The Novel and the New Ethics
Dorothy J. Hale



This book argues that over the course of the twentieth century writers and readers have increasingly understood the art of the novel as an ethics of otherness. The chapters that follow investigate the literary history that helps consolidate this Anglo-American conception of the novel’s generic nature. Key to this literary history is the link between the century’s end and its beginning: the contemporary novelist’s explicit appreciation for and engagement with modernist modes of narration fortify the contemporary novelist’s equally explicit ethical project. While the current investment in ethics establishes a new and significant period in the novel’s history through the break it stages with postmodernism, the turn to the new is performed as an attempt to return, recapture, restore literature’s lost (or at a minimum, its floundering) cultural prestige. The Novel and the New Ethics seeks to illuminate how the felt need in the present moment to revivify the social relevance of literature sparks a new ethical description of the novel’s particular social value that is rooted in the modernist notion of narrative form.

My use of the term “new ethics” thus emphasizes the relation between two different historical moments in the Anglo-American novel’s cultural re-newal. There is first of all the modern novelists’ sense that they had discovered a new truth about the novel as genre: that the novel had narrative modes particular to it that could be the basis of an aesthetics, that could win it cultural prestige as an art form. But as this book seeks to show, in a way that modern novelists point to but do not fully theorize, the modernist understanding of novel form also assumes that novelistic narrative entails a necessary ethics. This is the first “new” ethical moment for the art of the novel. The second moment comes at century’s end with the contemporary novelist’s desire to re-new the age-old conversation about literature’s ethical value. An engagement with phenomenological and poststructuralist philosophies of the self is the sign of the new in contemporary ethical inquiry. While the philosophical language of contemporary ethical thought does indeed offer late-twentieth-century novelists a new vocabulary for describing the novel’s art of otherness, I argue that the modernist notion of the novel’s narrative ethics so powerfully structures the representational strategies of new ethical novels that contemporary philosophical notions about ethical value intensify and complexify rather than supersede or significantly depart from the modern novelist’s ethical project. The work of this book is to analyze the relation between these two “new” ethical moments in the Anglo-American novel’s literary history, and the chapters that follow explore the relation between the implied ethical value that modernists attributed to novelistic narrative and the explicit pursuit of a new ethical defense of literary value undertaken by contemporary novelists.

I can’t state too often that this is not a book that seeks to prove that reading fiction makes us better people. My resistance to such monolithic accounts of literary effects in fact spurred my inquiry into novelistic ethics. I also remain skeptical about the recent findings of sociological and neurological studies that seem to me weak on empirical evidence and overly generalizing in their proclamations about the ethical value of novel reading.1 In their desire to assert the unambiguous ethical good of novel reading—the usual finding is that fiction makes its readers more empathetic or altruistic—social scientists reproduce and thereby reinforce the sidelining of literary history practiced by many contemporary academic theorists and literary critics. As I show in Chapter 5, new ethical philosophers and theorists make the case for the absolute ethical value of literature by editing out the novel’s own critical and creative investigation of that idea.2

By drawing together work by modern and contemporary fiction writers, as I do in this book, I lay out the novelistic terms in which the contemporary cultural desire for a literary ethics of otherness has been cast. But to say that these creative writers make the case for ethical value is not also to say that novelists prove the case for ethics in a way that academic theorists and researchers do not. In other words, I am not arguing that we should critique the academic claims for the novel’s ethical value—whether espoused by sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, or literary critics—and embrace the truth that only novelists know. The novelists with whom I engage offer their nonfictional ideas about ethics as philosophical propositions, theoretical claims, or personal testimonials. These are exhortative, sometimes anecdotal, meant to be logically or rhetorically persuasive rather than factually verifiable. The Novel and the New Ethics does not attempt to adjudicate among the ethical defenses of literary value, philosophical or literary, with the goal of settling the debate by putting forward the “right” theory of novelistic ethics. What concerns this book more specifically is the fact that the exceptionalist claims made for the ethical value of the novel, claims that were for two centuries the primary justification in the Anglo-American tradition for the writing and reading of novels, have developed through the twentieth century and now into our own moment into a popular assumption about the novel’s superior social value as a literary form. By calling attention to the connection between contemporary and modernist notions of novelistic ethics, this book helps to explain the dawning awareness in our own cultural moment, to which this book contributes, that the genre that was thought for two centuries to be distinguished by its lack of form is now not only fully admired for the complexity of its narrative resources but has gained cultural preeminence as a literary form precisely to the degree that its aesthetic richness is believed to entail ethical enrichment.3 It is this long twentieth-century literary tradition that I call attention to with the descriptor “the novelistic aesthetics of alterity.”

