What are the most "moral" books you know of?
January 29, 2021 4:38 AM   Subscribe

In my quest to find more fiction books to read that don't make me quit ten pages in, I've realised that there's a quality to literature I enjoy that could be described as engaging with morality, ethics, goodness, right living, those sort of things. And doing so deliberately and as the most important part of the book. As opposed to those things being kind of subservient to plot and character, etc. Some examples inside. I'd like to find more books like this, if you could offer any suggestions.

Authors and books that I think do this and which are interesting to me: George Eliot, especially Middlemarch (which might be the holy grail and epitome of what I'm talking about)
The Sparrow
Infinite Jest (I know)
Kerouac's Dharma Bums (I know)

I'm guessing these maybe are all books in which religion/spirituality are at the core of what drives the book? Perhaps this definition is hard to pin down, but I feel like if you're the kind of person who likes the books above, maybe you know what I mean. Books that get at the very most important and fundamental stuff of meaningful life, sustainedly, not books that seem to coast along in sheer entertainment. You know?

NB I'm specifically looking for fiction where these things can be found. I know where to look in non-fiction, philosophy, spiritual teachings, etc.

posted by Balthamos to Media & Arts (79 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
I think you would like Umberto Eco’s books. Another interesting one might be The Just City by Jo Walton. They both get into some pretty nitty-gritty philosophical and/or religious themes that deeply inform the characters and their worlds.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:46 AM on January 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

Jane Eyre for sure.
posted by onebyone at 4:47 AM on January 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

Atonement by Ian McEwan
posted by mskyle at 4:48 AM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels
posted by Dorinda at 4:55 AM on January 29, 2021 [20 favorites]

Ursula K La Guin - pretty much all of her writing
Octavia Butler - same, especially the Parable series
posted by prewar lemonade at 4:55 AM on January 29, 2021 [16 favorites]

You might also enjoy Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder, a "novel about the history of philosophy."
posted by prewar lemonade at 5:02 AM on January 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

A new novel called Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession may work? I wouldn’t say that spirituality is the main theme, but it’s a gentle, wonderful character study of two men who are kind and thoughtful and finding their place in the world.
posted by bookmammal at 5:04 AM on January 29, 2021

Interesting question.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber - similar premise to The Sparrow. Maybe Under the Skin by the same author?
posted by sedimentary_deer at 5:11 AM on January 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

I came to mention Jane Eyre. The protagonist of Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is also very committed to living in an ethical and moral fashion.
posted by zorseshoes at 5:12 AM on January 29, 2021

Lois Lowry, The Giver. Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and more to the sequel, A Closed and Common Orbit, or well actually all four books in different ways, if you like SciFi?
posted by DarlingBri at 5:15 AM on January 29, 2021

Oh, This is How you Lose the Time War by Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone could fit.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 5:18 AM on January 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Elizabeth Gaskell’s books, like North and South, are pretty similar in both morality and atmosphere to George Eliot. Not quite as well written, IMO, but still worth reading.
posted by alligatorpear at 5:19 AM on January 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

A Canticle for Leibowitz is mostly about this, but from a societal level, more so than an individual level. I'd say it takes precedence over plot and character, those are both somewhat thin, imo. Warning: it's a bit dark.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:20 AM on January 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

I just want to push tchmegrrl's suggestions--my first thought was The Name of the Rose, and The Just City was basically written as though your question was the pitch line. The characters are great, but the story is "can intentional people with resources and the same goals create Utopia?"
posted by gideonfrog at 5:23 AM on January 29, 2021

Tolstoy, especially later Tolstoy, may also do the trick. A lot of Anna Karenina is actually about Levin working through issues of morality and faith.
posted by alligatorpear at 5:23 AM on January 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham is about the protagonist’s quest to live an ethical life.
posted by FencingGal at 5:25 AM on January 29, 2021 [6 favorites]

The short stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer have a moral undercurrent to them (or a wrestling with moral concerns).
posted by kokaku at 5:26 AM on January 29, 2021

The Life of Pi
Tess of the D'Urbervilles (possibly more Thomas Hardy but this is the only one I've read.)
Most everything by Chekhov
Mansfield Park

For the anti-ethical, maybe Vanity Fair by Thackeray? Thinking about "what would Becky Sharp do?" and then doing the opposite is a pretty good way to behave. It's more character-driven than perhaps you are looking for.
posted by basalganglia at 5:47 AM on January 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

Graham Greene has books that deal with people really struggling with their Catholic faith when their actions are less than pure. The End of the Affair and The Heart of the Matter are two in particular. That theme is featured very prominently.
posted by cali59 at 5:49 AM on January 29, 2021 [6 favorites]

The Once and Future King, specifically the first part, The Sword in the Stone. Its morality may be a bit dated at this point, however.
posted by condour75 at 5:51 AM on January 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

The Brothers Karamazov, a cliche answer for a reason.

