Dorothy Hale’s The Novel and the New Ethics

The Novel and the New Ethics

In the age of visual culture, why write fiction? For a wide array of contemporary writers from Toni Morrison to J.M. Coetzee, Professor Dorothy Hale suggests, the answer lies in the novel’s ethical power.  For these writers, novels not only illuminate ethical action in complex social worlds, but also task writers and readers, through the narrative problem of character representation, with the responsibility of knowing and honoring social others.

Hale’s The Novel and the New Ethics (Stanford University Press) argues that, whether or not we believe novels do in fact make us more ethical, the ethical aesthetic developed by these writers confers an artistic richness and intensity upon the novel’s every word. In the following excerpt, Hale explores how, in an ironic twist, the postmodern skepticism of how characters are fabricated helped generate a new age of fiction in which the ethical engagement with character has become central to fiction’s mandate.

What is the value of literature in the contemporary moment? A popular new answer to this age-old question revives the most ancient defense of literature: its ethical power.

Among contemporary fiction writers, J. M. Coetzee, Jonathan Franzen, Gish Jen, Ian McEwan, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, and Zadie Smith have, in their fiction and in their writing about fiction, influentially expounded the ethical capacities of literary reading and writing. For many of these authors, the return to ethics is framed as a turn away from the parody, pastiche, and play of postmodernism. These fiction writers share David Foster Wallace’s sense that the relevance of postmodernism’s “gasp and squeal” has run its course, that a new cultural power lies, as Foster Wallace puts it, in the hands of those “who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and substantiate single-entendre principles.” The always-ironic attitude, the implied position of superiority in constant critique, the complicity in commodification that attends pastiche, the endlessness of deconstructive play—these postmodernist stances of the 1970s and 1980s have given way to a new regard for an old cultural claim: that literature offers its readers a serious, perhaps even uniquely powerful engagement with ethical values.

The return to ethics for these contemporary writers is explicitly formulated as a renewed appreciation for novelists such as Henry James, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and William Faulkner, modernists for whom the “discovery” of the form of the novel—the fact that the novel could be thought to have a form—made the representation of fictional characters an artistic task that required an ethical duty on the part of their author. The belief ushered in at the beginning of the twentieth century that the Anglo-American novel might be more than a “cannibal art,” to use Woolf’s phrase, tasked the author with making the best use of the narrative resources particular to the novel to bring to life a character’s individuality. For Woolf, James, Faulkner, and a host of other modernists, the art of the novel is indistinguishable from the ethical task of representing characters as autonomous individuals, defined by an identity distinct and different from their author’s. The new ethical enterprise thus has ushered in, perhaps not surprisingly, a renewed concern in fiction writing with the representation of character.

Of course, poststructuralism had predicted a very different future for the novel. By mid-century, this modernist theory of novelistic ethics seemed to have been exploded. Poststructuralism challenged the philosophical assumptions that defined, on the one hand, persons as liberal individuals, and, on the other hand, ethics as a matter of individual responsibility and agency. Writing in 1957, Alain Robbe- Grillet could call for a new novel that would accurately reflect what he regarded as the new political reality of the social subject at midcentury. Under the institutional administration of high capitalism, he argues, the agency of the individual has ceased to matter. How could novels of character continue to be written, he goes on to ask, when individuals no longer direct the operation of social power? Thus he proclaims that “the novel of characters belongs entirely to the past, it describes a period: that which marked the apogee of the individual.”

About a decade later, in S/Z Roland Barthes elegantly elaborates the difference between the old novel of character and the new novel of the deconstructed subject. Looking back to the realist novel, Barthes theorizes the narrative features that create the ideological illusion of characterological individuality in Balzac’s work. Looking forward to the future of the novel, Barthes argues that novelistic narrative should perform the absolute textuality of all subjectivity. He declares: “What is obsolescent in today’s novel is not the novelistic, it is the character; what can no longer be written is the Proper Name.”