The novel’s protean nature has always posed unique problems for developing a theory of the art of the novel. Whereas a haiku or even an epic can be defined in formal terms (e.g., as having so many syllables, as beginning in medias res), and whereas a genre such as lyric has been equated with an epitomizing rhetorical practice (e.g., apostrophe), I argue that the novel became recognizable and appreciable as a literary form only when that form was understood as laden with ethical meaning.4 In other words, modern novelists could describe the novel’s defining formal qualities when the signature feature of novel content—the ethical drama enacted in the novel’s storyworld—became the distinguishing feature of its narrative form.5 The modernists, in pursuit of transforming the novel into high art, do not simply “discover” the elements of novelistic form; they stabilize the genre by making normative its narrative nature. When ethical content can be allied with an ethics of form, the novel emerges as an appreciable aesthetic creation. What the novel’s literary history can show us is how the novelist’s ongoing engagement not just with ethics but with the problem of ethics propels the tradition forward, intensifying and complicating the storyworld investigation of ethical meaning as well as the possible values ascribable to narrative. My aim is to describe why otherness emerges as the key ethical stake for novelistic representation and how the task of representing otherness is worked out as a formal problem by strong novels in the tradition. Literary history thus brings to light both the aesthetic intensity that is derived by freighting narrative with complex and often competing ethical stakes, as well as the contingency of novelistic ethics regarded as a formal project.

Of course, the modern novelists who are most devoted to the aesthetic project of elevating the novel to a high art form—writers such as Henry James, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner—strongly reject the notion that any aspect of their artistic practice should be regulated by prevailing social arbiters of the moral good.6 These fiction writers associate morality with the didactic use of literature, which they believe instills hegemonic social values under the cover of care for the general public good.7 Thus it is certainly true that the twentieth century positions its notion of the art of the novel against the nineteenth century’s view of the novel as valuable for the social good it can accomplish, and that, so it was judged at the time of their publication, some novels—by Stowe, Dickens, Eliot, but also countless others—did accomplish. But while it is a commonplace that the twentieth century newly imagined the art of the novel as a matter of form, The Novel and the New Ethics seeks to demonstrate that twentieth-century novelists break with an older view of novelistic ethics precisely by installing ethics as an aspect of novelistic narrative. The twentieth-century discovery of novel form ushers in the realization that the lives of characters are bound to the narrative techniques used to represent them, and thus the ethics of otherness begins with debates about beneficial or deleterious storyworld action and exemplars becoming increasingly intertwined with assumptions about the success or failure of narrative technique to do justice to the personhood of characters.

The Anglo-American novelistic aesthetics of alterity can be exemplified by the difference between George Eliot and Henry James—the difference between two novelists, both supremely concerned with ethical behavior, both masters of narrative composition, but only one concerned with developing a theory of novelistic form. As I have argued in Social Formalism, James inaugurates the novelistic ethics of alterity through his theory of point of view. The Jamesian notion of point of view subjectifies novel form by equating the representation of characterological personhood with a particular narrative resource.8 The novelistic ethics that develops out the subjectification of novel form situates the author’s act of composition as an ethical encounter with the fictional life that is their task to bring into being. The success or failure of the author’s endeavor sets the possibilities for the encounter with other lives that is available to the novel reader. For the Jamesian literary tradition, the novel’s social value need not be measured by the stance it takes on world historical events such as the American Civil War (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) or civic goods such as prison reform (Oliver Twist): the ethics of alterity that is believed to inhere in novel form means that the social value that the novel as a genre is equipped to accomplish can be obtained through what are regarded as the ethical acts of novel reading and writing. The encounter with fictional modes of otherness that takes place in and through novels counts in this tradition as real ethical experience.

The argument of The Novel and the New Ethics thus builds on my earlier study of the development of Anglo-American novel theory in the twentieth century while also extending the reach of that argument by showing how an ethics of narrative guides the creative practice of novel writing in the Anglo-American tradition. In Social Formalism I develop the notion of the Jamesian art of the novel as an ethical project and explore the way that view persists within the theoretical account of novel form that grows up in the twentieth century. Uncovering the implied ethics of alterity that unite, on the one hand, political thinkers such as Roland Barthes and Henry Louis Gates, and, on the other hand, narratologists such as Gerard Genette with theorists of the novel who explicitly argued for the novel’s ethical nature (Henry James and M. M. Bakhtin), I argue that this comparative approach to theories of the novel allows us to attend to the pseudomaterial properties (language, text, figuration) that the social formalist tradition credits with the power to fix and instantiate social relations as aspects of narrative form.9

