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The Ethics Of Fiction
by W.J. Keith

IN THE EARLY 1960s, a black instructor in the English department of the University of Chicago shocked his white colleagues by protesting against the inclusion of Huckleberry Finn as a required text in the first?year curriculum on the grounds that he found it offensively racist. One of these colleagues was Wayne C. Booth, author of the highly influential critical study A Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). The incident caused Booth to reconsider his assumption that ethical concerns lay outside the domain of literary criticism. He was thus led to undertake an ambitious inquiry into the effects that books have upon readers; as he proceeded, he became acutely aware of the extent to which the moral climate in which readers grow up affects their responses to the literature they encounter. When he published The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (University of California Press) in 1988, what had begun within a context of Black Power and freedom rides came to fruition in an age of feminist militancy and controversy over sexism. The appearance in paperback of this wide?ranging, timely, and often provocative book ensures that Booth's ideas will gain more general currency. The Company We Keep concentrates on American and British texts (though a brief discussion of Robertson Davies's World of Wonders occurs at one point). But what are the implications for Canadian fiction of Booth's insistence that, as thoughtful readers who are also informed and concerned citizens, we should in the act of reading play Scruples rather than Trivial Pursuit? Very briefly, Booth's main argument is that, whatever high?sounding aesthetic theory may claim, we do ?? all of us ?respond to art ethically. Moreover, most literarycritical activities, whether arguing for or against censorship, preferring some books to others (or arguing theoretically for or against evaluation), displaying a preference for the traditional or the experimental, advocating critical pluralism or its opposite, have a strong ethical or moral foundation. This doesn't mean, of course, that we dole out Brownie points to authors according to their progressive (or conservative) tendencies, or to characters for their adherence to (or defiance Of) the sanctioned moral values of the society to which they belong. But it does mean that our responses to fiction are substantially affected by our ethical premises. It also suggests that, while we generally like to think of ourselves as "objective," fair?minded, and sophisticated readers, a straightforward didactic element in our literary experience is stronger than we may want to acknowledge. Certainly, we cannot totally separate our appreciation of the "art" of a novel from our response to its content. When Margaret Atwood explores the psychological effects of abortion in Surfacing, she cannot help but be aware that readers who are "pro?choice" will react differently from those who are "pro?life," and that their position on the issue will inevitably spill over into their aesthetic response to the novel. Similarly, when in The Lyre of Orpheus Davies involves a leading character (a priest, no less) in art theft, he may create a tone that is deceptively light?hearted, but knows that his readers will ultimately be required to come to grips with some intricate moral dilemmas. If Atwood and Davies are regarded as exceptional in being notably didactic writers, take the case of Alice Munro, who consistently denies that she writes with any moral emphasis. Yet Del Jordan's encounters with problems of sex and religious faith ?? to name only two of the issues close to the surface of Lives of Girls and Women ?? inevitably provoke thoughts that must be classified as ethical or moral. Moreover, Munro's refusal, at least explicitly, to influence our moral responses to her characters forces us as readers to relate their actions to our own ethical principles. It could hardly be otherwise. Since writers of fiction invariably deal with human relationships of some kind, moral questions (by which, of Course, I mean far more than who is getting into bed with whom) cannot be avoided. Personally, I have always placed a strong emphasis on the moral dimensions of fiction, and have never encouraged students to read novels in a moral vacuum. Now it so happens that, being somewhat traditionalist in these matters (and just before I had read The Company We Keep), I set my undergraduates an essay topic in which they were invited to discuss ,'moral complexity" in Canadian novels of their choice. The results fully confirmed Booth's contention that most people do bring strong ethical presuppositions to the reading of fiction. The quality of these assumptions, however, was disturbingly if predictably simplistic. A recurrent generalization was that morals are essentially relative and that an action is defensible if it seems right to the individual (I hope the young women who took this view never meet a self?justifying rapist). I was told that Rachel in Margaret Laurence's A Jest of God was at fault for resisting Calla's lesbian advances (but replay that scene with a male heterosexual substituting for Calla and you find a clear case of sexual harassment). I was told that Md. Dempster in Davies's Fifth Business was right to have sex with the tramp in the gravel pit and that Deptford was oppressively narrow?minded in being bothered by old?fashioned concepts like adultery (some criticized her husband, reasonably enough, for subsequently tying her up, but no one seemed to consider the incident itself from his viewpoint). That the success of these novels, in ethical terms, might be gauged at least in part by the way in which the writers created complex situations in which no clear? cut moral judgements are possible only occurred to the most perceptive of my students. Another recent example. I was discussing with my graduate students at scene from Atwood's Cat's Eye in which the middleaged protagonist engages in a last?fling act of love with her exhusband, and praised it as a supreme example of tonal control. The scene is partly comic ("neither of us wants to be caught out by the other in a middle?aged wheeze"; "I'm nervous about ... the soft fold across my stomach, not fatness exactly but a pleat"); yet it is at the same time magnificently poignant and, when experienced in its completeness, deeply moving. Later, in private, one student pointed out that I had ignored the complicating fact of adultery. This was, I acknowledged, fair comment, and we ultimately agreed ?? in a collaborative discussion of which Booth would have approved ?? that Atwood had transcended the problem by providing for it within her text (the action completes a relationship that belonged to an earlier time; we can accept her claim that she wasn't being disloyal to her current husband, even if we might not accept the ethical manoeuvring ourselves). The whole subject is further complicated by our cur?rent and very proper ?? concern for minority rights and a genuine desire on the part of most of us to avoid offending the sensibilities of others. The effect of such concerns on our responses to literature has not, however, been sufficiently considered. Take, for example, Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Few readers, even those who set a high premium on ethical neutrality in approaching a text, would deny that a moral judgement on Duddy is a crucial element in the way we respond to the book as a whole. But Richler complicates our response, not only because the more successful Duddy is in material terms, the more questionable he becomes in moral terms, but also because the further Duddy proceeds in his apprenticeship, the more he reminds us of traditional prejudices concerning Jewish aptitudes for business. I remember several Jewish students over the years who have admitted disliking the book because they thought RichIer was offering a handle to anti?Semitism. (What might be the response, I wonder, if we could imagine Duddy Kravitz written by a gentile? Theorists may dismiss the question as pointless because impossibly speculative, and irrelevant because "extra?textual," but it remains, for me, a disquieting problem.) Furthermore, another student once condemned Richler for his presentation of Virgil because, so it was claimed, he was making fun of the disabilities of spastics. I don't subscribe to this view, but I find it difficult to rebut. If these are thorny matters for readers, they are even more troubling for writers. I am reminded of a couplet in W. H. Auden's brilliant poem "Metalogue on The Magic Flute" He wonders how, in our modern world, a "democratic villain!' can be cast in opera (or, by extension, in any other art) and observes: "Monostatos must make his bad impression/Without a race, religion or profession." Sophisticated readers do not, one hopes, assume that if an objectionable character is, say, a Chinese or a Jehovah's Witness or a lawyer, general criticism of race, religion, or profession is involved. But that is easy for me to say because, being none of them, I am not personally affected. (And what about unsophisticated readers?) Besides, moral concern on such matters is fashionably selective and can change direction rapidly. When I attended spy movies in my youth, the spies in question were at first invariably German, then suddenly became Russian. If glasnost continues, new stereotypes will have to be found ?? Libyan? South African? Chinese? In its own time Gwethalyn Graham's problem?novel Earth and High Heaven (1944), about Christian?Jewish relations in Montreal, was hailed as a model of humane compassion; times have changed, and what was once a daring attack on anti?Semitism now seems almost offensive in its complacent condescension. It's also worth remembering that in the late 19th century, in novels such as J. E. Collins's The Story of Louis Riel and Annette the Metis Spy, Riel was without compunction presented as a villain; nowadays, lie is the hero of Rudy Wiebe's Fhe Soorched?Wood People and Sir John A. takes over the villain's role. We may congratulate ourselves on Our belated justice to the Metis, but Should we not be concerned about a possible insult to the Canadian?Scots? Let me turn now to an instance in which I may indeed be personally affected. Willie a handful of commentators, myself included, have complained that Brooke Skelton, Morag's uinsatisfactory husband in Laurence's The Diviners, is a disappointingly pasteboard character, few have questioned the portrait in more specifically ethical terms. Can it he my personal background as an English immigrant that Causes me to overreact to the presentation of Brookes racism, his class? consciousness, and his appallingly condescending treatment of Morag? I honestly don't think so, but the possibility is troubling. I have no difficulty With equivalent characters ill Mavis Gallant's short stories ?? Eric Wilkinson it) "The Remission" (From the