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  • Subtlety and Moral Vision in Fiction
  • Eileen John


In Martha Nussbaum’s work in Love’s Knowledge, the subtlety of literary fiction is given a prominent role in explaining literature’s moral influence. 1 Nussbaum argues that the subtlety displayed in certain works of literary fiction can help readers develop habits of perception such that they will perceive their actual moral world more finely and respond to it with a more nuanced range of feeling. We are encouraged to perceive in this way both by encountering good examples of subtle, sensitive moral agents, in characters such as James’s Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl, and by undergoing the perceiving, responding activity that can be required of a reader. The overarching assumption is that, as moral agents, we need finely-tuned perceptions and felt responses if we are to pick up on the morally relevant elements of our circumstances. We cannot count on finding bold, neat and regular moral patterns to follow; we are rather likely to find ourselves in a complex web of particular contexts, each demanding special moral attention. 2

Nussbaum develops these claims in close conversation with the fiction and literary essays of Henry James. 3 Through examples from his novels, she illustrates and elaborates upon the ideal he points to in his essays, the ideal of “being finely aware and richly responsible,” of being a person “on whom nothing is lost.” 4 It seems quite appropriate to dwell on the works of Henry James as displaying—and as demanding from readers—a finer discrimination of elements of experience than we [End Page 308] ordinarily achieve. Discussing the “we” of James’s readers (and leading with a phrase of James’s), Nussbaum puts it: “‘Participators by a fond attention’ in the lives and dilemmas of his participants, we engage with them in a loving scrutiny of appearances. We actively care for their particularity, and we strain to be people on whom none of their subtleties are lost, in intellect and feeling” (p. 162). Having experienced this as readers, we are supposed to be better prepared to approach our own lives and dilemmas with equally scrupulous and caring attention.

In general, I am less confident than Nussbaum about the connections between responsible reading of excellent fiction and the pursuit of a responsible moral life. The effects of intense appreciation of fictional moral contexts on real-life decision-making and action are probably quite indirect, requiring encouragement from real-life experiences, from practice with situations in which we have something at stake. But for the moment, I want to develop a suggestion that assumes, in agreement with Nussbaum, that one may take habits of perception learned as a reader and make them count in one’s larger moral life—albeit with reinforcement from one’s judgments and actions in that life.

My suggestion involves seeing literary fiction as sometimes playing a subversive role with regard to subtlety. In saying that literary fiction can be “subversive” of subtlety, I am trying to capture the ways in which reading fiction can disrupt a working standard of subtlety. Works of fiction do not provide “normal” perceptual fields, and readers do not approach them with precisely “normal” perceptual habits, so, roughly stated, the reader-fiction interaction has plenty of potential for disrupting epistemic standards of subtlety, bluntness, opacity and so forth. I will illustrate two sorts of subversions of subtlety with an example from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. In one case, I will argue that the subversion of the standard of subtlety has moral import—this will provide a case to contrast with Nussbaum’s Jamesian examples.

By bringing in an example from a non-Henry James novel, I hope to open up the discussion of moral vision in fiction to encompass epistemic qualities besides subtlety. It does not seem that the ideals of subtlety, fine awareness, and missing nothing can be the only epistemic qualities which serve to support literary works’ moral influence. 5 Nussbaum herself acknowledges that, by focusing on one literary paradigm, she pursues only one strand of a larger project (pp. 45–46). Since I here consider just one example from a different style of novel...

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pp. 308-319
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