, we are stretched through a narrative world that gives us the skills to make something of our own lives. To make something of our own lives requires our being able to locate our story in an unfolding narrative so that we can go on. Without such a story, we lack the means of constancy, and without forgiveness we lack the means of making our lives our own. For a truthful story cannot avoid the bad we have done or allowed any more than it can fail to record that the good we have done has been the result of mixed motives. Novels are the means, though not the only means, to be sure, that we have to attain the skills of locating and telling our individual stories, not as instances of some grand schemes, but as uniquely ours. Just to the extent they are ours, they make constancy possible.

(Dispatches, 55-56)

It would be interesting for a future project to explore constancy and forgiveness in terms of characters in film, but for now I want to suggest that, though certainly different from novels’ unique “moral training,” film can do something of the same thing. Reading and watching are not equivalent actions with equivalent habits, and perhaps Hauerwas would not agree with me that films can function this way, but the best films do indeed stretch us through “a narrative world that gives us the skills to make something of our own lives.”

Perhaps they are few, and far between, and perhaps they do not attract as much attention as the films that stunt our ability to make something of our own lives, or the ability to “locate our story in an unfolding narrative to that we can go on.” Even so, a realistic narrative, inhabited by realistic characters, whose lives display the virtue of constancy in the midst of moral challenges, and who can forgive both the bad we have done and allowed, as well as show the mixed motives in good actions, can be portrayed cinematically. And both novels and films, at their best, show us not only individual choices and actions, but how those discrete actions become virtuous or vicious habits, which form a virtuous or vicious character, which result in a life lived well or badly according to what one believes the goal or end of a human life should be.