Academic journal article Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry

"But Why Must Readers Be Made to Feel.": Repulsing Readerly Sympathy for Ethical Ends in the Victorian Realist Novel

Academic journal article Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry

"But Why Must Readers Be Made to Feel.": Repulsing Readerly Sympathy for Ethical Ends in the Victorian Realist Novel

Article excerpt

Scholars have paid substantial attention to questions of readerly sympathy with and compassion for fictional characters in conversations about affect in the Victorian novel. Both Victorian and contemporary critics of the novel have proposed that this type of identification with fiction is in itself a mode of ethical engagement with the real world, even if the precise dynamics of this relation remain unclear. Rachel Ablow's comments reflect that, although there is a widely held belief that fiction can have a potent effect in the extratextual world, the connection between world and text remains a rather tenuous one: "[t]he exact means by which novels were thought to instruct or influence readers varied widely. But the novel's ability to encourage sympathy was consistently identified as central to its effectiveness." (1) Mary-Catherine Harrison, attempting to clarify this relationship, traces a causal trajectory between novel-reading and ethical behavior in the real world this way: "readers engage in a metaphorical, or what we might call synechdocal, interpretation of character: taking the part (individual) to refer to the whole (group). In this way, readers' emotional responses to fictional individuals can be parlayed into an emotional and ethical response towards groups of people whom they represent." (2) Writing primarily on Charles Dickens, Harrison points out that "his vivid portraits of fictional suffering were coupled with epistemological claims of their accurate and faithful relationship to modern society"; in this way, Harrison suggests, Dickens' work moves to resolve the "non-interventionism inherent to the paradox of fiction: readers might not be able to intervene in characters' lives, but they can intervene on behalf of someone 'like' them." (3) Harrison's equation of feeling with action (4) implicitly relies not just on the idea that fictional characters are "like" or similar to real people in the world, but also on the notion that readers must like--that is, feel positively about--those fictional characters in order for them to desire to "intervene on behalf of their counterparts in the reader's own reference world.

I find Harrison's arguments about realism's ethical aspirations and methodologies convincing. However, some key questions remain: just because readers could act in their own world based on feelings of sympathy for a fiction, does it necessarily follow that they do or did act upon those feelings? Is direct real-world action the only measure of ethical efficacy in fiction? And, most pertinently to the present analysis, what happens when readers do not like or identify with a work's fictional protagonists--do these feelings of aversion foreclose the possibility of positive ethical outcomes beyond the text? The first two questions have already informed the work of many critics, most notably Suzanne Keen's 2007 monograph Empathy and the Novel, and they will guide the present essay as context for my argument. However, whether fiction directly inspires ethical action in readers and whether this should be the ultimate arbiter of fiction's moral value are matters too complex and too significant to be resolved here--or perhaps in any single venue. I limit my own analysis, therefore, to probing the interpretive, affective, and ethical possibilities of a text that refuses to inspire the usual sympathy for its protagonists. Specifically, I consider Anthony Trollope's 1869 novel He Knew He Was Right as a case study in how particular formal, narrative elements--namely, targeted disnarration--may generate readerly revulsion. I argue that the negative emotional effect of this text might represent another mode of realizing the realist novel's ethical charge; more particularly, its pattern of disnarration could force the readers' thwarted desire for narrative resolution to seek fulfillment outside of fiction, in engagement with the real world.

Victorian Perspectives on Fiction, Feeling, and Ethics

Taking up the second question--whether extratextual action must be the sole measure of fiction's efficacy--in a specifically Victorian context, it was not an uncommon belief in Trollope's time that reading fiction in itself represented a kind of ethical practice. …

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