Into the Woods and Moral Relativism

Major SPOILERS for Into the Woods. Don’t read if you don’t know the story and don’t want it spoiled.

I have seen several reviews of Into the Woods which suggest the recent adaptation of Sondheim and Lapine’s musical is a defense of moral relativism, the heresy that there is no absolute truth and we get to decide what is right and wrong for ourselves. One manifestation of relativism is that the determining factor for morality is our intentions, or the widely beloved belief that the ends justify the means. I find this slightly ironic, because I believe Into the Woods is actually a pretty strong critique of relativism.

On one level, I will admit that concluding that Into the Woods, or more specifically one song of Into the Woods, promotes moral relativism is not completely illogical. Towards the end of the musical, after several characters have died, adultery has been committed, and a giant is raging through the kingdom, the two children, Jack and Little Red Riding Hood, are very confused about what is right and wrong, and they turn to the two remaining adults, Cinderella and the Baker, for guidance. At this point, Cinderella and the Baker sing one of the most beautiful songs in the show, “No One is Alone.”

The lyrics of “No One is Alone” that are causing concern are:

“You decide what’s good,
You decide alone…

Wrong things, right things…
Who can say what’s true…

Witches can be right,
Giants can be good,
You decide what’s right,
You decide what’s good.”

I concede if you look at just those lyrics, concluding Into the Woods is a dark, morally relativistic revision of fairytales is semi-defensible. However, to conclude that based on those lyrics, you would have to ignore not only the other lyrics of “No One is Alone,” but also the entire story which has preceded the song.

First allow me to put the above lyrics into context:

“You decide what’s good,
You decide alone,
But no one is alone.”

Right there, Sondheim is setting up a paradox. The characters are singing that they have to decide alone, for themselves, what is right and wrong, but the next line says they are not alone, so obviously their moral decisions are not going be made solely on their intentions. You cannot decide alone, if you are not alone.

“Mother isn’t here now,
Wrong things, right things,
Who knows what she’d say?
Who can say what’s true?
Nothing’s quite so clear now
Do things, fight things,
Feel you’ve lost your way?
You decide,
But you are not alone.”

The key line from this passage is “Nothing’s quite so clear now.” That does not mean there is no objective right and wrong. It means the characters are scared and confused as to what is right. This song is sung at the end of the story. As I said above, by this point the characters have strayed from the path, made many foolish and selfish decisions, and they are about to kill a giant. This is the first time that these characters have done any introspection, and in thinking about their past choices, they now feel remorse and are unsure if the decisions they have made and will make are morally right.

“Witches can be right,
Giants can be good,
You decide what’s right,
You decide what’s good.
Just remember:
Someone is on your side,
Our side—
Someone else is not.
While we’re seeing our side—
Maybe we forgot:
They are not alone.
No one is alone.”

The entire musical is about characters who decide what’s right for themselves, and as a result create the huge mess they are in at the end. They realize that the Witch was not wrong when she accused them of being petty and selfish. The giant may not have been as evil as they thought. And then these morally flawed characters give the best advice they can think of: remember you’re not alone and your actions affect everyone, and even though you may feel alone, in making any important decision remember not to think of just yourself.

In a song that was unfortunately cut from the film, the Baker’s Wife sings:

“If the thing you do is pure in intent,
If it’s meant,
And it’s just a little bent,
Does it matter?
No, what matters is everyone tells tiny lies
What’s important really is the size…
When the end’s in sight you’ll realize,
If the end is right, it justifies the beans!”

The Baker’s Wife sings this at the height of her ruthless, do whatever it takes to lift the spell mentality. Emily Blunt portrays that mentality very well in her arguments with James Corden, so I can understand cutting the song, even though I wish it had been kept to make the moral even clearer. After that song, the Baker’s Wife forces the magic beans on other characters, and as a result the second beanstalk grows, which leads to the giant coming down to look for Jack and killing the Baker’s Wife while the giant crashes through the woods. That song portrays the clearest example of relativism, the belief that the ends justify the means, as leading to a character’s death. It hardly seems likely that the musical would contradict itself with its penultimate number.

