restricted access Ethics, Theory, and the Novel (review)
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Reviewed by
David Parker. Ethics, Theory, and the Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. x + 218 pp.

David Parker calls for theorists to give ethical criticism a strategic priority in literary studies. He advocates a “new evaluative discourse” that will seek a dialectical interplay between ethical and political criticism, and he proposes a framework for that discourse. Parker devotes his first five, more theoretical, chapters to historicizing the study of ethics, presenting his case for renewing interest in literary ethics, and formulating his evaluative concepts. In Parker’s view, poststructuralism’s exile of ethics has left us ethically inarticulate. But literature is fundamentally involved with the ethical, and the best of Western imaginative literature reflects on and explores our three main, competing [End Page 243] ethical traditions: the Kantian/Judeo-Christian/Other-regarding morality that values intersubjectivity; the disengaged rationality of the Enlightenment; and the Romantic/Expressivist emphasis on satisfying the demands of human nature.

Because the theme of the adulterous relationship is so prevalent in Western literature, Parker grounds his discussion in triangular narratives, beginning in Part 1, “The Ethical Unconscious,” with John 8:1–11 of the New Testament and concluding in Part II, “Social Beings and Innocents,” with Lady Chatterley’s Lover. He describes a literary “ethical unconscious” that involves a “will-to-master-narrative,” a will to have the last moral word; but this will suppresses ethical implications and results in our forgetting or obliterating “some painful or resistant aspect of reality or appearance.” One form of such moral obliviousness is the “judgmental unconscious,” our blindness to “the signs in ourselves of the very failings we see in others,” which then suppresses our awareness of our commonality. In contrast, the “libidinal unconscious” so stresses commonality and concern for others that it suppresses an awareness of our individual needs and desires. Through the constant, competitive interplay of the forms of the ethical unconscious and the demands of our ethical heritage, canonized texts transcend “any ideology the author may be supposed to defend” and present a dialogic metaphysics set in “a searching, mutually revealing exploration in which there is no final vocabulary or master-narrative.” Ultimately, the only morality that “matters for a work of art is this rigorous, restless dynamic attempt to weigh and to balance the truths . . . realised in the creative process. Conversely, the only immorality is the artist’s conscious or unconscious will to distort the dynamic balance.”

In Part II, Parker applies his theories of Western ethical development and the canon’s novelistic ethics to a selection of narratives of triangular relationships, exploring their ethical unconscious and how they “subvert the ethical binary oppositions” they are often accused of advancing. Eliot’s Middlemarch initially embraces a moral ideal of impartiality, but its greatness falls to moral partiality because Eliot is so “bound by compassion” that she fails to fully recognize “the ethical force of first-person . . . visions.” Because Dorothea’s Romantic/ expressivist needs are superseded by Eliot’s bias for the Judeo-Christian perspective, the novel’s morality is “eviscerated.” In contrast, because Anna Karenina embraces “no final set of evaluative distinct [End Page 244] ions” and offers the reader a “profound disorientation in moral space,” it remains ethically great throughout. While Tolstoy shows that innocence must include the social continuum, Lawrence is unmatched in his realization of “what it means to be ‘innocently’ at one with the great continuum of the natural universe” and “of the wilfulness, nullity, and destructiveness of the ‘social being.’” Discussing The White Peacock, Women in Love, and two versions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Parker praises Lawrence for presenting characters’ “unconscious choice to be as they are,” for his constant “working through” of “unplanned” meanings and the “ideological unknown,” and for letting his novels run “away with the nail of the authorial will-to-vision,” which is ethically essential to the dynamic interrelatedness of the novel—and which is, presumably, why four of Parker’s six texts are Lawrence’s.

Parker’s survey of ethics theory is comprehensive and engaging, and his call for attention to ethical concerns in literary studies is brave and persuasive in our “anything goes” climate. He argues convincingly that texts which “present...