You like The Sparrow (a book I really dislike, funnily enough, but I have read it). I read Mission Child around the same time and although it's a secular book I somehow bracket them together in my head. The Goodreads summary makes it seem way, way less bleak and serious than it is. It's not a book about a "wondrous journey" by any means.

Have you read CS Lewis's Space Trilogy? To my mind, most of it is simply godawful as morality, but it's certainly all about moral questions and, despite the fact that I think Lewis's views are awful, there are a few bits that stand out and that stay with me.

James Baldwin's novels in general, although Go Tell It On The Mountain is particularly spare and direct.
posted by Frowner at 5:54 AM on January 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard
posted by ASlackerPestersMums at 5:55 AM on January 29, 2021

I adore Eliot, and E.M. Forster hits the same spot for me. Howards End is my favorite, but I think you might like A Passage to India.

Dickens, probably - David Copperfield and Our Mutual Friend are two that stuck with me.

I also really liked Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, which deals more with existential than ethical concerns but contains a lot of wisdom.

I also think mysteries often do a good job with this sort of thing, though it's not a genre I read much. I did enjoy Attica Locke's Bluebird, Bluebird, which is a meditation on race and the ethics of policing.
posted by toastedcheese at 5:57 AM on January 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Aw man, I came in to be all like MIDDLEMARCH!!11!! and JANE EYRE! but I've been beaten to the punch! I did want to say though, that Terry Pratchett's Discworld books have a really consistent moral philosophy. Many of his most important main characters aren't exactly nice, but they are mostly good, and trying to make their way through a world which is neither nice, nor good; and where it's rarely if ever easy to make the morally right choice. Pratchett may not be your thing necessarily, but his work does meet this criterion!
posted by unicorn chaser at 5:57 AM on January 29, 2021 [12 favorites]

Yep Jane Eyre.
Little Women and its sequels.
Lord of the Rings.
posted by runincircles at 5:58 AM on January 29, 2021

Blame or any other book by Michelle Huneven. Her writing takes some patience to get into; you are going on a journey with the characters. I think-- can't put my finger on the quotation right now-- that Huneven says her project is to write about how people live.

The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein is comparatively sexy and breezy but it comes to grips with religion and the loss of such and the struggle to find meaning elsewhere. The main character does not always live what most people would consider morally, but she does some to a conclusion I find satisfying.

Piers Paul Read's novels are a very mixed bag, often weird and disturbing, usually engaged with a mix of Catholicism and communism. A Married Man is a good example of this: so is On the Third Day.
posted by BibiRose at 6:01 AM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Strongly seconding the Graham Greene books, where the questions of morality are front and center.

Most if not all Iris Murdoch would work here. She had an academic background in philosophy—her first book was about Sartre—but more than that, her novels are about mostly ordinary people grappling with large questions of How To Be Good, while moving through the daily world and navigating family relationships, varied economic situations, etc. The relationships drive the stories along but the questions of how to live life properly are always close at hand. Try The Good Apprentice or Under the Net.

Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian might also fit the bill. It’s introspective historical fiction, framed as a letter by the Emperor Hadrian to his grandson Marcus Aurelius, with lots of thinking through philosophical questions.
posted by miles per flower at 6:04 AM on January 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but it's an awful, awful read.

News from Nowhere, by William Morris

Tolkien's very weird allegorical (?) short story 'Leaf by Niggle'
posted by runincircles at 6:13 AM on January 29, 2021

A lot of Gene Wolfe's fiction deals with this question in one way or another. The two series that really stick out in this respect though are the Long Sun books (starting with Nightside the Long Sun), and the Wizard Knight books.
Both have central characters who really wrestle with how to do good in their worlds, and their attempts to do so create the narrative around them.
posted by crocomancer at 6:13 AM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 6:26 AM on January 29, 2021

Elizabeth Bear often describes her fiction as "comedies of ethics" and this is particularly striking in her recent space opera series. Both Ancestral Night and Machine are grappling with how one lives ethically in a complicated world. Plus, spaceships!