I said this in my review, but I think it bears repeating. The dramatic climax of the musical, is “The Last Midnight” when the Witch, disgusted with the selfishness and rationalization she is witnessing, places her final curse on the characters.

“Told a little lie,
Stole a little gold,
Broke a little vow,
Did you?
Had to get your prince,
Had to get your cow,
Have to get your wish,
Doesn’t matter how—
Anyway, it doesn’t matter now.”

The entire point of Into the Woods is that all those actions were wrong, and the characters must reap the consequences. “No One is Alone” is spurred by the guilt they feel from the Witch’s accusations. I would not disagree that some lyrics of “No One is Alone” demonstrate that the characters are still attached to their selfishness and relativism, but moral awakening is slow, and the song is a big step in the right direction for them.

Finally, “No One is Alone” happens during the story. That means it is not the moral pronouncement common at the end of a fairytale; it is the opinion of the characters singing it, and those characters are imperfect people struggling to do their best. The following song, “Children Will Listen,” takes place outside of the story, and that song presents the moral of this fairytale. The moral of Into the Woods is: careful what you do and say, because children will listen and learn. Or, in other words, our actions have consequences, and while straying from the path (i.e. sinning) is an inevitable part of our nature, we should always remember our sins affect everyone, not just ourselves.

Is that the makings of a subversive musical that promotes relativism? I think obviously not. Into the Woods may be subversive, and it certainly deconstructs fairytales to undermine the traditional notion of “happily ever after,” but in doing so, it shows a keen moral awareness and strong critique of a prevalent heresy. And in conclusion:

The way is dark,
The light is dim,
But now there’s you,
Me, her, and him.
The chances look small,
The choices look grim,
But everything you learn there
Will help when you return there.
The light is getting dimmer,
I think I see a glimmer—

Into the woods, you have to grope,
But that’s the way you learn to cope,
Into the woods to find there’s hope
Of getting through the journey.

  1. #1 by Brian on January 4, 2015 - 12:02 pm

    Where do I begin?

    I think you’ve confused “subjectivism” with “relativism.”

    This [i.e., moral subjectivism] is *not* the same as the view that intention determines the moral quality of an action.

    This is *not* the same as the view that the ends justify the means. This is *not* the same as ethical egoism.

    This is compatible with thinking that your actions importantly affect others.

    In any case, “Your actions affect others” is in no way a reasonable reading of “You decide what’s right/good.”

    The point of the witch’s song was *not* that those actions were all *wrong*, but that they were being petty for trying to justify themselves in order to escape blame for the bad consequences of their (otherwise neutral or good) actions–that trying to determine the degree to which any of them are blameworthy for the consequences is pointless.

    This is all a lot of hoop-jumping to avoid an obvious point: one of the ways in which this musical was trying its hand at deconstruction was by endorsing moral subjectivism–not an intentionally subversive kind, but just the fluffy, lame, platitudinous kind you get in most stories nowadays.

    (Not that I have anything else against the movie, except that the second half had incredibly odd pacing. And, well, musicals aren’t my cup of tea to begin with…)

    • #2 by Evan on January 4, 2015 - 1:51 pm

      Thanks for your comment.

      First of all, the reviews I was responding to all accused the movie of promoting relativism, (or in one case, nominalism, which apparently is, and I quote, “the mother of relativism.”) Either way, I was responding to the claim that Into the Woods suggests that morality is not objective.

      I did not say “You decide what’s right/good” means “Your actions affect others.” I said, the song in its entirety does not promote the idea that right and wrong are totally subjective (or relative). Instead, the song’s emphasis is that “we’re all in this together,” and even when we decide what’s right and wrong for ourselves, we need to remember that as one objective guiding point. As I said, this song is the first step of moral awakening for the characters, not the musical’s grand moral statement.

      I really couldn’t disagree more regarding “The Last Midnight.” Those lines are short and melodically unresolved. They’re meant to sting. The Witch’s point is: you all think you’re so much better than me, the wicked witch, but you’ve crossed just as many ethical boundaries as I did. If lying and stealing are not being presented as objectively wrong, then the power of that song is greatly undone.

      I will grant you the second act plays a bit better on stage than it did in the film.

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  1. “Into the Woods” as a Critique of Moral Relativism | Dogma & Dragons

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