The Novel and the New Ethics takes on board the findings of this earlier project to explore how the Jamesian notion of the art of the novel drives James’s own novelistic practice—which in turn influences the Anglo-American understanding of novelistic aesthetics as a narrative ethics of alterity. As I focus on twentieth- and twenty-first-century novelists and theorists who explicitly advocate for the ethical value of literature, I am once again interested in drawing out untheorized assumptions about novel form. Because the literary tradition I am investigating here is temporally coordinate with the tradition of novel theory mapped in Social Formalism, the privileging of materiality remains at issue, especially when I turn in Chapter 5 to the academic theorists who take up the banner of the new ethical defense of literature. But in my current focus on the literary development of the Jamesian ethical aesthetic, I am most interested in the congruence between the narrative effects prized by modernists and those embraced by contemporary novelists. In this regard, I find that novel theory often helps me articulate ethical issues that claim the attention of modernist and contemporary novelists alike. What effect does the story/discourse model have in projecting characters—and the social world of the novel more generally—as an ontological autonomy? Why should contemporary theorists be interested in discerning how narratorial mediation and omniscience operate on a granular level of narrative representation, and what might be the modernist source for that view? What is the ethical value of working with a theory that calibrates the degrees and distribution of characterological opacity or knowability? How for different authors does narrative seem to function as an instrument of characterological oppression? How does novelistic realism work to establish spatial autonomies? Why are narrative and novel theory not interested in the problem of stylistic beauty? These are the kinds of questions that build out from the notion of novel form undertaken in Social Formalism.

To propose that the aesthetics of alterity names a significant literary tradition that has coherence and force is not to imply that all twentieth-century novels contribute to this tradition, nor is it to suggest that all novels that belong to the tradition make an equally powerful contribution to the theory and practice of the aesthetics of alterity. In limning the tradition, I focus on novelists for whom the ethical representation of the personhood of fictional characters is a grounding narrative task. In this regard, there are certainly lines of affinity between the Jamesian tradition and the twentieth-century tradition of metafiction. For example, when the narrator of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) interrupts his realist enterprise to offer a disquisition on the ontology of fiction, and even more particularly when he writes that “It is only when our characters and events begin to disobey us that they begin to live,” John Fowles is positioning the novel’s art of “world making” as an ethics of otherness.10 But in their metafictional projects modernists such as Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett and postmodernists such as Thomas Pynchon and Ishmael Reed are either less explicitly concerned with the ethics of novel form or actively dismissive of ethics as a category of literary value. The oeuvre of J. M. Coetzee serves as a particularly exciting example of how the priority given to narrative ethics in the contemporary moment forges a strong connection between the antirealist novel tradition and the Jamesian novel of character. In my analysis of Elizabeth Costello (2003), I show not only how the aesthetics of alterity expands into a self-conscious and all-encompassing theme for the contemporary novel, but also how a writer who absorbs so much from Russian and European antirealist traditions (especially Dostoevsky and Kafka) comes to see the metafictional inquiry into the other state of being that fiction might represent as a facet of the novel’s generic capacity for the ethical representation of states of being different from the author’s own.

Without question, there are plenty of twentieth-century novels of character that do not approach novelistic narrative as an ethical task. A writer such as Philip Roth, for example, although profoundly influenced by Henry James (as evidenced by the protagonist of Letting Go whose dissertation is on The Portrait of a Lady), carries forward the nineteenth-century practice of reportage to which Virginia Woolf so strongly objected. Alternatively, a strong example of a counteraesthetic to the ethics of alterity can be located in the Proustian tradition. Proust’s use of first-person narration signals his diminished investment in a narrative ethics of alterity, which is bolstered by the epistemology articulated in À la recherche du temps perdu, a philosophy of personhood significantly different from the phenomenology of ethics I describe. Marcel relates his idea of novelistic character to a more general philosophical conception of what might be called an emotional epistemology:

None of the feelings which the joys or misfortunes of a “real” person arouse in us can be awakened except through a mental picture of those joys or misfortunes; and the ingenuity of the first novelist lay in his understanding that, as the image was the one essential element in the complicated structure of our emotions, so that simplification of it which consisted in the suppression, pure and simple, of “real” people would be a decided improvement. A “real” person, profoundly as we may sympathise with him, is in a great measure perceptible only through our senses, that is to say, remains opaque, presents a dead weight which our sensibilities have not the strength to lift. If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion; indeed it is only in one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion either. The novelist’s happy discovery was to think of substituting for those opaque sections, impenetrable to the human soul, their equivalent in immaterial sections, things, that is, which one’s soul can assimilate.11