(disclaimer: Bear's a personal friend)
posted by restless_nomad at 6:44 AM on January 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Pretty much anything by Joseph Conrad is a meditation on morality.
posted by cardboard at 6:45 AM on January 29, 2021

Ursula Le Guin Ursula Le Guin Ursula Le Guin

Honestly half the fiction I re-read is to re-engage with the moral questions within. It doesn't have to be a particularly moral book to do this, it just has to be juicy enough that you can test and re-test your own moral sense against it.

But Ursula is my lodestone.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 6:47 AM on January 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

Nthing other George Eliot like Silas Marner & Jane Austen & Brontes & also Hardy like Jude and Mayor of Casterbridge & Gaskill North + South (not read others). If Infinite Jest fits the bill have you read Catch 22? And yes as well to Dostoevsky (The Idiot is my favorite but Brothers Karamazov and Crime & Punishment too) and Tolstoy. I would also suggest my Favourite Book Of All Time - The Count of Monte Cristo. Also Madame Bovary! Ok these are my jam!
posted by london explorer girl at 6:51 AM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

Also seconding all those who have suggested Ursula K. LeGuin. Particularly her novel The Disposessed.
posted by mekily at 6:52 AM on January 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'm glad to see Anna Karenina mentioned. It has a reputation as being rather immoral, and to a sense, it kind of is. But the immorality is an intentional contrast. Despite the title, it's not really about Anna Karenina; it's about Konstantin Levin (who is a stand-in for Tolstoy) and his quest for moral and spiritual understanding. I will say that if you tend to quit books ten pages in if the morality isn't there, Anna Karenina might be tough for you. Most of the first ten pages, the "happy families are all alike" stuff, is about the wife of one of Levin's friends discovering that her husband has been sleeping around. The morality part doesn't come until later, but once it arrives, it's prominent. The last couple hundred pages are explicitly about this.

Also happy to see The Razor's Edge, which is one of my favorites. It also happens to be non-Western religion, if you're looking for something different than Christian spirituality.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:54 AM on January 29, 2021

You may also enjoy The Road by Cormac McCarthy — though be warned that it’s a very grim post-apocalyptic story. For me, that book is mostly about the ways morality breaks down when barely on the brink of survival, and also the ways that it doesn’t.
posted by mekily at 6:54 AM on January 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson and My Antonia by Willa Cather.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:08 AM on January 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Stephen King's The Stand is a big war over good vs. evil. I read his earlier books and morality is a persistent theme, Dead Zone is a good example.
posted by theora55 at 7:18 AM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Anna Karenina is a broad critique of society. Levin is the Tolstoy stand-in and the one who literally sits and thinks "what is morality", but Dolly and Anna and Vronsky and them are all living in a society that shapes, traps and limits them - sets their moral horizons, if you will. Tolstoy's whole social point is that Levin (being a man, and thus the more important moral agent) is freer and more whole because he's a landowner and farmer and therefore he isn't always-already unable to do the kind of moral thinking that, in their different ways, Anna, Vronsky, Dolly and Stiva are unable to do. That is, the book's whole premise is about what makes people able to be moral - it's not just a book about Levin figuring it out.
posted by Frowner at 7:21 AM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

The screwtape letters, CS Lewis.
posted by firstdaffodils at 7:23 AM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Great Expectations by Dickens
posted by Sassyfras at 7:25 AM on January 29, 2021

Speaking of Graham Greene, The End of the Affair was one I found very interesting.

This was also a very strong theme of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence.
posted by gideonfrog at 7:26 AM on January 29, 2021

2nding Little Women and Parable of the Sower.
If you liked The Sparrow, Shusaku Endo's Silence is similarly flavored, and will deliver the same sort of late game gut punch.
YA: Rachel Hartman's Tess of the Road.

Perhaps Anne Tyler's "Saint Maybe"?
posted by snerson at 7:32 AM on January 29, 2021

Very dépressing book but I would recommend the Grapes of Wrath
posted by winterportage at 7:35 AM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh, you're going to like "A Prayer for Owen Meany".
posted by yearly at 7:48 AM on January 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

Jane Austen, especially Mansfield Park
posted by purplesludge at 8:08 AM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Geek Love, The Dice Man and Catch-22 could all be described as engaging with morality, ethics, goodness, right living, those sort of things.