But what postmodernist theorists couldn’t have recognized is how their critique of the liberal subject actually supported the modernist notion of ethical value as inhering in literary form—and even more particularly, as inhering in novelistic narrative. To begin with, theorists such as Robbe-Grillet and Barthes, with their acute, critical attention to the properties of narrative per se and the politics of realist narration in particular, end up expanding and variegating the understanding of novelistic form. Read for the ideological assumptions about personhood expressed through narrative structure, a novel written by Dickens or Eliot could be revealed as having a formal complexity and aesthetic integrity unappreciated in its own historical moment. Crucially, this ideological understanding of narrative form—the idea that the novel’s narrative structure could reveal true values that were hidden even from the authors themselves—connects the postmodern theory of the novel with the modernist ethics of form.

Post-structuralist theories of the novel do not dismantle the modernist understanding of the novel as the art of ethical form but add to the notion of ethical agency by conceiving of the otherness of narrative as an impersonal location for the communication of ethical value. As against authors who represent through their depiction of character the ideological lie of individuality and humanist ethics (as seen from the poststructuralist perspective), elements of novelistic form (plot design, description, point of view) and even more abstractly, properties of language, textuality, and narrative structure (causality, contingency, positionality) could tell the political truth, an ethical task. The cultural idea of the art of the novel thus develops at midcentury to include a more particularized understanding of its formal qualities and a more extended sense of the ethical modes of otherness at stake in its form.

Seen in retrospect, the intensity of the postmodern mission to deconstruct character is itself a sign of the novel’s particular generic resources for representing persons and their social worlds, the death of character a hopeful protestation rather than an accomplished execution. John Barth’s work, for example, frequently entertains the idea that the nineteenth-century novel’s ethical investment in character may be so fundamental to the novel’s generic makeup that poststructuralist attempts to deconstruct the mimetic representation of social worlds and decenter characters will be short-lived.

The conflict between mimetic effects and linguistic play is explicitly addressed by the first-person protagonist-writer of Barth’s “Life-Story,” who describes himself as caught between the love of traditional novels, with “heroes I can admire, heroines I can love,” and the obligation he feels in the mid-twentieth century to write in the Beckettian tradition of “avant-garde preciousness” (119). The end result is that Barth and his fictional fiction writer can write of nothing other than this state of philosophical suspension between the metafictional self-consciousness of the new novel and the human appeal of the old, even as he worries that the entire debate may prove to be culturally ephemeral: “How will such nonsense sound thirty-six years from now?” (119). In keeping with his sense that the significance of aesthetic criteria can only be judged by the long view of their cultural endurance, Barth’s narrator jokingly invites his aesthetic meditation to be situated in literary history (exactly as I am now doing) by precisely dating it “10:00 A.M., Monday, June 20, 1966” (119).

The Novel and the New Ethics undertakes this long view of twentieth-century novelistic aesthetics. I contend that what poststructuralist theorists such as Barthes and Robbe-Grillet and postmodern fiction writers like Barth couldn’t have anticipated at midcentury is that by 2002 (to take Barth’s projected date) their intense scrutiny of the genre’s realist conventions would not upend the notion of the novel’s ethical value but, on the contrary, become a basis for attributing ethical value to novel form, down to the molecular level.

The Novel and the New Ethics argues that the Anglo-American art of the novel, defined and developed at the beginning of the twentieth century as a celebration of the novel’s narrative resources for representing fictional characters as autonomous individuals, develops over the course of the century into a novelistic aesthetics grounded in the assumption that the social value of literature lies in the ethical encounter made possible through the reader’s phenomenological experience of modes of ontological otherness that is credited to narrative form.

As I will show, the idea of ethical otherness that is foundational for this defense of literary value derives from the notion that fictional characters possess a personhood that imbues their narrative representation with ethical value. No matter how deconstructed or politicized the notion of the individual has become, in our contemporary moment the novel is regarded as offering a privileged ethical engagement with social difference through the reader’s affective experience of characterological personhood as mediated by the novelistic narrative art. The poststructuralist critique of liberal individualism (that propels the rejection of novelistic character conceived as a unique personality, an autonomous individual, a responsible agent, a deep plenitude, a centered consciousness) does not do away with the ethical defense of literature but has made more philosophically complex both how social otherness might be defined and how literary texts might be regarded as embodying otherness in their own right. I want to show how even as the literary ethics of alterity has become more abstract in recent decades, the cultural notion of the art of the novel has become more focused: contemporary novelists and academic theorists increasingly define the social value of literature more and more exclusively as the ethical encounter with otherness made available through novelistic form.

