Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Novel Ethics: Alterity and Form in Jacob's Room

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Novel Ethics: Alterity and Form in Jacob's Room

Article excerpt

Though few critics would still claim that the modernist novel privileges experimental form over engagement with social and political concerns, most literary histories have not succeeded in articulating how modernist developments in the style and content of the English novel reflect a transformation of the relationship between literature and politics. If the Victorian realist novel seems to rely on an understanding of morality that values sympathetic identification and the possibility of common interests, what forms the basis of the ethical and political significance of the novel when fragmentation and extreme skepticism have replaced faith in progress and comprehension? The poststructuralist rethinking of ethics in terms of responsibility for the absolutely other, associated most closely with Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, enables a more complex understanding of how modernism's formal conventions reflect and extend a new conception of literary representation and its relationship to the real. Focusing on its status as both structurally experimental and deeply engaged with questions of war, urbanism, and gender, I will suggest that Virginia Woolf's Jacob's Room illustrates how the modernist English novel interweaves ethical, political, and epistemological concerns. In doing so I hope to clarify a contemporary understanding of the ethics of fiction.

Modernist fiction is often defined as deeply opposed to the didactic, moralistic Victorian novel. I would like to propose, however, a more complicated story about the relationship between realism, modernism, and ethics. George Eliot rejects the idea, held by many of her contemporaries, of the novel as a means of teaching by example; she resists the belief that literature engenders moral behavior simply by portraying the rewards of good behavior and the consequences of bad in an idealized fictional world of ethically unambiguous characters. Instead, she is committed to the realist representation of a wide range of classes and characters that can spark the reader's own potential for sympathetic identification and morally responsible behavior. For Eliot, to know and understand the plight of the other is difficult but not impossible, and the author has a responsibility to represent the world--especially the human actors within that world--as truthfully as possible, since only art that strives for truth can contribute to the moral development of its audience. The novel does not transmit morality in any straightforward sense for Eliot, but it does awaken the reader's capacity for the sympathy with others that engenders a sense of ethical responsibility. (1)

In Jacob's Room, often considered her first modernist novel, Woolf similarly concerns herself with the question of how another person can be known and understood. And I will argue that she is also, like Eliot, committed to a theory of literature that recognizes the capacity of the novel to engender an ethical response in its readers. Crucially, however, while Eliot values the novel's capacity to teach sympathy, Woolf's novel in effect teaches the dangers of sympathy. (2) Emerging from the postwar crisis of faith in the possibility of complete knowledge and truthful understanding, a pervasive sense of unknowability saturates and shapes Woolf's experimental fiction. While such failures of communication are a familiar feature of modernist literature, I argue that Woolf's novel highlights the necessity of reading such gaps as the very encounter with otherness that defines the ethics of modernism.

As analysis of the historical and cultural embeddedness of modernist literature continues to flourish, Woolf has become an especially important figure, partly since she and her Bloomsbury contemporaries took such an active and well-documented interest in the political, artistic, and social events of their time. One reason for the recent surge of critical interest in Woolf and ethics may be that her novels stage such a wide range of approaches to questions of self and other, communication and alienation, intimacy and distance. …

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