The Moral of the Story: Morality and Literature, Part II - The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

While the Harry Potter series is about a boy’s struggle against the forces of evil, the Casual Vacancy focuses on a different kind of evil: corruption, greed, gossip and neglect. Both, however, promote the importance of strong values and doing what is right – however, they each come at it from different angles.

The plot itself is actually not that interesting: it’s about small town politics. What is interesting is J. K. Rowling’s ability to make you care about these selfish, flawed characters by weaving all the individual storylines together so that you can see the actions and consequences at the individual level – but also at the group level or on the small town population as a whole.

The topics that the novel tackles are pretty heavy: it both begins and ends with death, there’s a teenage girl who uses ‘cutting’ to regain a sense of control, there is domestic violence, drug-use and addiction, rape, paedophilia… On top of all these cheerful issues, none of the characters are particularly likeable. In spite of all that, I couldn’t help wanting to know more. Maybe I just wanted to see if they would have to pay for their egotistical and cruel behaviours, or maybe I wanted to see if they would eventually become aware of their own flaws. Either way, the Casual Vacancy is the train wreck you can’t look away from.

Throughout the novel, each character is precariously navigating his/her way through a moral mind field - in their inner thoughts and in their actions toward others. My favourite character is Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall, a 16-year-old boy in pursuit of total authenticity. He doesn’t make choices based on conventional morality, but based on what would be the most real or genuine thing to do (not to be mistaken with genuinely nice thing to do). Fats is an intriguing character - you can get a glimpse of his psyche from this passage:

“He wanted to journey through the dark labyrinths and wrestle with the dark strangeness that lurked within; he wanted to crack open piety and expose hypocrisy; he wanted to break taboos and squeeze wisdom from their bloody hearts; he wanted to achieve a state of amoral grace, and be baptized backwards into ignorance and simplicity.”

While many will argue and dismiss this book saying that it is nothing like her unbelievable successful teenage wizard series, all I can see are the similarities: the struggles between good and evil, the detailed focus and development of individual characters, the karmatic sense of getting what’s coming to you … it is even stylistically similar in tone and voice.

People have asked me if the book is good. I’m not sure how to answer, because it was okay and brilliant. It was no literary masterpiece, the plot was kind of insignificant, and the story was somewhat predictable once you realize that Rowling is always on the side of righteousness and virtue; but she does has a way of charming the reader and transporting you to her world through her vivid characters and their struggles with morality.

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