- Ethics, Theory and the Novel
David Parker’s stated purpose in Ethics, Theory and the Novel is to ground the value of “canonical works” of literature in the “ethical interest,” which each of them embodies in the meditation and exploration of “the clashes of moral value” (p. 38). He is self-consciously responding to the strictures of neo-Marxism, feminism, and deconstruction which allegedly see “the canon simply as the repository of conservative values” and therefore reject it (p. 51). In order to demonstrate this capacity of imaginative literature Parker provides ethical analyses of scenes in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and D. H. Lawrence’s The White Peacock, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The book divides into two projects, since Parker also argues for the pertinence of ethics itself quite apart from the value of imaginative literature as a repository of serious ethical thought. Part one makes the theoretical case, and part two applies the theory.
For the theory he takes as his champions Martha Nussbaum, Iris Murdoch, the late Australian critic, S. L. Golberg, and the Canadian political scientist, Charles Taylor. From Nussbaum he derives the claim that “literature can be moral philosophy” (p. 34). From Taylor he takes a triadic schema of Western [End Page 247] culture: Judeo-Christian-Kantian, Liberal-Enlightenment-rational, and Romantic-irrational-egoistic (p. 20) as the sources of our ethical thinking. Murdoch and Goldberg are deployed as predecessors in his own practice of ethical analysis of literary works. Parker’s claim is that imaginative literature exhibits the dynamic tensions of these conflicting ethical discourses.
Parker’s discussion is intelligent and well-informed. His position is, in my view, perfectly defensible—indeed traditional. That said, this book seems to be as much a symptom of the malaise afflicting literary criticism as a cure. To this reader the theoretical portion is not faithful to any of his champions, but is a dog’s breakfast of “theoretical” postures gathered from Derrida, Cavell, de Man, Rorty, Foucault, and Frederic Jameson—as well as from those named above. The problem is not that Parker misunderstands or misrepresents their thought, but rather that he treats theoretical discourse as a flea market from which he can assemble pre-owned furniture for his own residence.
The practice of literary criticism encourages such rummaging among other people’s belongings. It is appropriate for commentators on a literary work of art to select from previous commentary those observations and insights they regard as sound, and to reject or ignore those viewed as unsound. Nonetheless it is difficult to understand how a discourse which finds one leg in Marxist discourse, a second in Freudian, a third in phenomenological, and a fourth in Heideggerean or Derridean discourse can be expected to stand four square.
Ethics, Theory and the Novel can be defended as an exercise in bricolage—and quite an impressive one in its own way. Like the handyman, Parker has cobbled together an ethicist criticism out of what is available or ready-at-hand in other discourses. But—as with many a home project—one can still see its flea market provenance. In his critical analysis of the novels, Parker shows himself to be a careful and perceptive reader. But I must confess that his ethical analyses seemed very like old-fashioned moral analysis of character motivation. I would not disagree with his claim that “an ethical vocabulary . . . is essential to the full understanding of the created fictional situation” (p. 191). However, his argument for a dialogic plurivocity in the ethical discourse of Western fiction is one that has been previously put by Mikhail Bakhtin from within Marxism. It is, I think, a serious oversight that Bakhtin is never mentioned—even though Parker’s position is distinguishable from Bakhtin’s in that his dialogue is between perennial ethical schemata and Bakhtin’s is between hegemonic and subversive discourses.