THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE INNER LIVES OF FICTIONAL CHARacters and beliefs about what it means to lead a good life is a difficult one to determine; yet it is central to our understanding of character in fiction. Some thirty years ago, Wayne Booth observed that “Jane Austen goes relatively deep morally, but scarcely skims the surface psychologically”1 and that “it is hardly surprising that works in which this effect [prolonged internal or psychological views] is used have often led to moral confusion.”2 In this study, I am exploring the ways in which prolonged internal views may also facilitate complex moral assessments, particularly of an individual’s social obligations and responsibilities.
By representing the emotions of moral assessment in a character situated in a particular social setting, a fictional narrative can examine the finest details in the experience of pride, shame, and guilt. Rather than giving us a shallow notion of morality, novels that have great psychological complexity are capable of bringing significant challenges to and making finer discernments in what we call moral agency. Far from believing that there are moral truths in the real world with which fictional characters ought to harmonize, I am concerned with the question of how novelists have represented character in light of a growing belief that there are no ethical truths and that the universe does not supply answers to what our ultimate significance or purpose might be. That belief is related to a vast number of changes over time in modern life, all of which are represented in one way or another in fictional texts.
This study includes one novel of each of five novelists, in chronological order: Jane Austen’s Persuasion, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. The first four novels are generally considered to mark significant advances in the representation of the inner lives of characters; thus each one can be taken to stand for techniques and perspectives that gave new directions to fiction in the realist and modernist traditions. I have chosen to include a novel written sixty years after the last of