From the parables of Jesus to the meshalim of the Dubliner Maggid, preachers have constantly crafted stories as ethical exempla affirming [End Page 247] or questioning commonly held moral and spiritual truths, and for the seventeen decades between Horace and Samuel Johnson it was clear to all that the aim of writing was ethical instruction. Nevertheless, novel-reading began as a shameful and dubious activity, and Anglo-American letters has kept a deep-seated sense that telling stories is an intrinsically suspicious act. Perhaps that is why our literary criticism has not consistently made a place for ethical questions.
Thirty years ago, to ask insistently about the moral impact of texts upon readers—as Wayne Booth did in The Rhetoric of Fiction—was to invite distortion into a Neanderthal ally of Mrs. Grundy or the Legion of Decency. Even in the past decade, when formalism has been on the run, we may have become unembarrassed at authors’ sexual or political self-fashionings, or at our own, but ethical questions have not really come to the fore. The subtle and revelatory argumentative positions of J. Hillis Miller’s Ethics of Reading (1987), Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep (1988), Martha Nussbaum’s Love’s Knowledge (1990), and Tobin Siebert’s Morals and Stories (1992) have sparked no renaissance of literary ethics, nor has the Johns Hopkins Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory an entry under “moral criticism.” The unsubtitled handle of Adam Zachary Newton’s book betokens a field where novices need not fight for ideological lebensraum.
If we betray our sympathies primarily by what we find it interesting to argue against, Newton comes off as a lapsed deconstructionist. He brushes off the formalism of Booth and Nussbaum, barely mentions Siebert, but devotes a large part of Chapter Two to an elaborate refutation of Paul de Man’s hints toward an ethics of fictions, and cites Hillis Miller so often that his book titles are given special abbreviations. But Newton’s positive influences are more interesting, these days, than those he has shaken off: Stanley Cavell, who taught Newton at Harvard; the French philosopher and Talmudic scholar Emmanuel Levinas; and the early Mikhail Bakhtin. Newton wishes to “braid” these three sets of ideas into a performative ethics of narrative, which will involve “recursive, contingent, and interactive dramas of encounter and recognition . . . which . . . prose fiction both crystallizes and recirculates in acts of interpretive engagement.” None of these philosophers is precisely common property, however (Newton’s Bakhtin, for example, is the philosopher of The Architectonics of Answerability rather than the literary theorist of The Dialogic Imagination), and I suspect that the book [End Page 248] might have gained in lucidity if Newton had attempted to expound some of their ideas coherently rather than quoting them in fragments.
Newton’s triad of philosophers is matched by a triad of aspects of narrative ethics. There is, first of all, an “narrational ethics” involved with presuming to tell a story to another individual (like the Ancient Mariner, who “stoppeth one of three”); there is a “representational ethics” involved with fictionalizing individuals, shifting their ontological status from persons to characters within a story; and there is, finally, a “hermeneutic ethics” involved with the responsibilities of the listener toward the story she or he is told, to respond to and engage with the text. These three aspects of ethics might be thought of as primarily belonging to author, narrator, and reader, except that characters within texts can perform all three of these roles (the way Conrad’s Jim buttonholes Marlow in the Malabar Hotel to tell his story; the way Marlow creates “Jim” as a character for agents within his text as well as for us; the way Stein and Bryerly and the French lieutenant “read” and evaluate Jim as a text that applies to them).
With three philosophical bases of appeal not entirely consistent with each other, and three modes of ethical praxis within narrative, Newton’s thought-provoking analyses of a dozen exemplary texts from Benito Cereno and Bleak House to Flaubert’s Parrot and The Remains of the Day are...