- Narrative Ethics and Possible Worlds Theory:Toward a Rapprochement
Over the past two decades possible worlds theory (PWT) and humanist narrative ethics (HNE) have played an influential role in the study of narrative.1 The two approaches—each encompassing a range of perspectives rather than reflecting a single, unified view—have developed independently, without significant dialogue with each other.2 HNE discusses the interrelations between fictional narratives (mainly novels) and ethics. It deals with questions such as the following: How can the form and the content of narratives contribute to moral thinking? How can ethical insights inform the interpretation of specific narratives and narrative theory more generally? What are the reasons for the longstanding failure, until recently, to engage with ethical issues in literary criticism and theory? Meanwhile, PWT—which first arose in the context of analytic philosophy and linguistics—tackles issues of ontology and modal semantics. Some of its major questions are the following: What is the nature [End Page 99] of literary truth? What is the relation between actuality, narrativity, and fictionality? What are the benefits and the risks of transferring terms (not only "possible worlds," but also "accessibility," "compossibility," and "modality") from possible-worlds semantics and modal logic into literary theory? How does possible-worlds theory in narrative theory relate to the basic assumptions and concepts of classical, structuralist narratology?
The different origins and emphases of PWT and HNE have obscured their points of convergence. My aim in this essay is to explore this common ground—for example, by exposing "the ethical unconscious" of PWT, that is, its unstated ethical assumptions. Those tacit assumptions include a preference for plurality, otherness, and difference, albeit not "absolute otherness." HNE can clarify the scope and nature of these undeclared preferences within PWT. Conversely, a focus on the areas of overlap between PWT and HNE also reveals how the concept of "narrative modalities," introduced by Lubomír Doležel and elaborated by Marie-Laure Ryan, can be fruitful for HNE; this concept offers a set of criteria for the ethical appraisal of individual characters and groups of characters that differ as regards their abilities, knowledge, values, and obligations. Using Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (2005) as a case study, I suggest how work on narrative modalities can provide scaffolding for an ethically oriented interpretation of the novel, even as a careful reading of Ishiguro's text demonstrates the need to recalibrate aspects of the theory of narrative modalities.
Ishiguro's novel tells the story of a group of clones who receive a classical humanist education from "guardians" in a boarding school named Hailsham. The reader gradually comprehends that the clones were created in order to serve as organ banks for others, and that after they leave school they should be prepared for their "donations"—a euphemism for the obligatory removal of their organs through operations—until they "complete," that is, pass away after having completed their task for society. The clone society is divided at this last stage of their lives into two groups: "donors," who must give their organs away, and "carers," who must take care of the "donors" before becoming "donors" themselves. The novel focuses on the memories and reflections of Kathy—the narrating character and a carer at the time of the narration—who [End Page 100] tells about her relationships with her friends Tommy and Ruth and with the guardians in Hailsham.
Possible Worlds Theory and Humanistic Narrative Ethics: Exploring the Common Ground
HNE, which deals with moral deliberation and ethical judgments, must rely on a concept of "possible worlds"—at least in the minimal sense of a comparison between two possible states of affairs (see Eco 1989: 56-57; Martin 2004: 87-88). For example, practitioners of HNE may examine the moral implications of the course of action that the protagonist chooses to follow in comparison with other courses of action that he or she avoids. An assessment of the acts of fictional characters takes into account their needs, desires, expectations, and anticipations—which may differ more or less significantly from the actual state of affairs.
Scholars working in both PWT and HNE foreground how encounters with fictional narratives can benefit...