Fifteenth District) or Roy Cooper in "Ili the Tunnel" (Home Truths) ?? because they are So vividly realized AS unique individuals that I cannot imagine anyone interpreting them as national symbol (though George Woodcock did once refer to the latter, in what for me are bothersomely ambiguous Willits, as "a typical English cad"!). But Brooke Skelton, with his convenient "British Raj" upbringing, could all too easily he seen as a national stereotype, and a Stereotype with a race, religion, or profession (compare Jim in Huckleberry Finn) can offend. Critical discussion (of The Diviners, of course, leads directly into the feminist issue. (That Auden didn't list gender along with race, religion, and profession Says much about his time ?? and about ours.) Here, if anywhere in contemporary criticism, an ethically oriented approach is conspicuous. Indeed, it is interesting to note that, while Booth's inquiry in The Company We Keel) leads him to question virtually every other critical approach, the feminists emerge with a clean slate. This, I confess, rouses my skepticism. (Another acid?test: it is instructive to check the frequency in feminist criticism of broad generalizations about men when equivalent generalizations, if made by men about women, would he considered unacceptable.) The feminist discussions of The Diviners that I have read treat Brooke Skelton as welcome grist for their ideological mill but are not concerned with his success or faillure as a realized character within the fiction. Similarly, critics have been quick to condemn the chauvinistic attitudes of Jason Currie in The Stone Angel, but have not, so far as I know, recognizeed him as ?in aesthetic blemish oil an otherwise brilliant book. Jason is, I fear, straw man; all we see is his pride, his ambition, his selfishness, his hypocrisy. This lack of redeeming features unfortunately weakens the book because lie provides Hagar with an insufficiently forceful or convincing adversary. Here we arrive at the central problem of ethical criticism": its tendency, like so many other kinds Of critical approach ?? nationalist, Marxist, thematic, etc. ?? to use literature rather than 10 illuminate it. The feminist version of ethical criticism provides the most convenient contemporary instance. I have known Students to ransack a literary text in search of arguments that Would bolster a feminist position. The result is to turn complex novels into simple parables; gloss distortion is almost always involved. Most writers (and this includes Most Women writers) do not write propaganda, feminist or Otherwise. To acknowledge that a moral or ethical response is likely to he involved in most literary judgements is one thing; to evaluate novels by reference to some kind of moral thermometer or by measuring the acceptability (if its supposed (detachable) "message" is quite another. I am concerned, then, with the ways ill which Our ethical concerns, in themselves praiseworthy, can all too easily inhibit a healthily open response to literature. Instead of enabling LIS to understand better the intricate moral complexities to be found in Constructed fictional Situations, they can, ironically, create a dangerously narrow outlook with troubling implications. Not long ago, I read an account Of Sara Jeannette Duncan's The Imperialist in which the critic was morally Outraged because Duncan had describe(] the end of a national holiday with "drunken Indians vociferous Oil their way to the lock?up." This, apparently, was an unforgivable slur oil our native peoples. Did this critic really believe that Such events were unprecedented, or even uncommon? If a writer portrayed drunken white Canadians being arrested, would the critic be equally outraged? Similarly, a reviewer (if Daviess latest novel quoted a passage in which lie commented with amused irony oil the cuIt Of modern do?goodism ?? what lie calls "the great Ladder of Compassion" culminating in "the great new enthusiasm, AIDS." The reviewer described it as "callous." But Davies is merely doing what I have been trying to do in this article: he reveals how each age has its fashionable fads and sacred cows and its equally fashionable subjects of moral indignation. It is often Salutary to he reminded not only Of Our obvious sins and weaknesses but also of the hypocrisy and self?righteousness that can accompany even our good deeds. Stephen Leacock offended the inhabitants of Orillia at tile beginning of this century when Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town appeared; Alice Munro offended some of her Wingham neighhours when she began publishing tier highly localized short fiction a generation ago. It is' easy to laugh complacently at such parochial naivete, less easy to forecast what righteous indignation of our own will be condemned as quaint, reactionary, and absurd in another 50 years. All we can (to is make an effort to become better readers, aware that the fictions we read posit an imaginary world and also illuminate the One ill which we live. We must learn to recognize our moral attitudes ?? even, perhaps, our moral prejudices ?? and try to temper them with a sense of proportion and a sense of humour. We Should avoid extrapolating every character into a stereotype or translating every fictional narrative into a representative allegory. Only then Shall we gain a clear appreciation of the fictional company we keep ?? or, indeed, qualify as congenial and reputable company ourselves.

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