Novels with a message

I’ve just seen the film The Railway Man, based on an autobiographical novel by former prisoner-of-war Eric Lomax, and described in reviews as an ‘intense emotional drama’. It explores themes of confronting past traumas, and moving from revenge to forgiveness, and appeared to engage the whole audience.

Do novels, films and plays always need to carry ‘messages’ designed to affect the outlook and emotions? Not according to the saying art for art’s sake which implies that creative works are worthwhile in themselves and do not have to be justified by any practical, educational or moral function.

For novels, according to this philosophy, providing pleasure and satisfaction for both writers and readers would be sufficient raison d’être. They need not aim to change people’s attitudes or improve their minds. All the same, messages of one kind or another are probably to be found within every piece of fiction, and can enhance its interest and value even when they are not consciously intended or recognised. 

Didactic novels, deliberately promoting certain ethical or political principles, can have the desired influence if they are well written and have a strong storyline. Otherwise they sometimes come across as patronising or contrived. Messages transmitted indirectly, as a subtext revealed through the speech or actions of the characters, can be more effective. They may prompt reflection on questions (is killing ever justified? do we reap what we sow in life?) on conflicts (good versus evil, pleasure versus duty, individual versus society), on the nature of human qualities such as courage or ambition, or virtually any other topic.

After years of writing non-fiction books, mainly medical ones, I recently published my first novel Carmen’s Roses. At surface level it is an easy-to-read (I hope) story of mystery and romance. Having taken shape gradually, inspired from various different sources, it was not meant to include any specific messages. But it has turned out to have several themes, including the contrast between orthodox and alternative models of sickness and healing, the darker side of human relationships and, again, the power of forgiveness.