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"The Soul of Art": Understanding Victorian Ethical Criticism
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ESC: English Studies in Canada 31.2-3 (2005) 151-185

"The Soul of Art":
Understanding Victorian Ethical Criticism
Rohan Maitzen
Dalhousie University


In an 1845 article called "The Literature of Fiction," an anonymous writer in the British Quarterly Review concludes a short history of the English novel with some reservations about the morality of Scott's Waverley novels. In particular, he is concerned that the "crime of duelling is lightly dealt with; and … is in one instance defended." Further, he regretfully observes, "great indulgence is shown to debauched and intemperate habits. The profane language also … is highly objectionable" (542). If, in their carping tone and prescriptive approach, these remarks typify the Victorian approach to the ethics of fiction, it is hardly surprising that participants in the much-discussed "turn to ethics" in contemporary literary theory have not turned back as far as the nineteenth century.1 After all, as the editors of a recent collection remark, "if there is any single defining characteristic in the [End Page 151] ethical turn that marks contemporary literary studies, it resides in the fact that few critics wish to return to a dogmatically prescriptive or doctrinaire form of reading" (Davis and Womack x). If modern ethical critics refer to the nineteenth century at all, it is only as the source of just such a rule-oriented, censorious "form of reading" that contrasts with their various but all allegedly flexible and undogmatic approaches. Tracing the origins of this rigid critical tradition to Matthew Arnold, both postmodern ethical critics such as Geoffrey Galt Harpham and humanist critics such as Wayne Booth explicitly distance themselves from Arnold's twentieth-century heirs—F.R. Leavis, Yvor Winters, and Lionel Trilling especially—whom Booth calls the "hanging judges" and against whose "hectoring" voices and ideological and theoretical commitments (real or perceived) today's ethical critics of all stripes define themselves (Company 49). No doubt this distancing is as much strategic as principled, for as David Latané remarks, "[m]any currents in contemporary Anglo-American criticism and theory have become energized by a dislike of the Arnoldian stance" (390), but it is this stance with which any overt interest in ethics, as Marshall Gregory observes, is promptly associated:

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."

("Ethical Criticism"195)

Whether or not this "contemporary critical prejudice associated with 'traditional humanism'" is justified, most contemporary ethical critics seem to agree with Kenneth Womack about the need to "effectively differentiate" themselves from it if ethical criticism is to succeed as "a viable interpretive paradigm" (114–15). [End Page 152]

As a key strategy in aid of this project of differentiation, contemporary critics insist on a distinction between ethics and morality. As John Guillory notes, "the concepts of 'morality' and 'ethics' … are only tenuously distinct in common usage" (38), but in this more specialized context, "ethics" is used to refer to a broad domain of inquiry—as Richard Freadman and Seumas Miller explain, in a typical formulation, "an array of possible answers to the question, 'how ought a human life to be lived?'" (52)—while "morality" and its variants refer to "more legalistic notions of duties and rights" (Freadman and Miller 52) or, in Guillory's account, simply "the choice between right and wrong" (38). "The word 'ethical' may mistakenly suggest a project concentrating on quite limited moral standards," Wayne Booth observes early in his landmark 1988 book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, but he is quick to clarify that he is "interested in a much broader topic, the entire range of effects on the 'character' or 'person' or 'self.' 'Moral judgments' are only a small part of it" (8). As these explanations reveal, the anxiety is that the work of ethical criticism will be perceived or...