"Engaging with" as in "subjecting to heavy artillery fire".
posted by flabdablet at 8:28 AM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Real Men Knit. Incredibly well written and engaging (although approachable and occasionally a bit trashy) and the author is struggling with paying her bills/respectability vs what is authentically helping her community/family/self.
posted by Kalmya at 8:52 AM on January 29, 2021

The novel How To Be Good by Nick Hornby seems tailor made for this Ask, right down to the title.
posted by JonJacky at 9:06 AM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

James Morrow's "Only Begotten Daughter" and "This is the way the World Ends".

I'm sure his other books meet your criteria, but I haven't read them.
posted by Snuffman at 9:46 AM on January 29, 2021

Since Grapes of Wrath was mentioned, East of Eden is all about moral questions. Sometimes they go unanswered, but the questions loom large in the book.
posted by ovvl at 9:57 AM on January 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

george saunders
posted by ohkay at 9:57 AM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Seconding restless_nomad, particularly about Machine. I really could use some rightminding now (and so could the whole world).
posted by jclarkin at 10:18 AM on January 29, 2021

Les Miserables is basically entirely composed of this.
posted by darchildre at 10:34 AM on January 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

The following novels meet your content criteria and are beautifully written as well:
  • Women Talking— Miriam Toews. A group of vulnerable women living in an isolated Mennonite community must decide whether to stay and forgive their abusers, or leave and face the unknown.
  • The Glass Hotel—Emily St. Mandel. About wealth, greed, and individual choices that have far-reaching ripple effects.
  • The Children Act—Ian McEwan. A family court judge must make a ruling on whether the state should mandate a teenager to have a life-saving procedure that contradicts his family’s religious beliefs.
  • The English Patient—Michael Ondaatje. A WWII nurse tends to a mysterious patient in a burn ward.
  • Fifteen Dogs—André Alexis. Two gods make a bet on the ultimate result of granting human consciousness and language to a group of dogs.

posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:35 AM on January 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

Ted Chiangs short stories.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:57 AM on January 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

I always think of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain in terms of morality. I'm not sure it completely fits in with your question though. Morality is sort of misunderstood by Huck throughout the novel, but it's always there. When Huck tears up the letter he'd wrote giving up Jim and instead decides to rescue him, he says "All right, then, I'll go to hell" - I often think of the impact of that line as I read it in my youth. It had a huge impact on how I viewed morality and religion.
posted by patternocker at 10:59 AM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Edna Ferber's So Big

And it's been a while, but I remember Nevil Shute's A Town Like Alice giving off these vibes.

nthing The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham.
posted by jabes at 11:29 AM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. A man believes he can commit murder without a guilty conscience. He's got it all worked out...
posted by Omnomnom at 11:36 AM on January 29, 2021

Ever read the "Seafort Saga" series by David Feintuch (RIP)?

Seafort was an ensign on a starship, when it was attacked by some sort of aliens, and he was the last officer left alive, and the duty of command fell to him. He had to use force, he had to use guile, he even had to execute people for mutiny because he had to get the ship home, for the good of all the survivors, and for his duty. He had to lie, he had to betray people, and he had to sacrifice his love, in the later books. It was a very moral, yet very conflicted read.
posted by kschang at 11:45 AM on January 29, 2021

Germinal by Emile Zola
Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham
Victory by Joseph Conrad

...and Nthing Graham Greene
posted by mulcahy at 12:15 PM on January 29, 2021

Steinbeck is already well represented here, but I've used Winter Of Our Discontent in my Ethics courses before, as a representation of how we perceive social virtues to be connected to ethical/natural law.
posted by Grim Fridge at 12:43 PM on January 29, 2021

Just wanted to second Le Guin: specifically, The Dispossessed (book) and The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (short story) fit what you're looking for exactly. A lot of her stuff does, but those two jumped to mind the most.
posted by forza at 1:00 PM on January 29, 2021

I think there is a set of small, mostly domestic novels from England Ireland from the 1950s to the 1990s, that are under read, but are profoundly moral, in a sharp and ambigious way--Elizabeth Taylor (not that one), Barbara Pym,Margaret Drabble, Penelope Fitzgerald, AS Byatt, Edna O Brian, Muriel Spark. They tend to be short, and they will destroy you.

For Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremount
For Pym, The Sweet Dove Died
For Drabble, The Witch of Exmoor
for Fitzgerald, The Bookshop
For Byatt, the short story collection The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye
For O Brian, the early novel Country Girls
Just read all of Spark, but Drivers Seat, the Nixonian Allegory Abbess of Crewe, and Aiding of Abetting.

Also, James.
posted by PinkMoose at 1:04 PM on January 29, 2021

For Graham Greene, I would specifically recommend The Power and the Glory.
posted by FencingGal at 2:20 PM on January 29, 2021

A little off target perhaps, but the Remains of the Day (Ishiguro) and Death Comes to the Archbishop (Cather) I think fall in this bucket.
posted by slide at 3:18 PM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I read The Midnight Library by Matt Haig a few months and can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by cyndigo at 4:27 PM on January 29, 2021

Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow.
posted by goatdog at 8:41 PM on January 29, 2021

Chocky by John Wyndham
posted by perhapses at 9:10 PM on January 29, 2021

Another Herman Hesse - The Glass Bead Game
posted by tardigrade at 11:20 PM on January 29, 2021

I think you would like In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden, which I find very comforting.

And seconding Le Guin, although I'll point to the Annals of the Western Shore novels (Gifts, Voices, and Powers), which might be YA, and which deal with various forms of oppression and colonialism. They're very good.
posted by suelac at 11:57 PM on January 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I would say To Kill a Mockingbord is a classic example of this, and I'm surprised no one has suggested it yet!
posted by emd3737 at 12:01 AM on January 30, 2021

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! Great suggestions.

It tickles me pink that even though I mentioned Middlemarch in the question, several people still suggested it, leading me to confirm my suspicion that it is the holy grail of what I'm talking about. We love you, Mary Ann!
posted by Balthamos at 2:58 AM on January 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

Little Bee by Chris Cleave
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
posted by vicambulist at 3:40 AM on January 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

If you're interested in fiction that explores morality rather than merely advertising for it, have a crack at Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy: Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone.

In fact I did stop reading Titus Groan ten pages in, but then immediately went back to page 1 and started over, reading much much more slowly. The prose is rich, gorgeous, spellbinding and dense. Speed-reading Peake is missing the point of him, like necking a fine old red. Sip and savour him instead, even though he's served by the barrel-full. He's worth the time.

And of course there's Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" series, but obviously you knew that.
posted by flabdablet at 5:19 AM on January 30, 2021 [3 favorites]

The Starbridge series by Susan Howatch.
posted by rjs at 5:23 AM on January 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

I, too, really enjoyed The Sparrow, Infinite Jest, and Dharma Bums.

As some who is very interested in religion and morality but is not necessarily a believer, I find most novels that deal with religion tend to be either scornful and dismissive on the one hand or preachy on the other. One reason I enjoyed each of these three books is that they treat religion and morality as serious topics, but with a more neutral perspective (except maybe The Sparrow, so some extent).

Here are some other novels with religious/moral themes that I've enjoyed.

A River Runs Through It by Norman McLean. This novel is the semi-autobiographical story of two sons of a Presbyterian minister growing up in rural Montana in the early 20th Century. It's about fishing, God, and how we live.

The Last Gentlemen and The Second Coming by Walker Percy. I think Percy is somewhat out of fashion. But at one time he was considered one of the most significant contemporary American novelists. His work is fundamentally about religion and morality, and how they fit in (or don't) in modern America. These novels are the story of a rich doctor named Will Barrett as he deals with religion, depression, love, and the purpose of existence

The Brothers K by David James Duncan. This is a sprawling, page-turner of a coming of age tale. Set it Washington state from the 50s through the 70s, it is about baseball, religion (7th Day Adventist), family, and politics.

Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen. Set in the early 20th century, this novella deals is about a 17 year old postulant who causes in uproar in her convent when she starts experiencing the stigmata. Very interesting exploration of the meaning of religious experiences.
posted by lumpy at 1:18 PM on January 30, 2021 [2 favorites]

I confess I haven't read any of the books you mention, so I'm not sure if this is a good fit for you or not, but:

I LOVE The Goblin Emperor, and I think one big reason I do is because of the deeply moral character of the main character.
posted by kristi at 3:35 PM on February 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

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