Ethical Criticism: What It Is and Why It Matters

Article excerpt


"Change the name and it's about you, that story." Thus in his Satires (I.1. 69-70) Horace elegantly and succinctly defines the imaginative transposing by which readers identify with fictions. Telling and consuming stories is a fundamental and universal human activity. From the time we are born the sound of story accompanies us like the collective heart beat of humanity, and none of us rejects the opportunity to enlarge ourselves by "trying on" the lives and feelings of fictional characters. We may not all consume a steady diet of what college catalogues sometimes call "great books," but our interactions with stories in one form or another - in commercials, TV programs, movies, song lyrics, sermons, legends, fairy tales, novels, dramas, and so on - is constant and ongoing. The famous command in the opening line of Moby Dick, "Call me Ishmael," is an invitation to the reader not only to identify a character, but to identify with a character: "Imagine your name to be Ishmael and it will be about you, this story. You will learn to see the world through my eyes, to feel the world through my nerve endings. During the time we spend together you will learn to live as if my heart beat in your chest, as if your ears answered to my name."

Transpositions between readers and fictional characters carry obvious ethical significance. Despite current theories in philosophy and criticism about the inescapability of relativism, most of us cannot evade the deep intuition that identifying with characters in stories can exert a powerful influence on the quality and content of our own lives. It is this perspective - stories as an influence on ethos, or who we become - that makes ethical criticism necessary. To analyze how fictions exert this influence and to assess its effects is ethical criticism's job. What the humanities in general need is an ethical criticism that is intellectually defensible, not to replace or displace other critical approaches but to complement them. What literary criticism needs in particular is a theoretical basis for inquiries into and judgments about the potential ethical effects of literature and narrative art in general.(1) We need this theoretical grounding because practical ethical criticism goes on all the time, often conducted in a most helter-skelter, contradictory, and intellectually incoherent way. A firmer theoretical grounding could help us do practical ethical criticism more thoughtfully and responsibly.

Both within the academy and within society as a whole, someone is always claiming that a given novel, movie, or TV program is either uplifting or degrading, inspiring or demeaning, should be read and seen by everyone or shouldn't disgrace either video airwaves or the shelves of the public library. Every time a feminist exposes Hemingway's complicity with the patriarchy, or every time an African-American critic recommends the retrieval of slave narratives because such narratives shame our past and help us shape the future, and every time a Judith Fetterley, a Terry Eagleton, or a Michel Foucault decries the dehumanizing effects of master narratives on subject-readers, such critics are deeply engaged in important versions of ethical criticism that are not at all diminished in robustness for being disguised as any kind of discourse but ethical criticism.

The truth of my claim that ethical criticism goes on constantly in the academy is not obvious. What is obvious is that for the last 100 years - from the time of the "art for art's sake" movement to the present - most literary critics have strongly objected to "ethical" as an adjective for either "literature" or "criticism." Inside the academy, ethical criticism seems immediately to conjure images of Plato packing the poets out of his republic, or the memory of Matthew Arnold talking about "the best that has been thought and said," or the mental image of F. R. Leavis intoning on and on about "the great tradition. …


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