I use the contemporary term “ethics of alterity” to describe this literary tradition, because alterity can capture three major features of the tradition’s ethical  logic at once: the tradition’s investment in representing fictional characters as  particular individuals distinct and different from the authors who invented them; the politicized understanding of subaltern subjects as radically other—and thus  ethically unrepresentable—from the point of view of social hegemony; and the  ontological notion of narrative as an ethical other, resistant to and capable of exposing a specific author’s ideological investments.

As adapted by contemporary novelists, the defining premise of the novelistic ethics of alterity is that novel form establishes a relation among ethical agents, understood as authors, readers, fictional characters, and (in a way not self-consciously formulated by the modernists) narrative itself. Within the literary historical tradition I am mapping, alterity derives from the phenomenological notion of the self’s encounter with states of being outside of and different from the self. This can include, of course, otherness within—the conscious apprehension of an unconscious force   within or the felt struggle between rational modes of knowledge and affective states of being. It can also include the human encounter with nonhuman states of being: the lives of animals, states of divinity, or even the nature of fiction.

The novel’s investigation of otherness is also invested in exploring the states of difference that obtain within the human condition. On the one hand, some novels subscribe to a radical individualism that asserts, with William James, that the “breaches” between personal consciousness “are the most absolute breaches in nature.” On the other hand, there is the ideological view of alterity that begins with the critique of radical individualism that we find, for example, voiced by Fredric Jameson, who credits/blames William’s brother, Henry, for contributing, through the latter’s use of point of view, to the late capitalist projection of the self as a socially alienated monad. While for William James the otherness of persons is a natural condition, for Jameson a transformation in the material conditions of society would reduce or eliminate reification and alienation.

Although deriving from phenomenology, alterity as a term now encompasses a wide variety of philosophical understandings of otherness. The Levinasian phenomenological view of ethical singularity and “face to face” intersubjective relation, for example, has a different philosophical basis than Ian Watt’s influential articulation of the highly particularized individualism offered by the novel, but for both thinkers the singularity/particularity that defines personhood is the condition of otherness that is the foundation from which social and ethical understanding must proceed. Thus when Marilynne Robinson states that her goal as a fiction writer is to pursue the good of “being otherwise,” the phrase may come from Levinas but has more to do with the novelist’s task of character creation than with Levinas’s idea of ethical transcendence. As this book will demonstrate more generally, for the contemporary Anglo-American novelist the idea of otherness signifies a family of ideas that not only goes beyond a single philosophical tradition but is derived as much from the novel’s literary history as from philosophy.

Driving the novelistic aesthetics of alterity is the question of how best to honor otherness through and as narrative representation. If otherness becomes knowable through “positive” narrative representation, has it been domesticated, translated into the same? Does otherness require nonnarrative modes of knowing? Emotional responses that disrupt one’s cognitive modes of certainty? Can one know the other through identification (that stranger is I)? If emotion is an ethical mode for honoring otherness, are all emotions equally ethical? Is identification better or worse than sympathy? Is perplexity more ethical than love? These are the kinds of questions explored within the social world of the modernist and contemporary novels that make up this literary tradition and that drive attitudes about the narrative modes best suited to portray characterological otherness.

Over the course of the century the formal properties of the novel come into critical visibility to the degree that they are valued as participating in the narrative representation of alterity, complexly understood: characterological point of view, narratorial stance, the teleology of plot, the role of minor characters, the distribution and register of dialogue— these qualities of narrative and many more acquire genre-defining importance as they become integrated into a strong critical and creative paradigm that takes as its governing assumption not only the novel’s inherent capacity for doing justice to states of otherness but its ability to offer an encounter with otherness that is ethically valuable. Staged through the unfolding narrative choices, the degree and kind of the author’s ethical capacity for otherness thus finds its objective correlative in novel form.


Excerpted from The Novel and the New Ethics, published by Stanford University Press. Copyright 2020. Used with permission.