Marcel’s aesthetics of substitution steers the novelistic theory of character away from ethical phenomenology and toward affective assimilation. And even though, as Gérard Genette has discussed, Proust’s handling of free indirect discourse (which he keeps to a minimum) and characterological speech (which he objectivizes) are on a continuum with the Jamesian project, the notion that fiction represents the complexity of persons best when they are rendered by “equivalent immaterial sections” is a step in the direction of abstraction that significantly moves Proust’s idea of novel reading and writing away from the realm of ethics and into a psychological theory of apprehension, the “purely mental state” of emotional intensity that allows fictional characters to “appear to us in the guise of truth.”12 For Proust, the novel is not about degrees of autonomy or singularity to which characters have a right but about the shareability of highly specific literary emotions that seem other only because they have not been experienced before by a particular reader.

But whereas Proust’s epistemology has always been discussed in terms of an aesthetic sensibility, my aim in offering an intensive analysis of a few strong novels is to describe the aesthetic intensity that the pursuit of ethics confers on the novel in the Anglo-American Jamesian tradition. Chapters 1 and 2 strive to balance this intensive focus with a synthetic overview of the lines of connection between the modern and the contemporary ethical project. While this procedure seems the right one for a book that strives to identify and analyze the primary features of a literary tradition, I also hope it creates interest in future work that might expand and deepen my account of the novelistic aesthetics of alterity. On the one hand, there is opportunity for more intensive engagement with the full oeuvre of the novelists I discuss. On the other hand, there are modern and contemporary writers whom I don’t discuss but who might be good candidates for inclusion. For example, my account in Chapter 2 of the tradition’s development through the British line might be matched by attention to an American line that would focus on Winesburg, Ohio (1919); Cane (1923); and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Certainly, Toni Morrison has Toomer in mind as much as she has James, Woolf, and William Faulkner—and in On Beauty Zadie Smith pays homage not only to E. M. Forster and Iris Murdoch but also, in naming the Beasley daughter Zora, to Zora Neale Hurston. Smith’s rapturous essay on Hurston gets pride of place in Changing My Mind (2009), and the story Smith tells in that essay (about how, at the age of fourteen, reading Their Eyes Were Watching God transformed her notion of what novelistic style might and should be) has been linked to her own name change—from Sadie to Zadie—also at the age of fourteen.13 The narrative ethics that inform the representation of social otherness as a domestic condition of US life might be investigated through the formal experiments of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) and Tommy Orange’s There There (2018), while the global dimensions of social otherness are addressed in the narrative management of a host of novels, including Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People (1981), Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters (1990), David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (1999), Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), and Phil Klay’s Redeployment (2015). My working sense is that some of these novels more successfully engage the problematic nature of ethical otherness as a narrative mode, but even those that take for granted the novel’s narrative power to do justice to states of being different from the author’s own help consolidate the cultural view of the novel’s superior social value as a literary form.

By concluding my study with the new ethical defenses of literary value mounted from within the academy, I aim to show how contemporary assumptions about the novel’s ethics of alterity have established a pedagogic norm—that readers/students of literature should be trained to read for the ethical experience they provide—as well as an impassable disagreement among critics about which narrative modes best deliver the experience of ethical otherness to the reader. Through the influence of the new ethical theorists whom I discuss in Chapter 5, reading for narrative ethics regrounds literary study as an academic discipline, a discipline tied to readerly self-discipline. It is now generally assumed that to read a novel rightly—any novel—is to decode the ethical values that are taken for granted to inhere in novelistic narrative. Although anyone reading a novel can appreciate the difficulty the genre takes up when it seeks to represent a variety of social types, especially types different from the author’s social identity, in the classroom reading for ethics becomes a specialized skill that requires training in the decoding of narrative form. As I have stated, I describe this ethics as an aesthetics because I take seriously the disconnect between, on the one hand, the unprovable claims made by academic philosophers, theorists, critics, and the novelists themselves for the ethical power of literature in general and the novel in particular, and, on the other, the verifiable cultural practice that novels are read for and judged in regard to the ethics that are believed to inhere in their narrative practices. In other words, even if readers remain ethically untouched by the act of reading a novel, they have come to regard the act of novel reading to be one of detecting the ethical values that inhere in novelistic narrative. Again, I want to emphasize that, in an affinity for the novels I study, my aim is not to attempt to refute, correct, or refine new ethical arguments by approaching them with a commitment to a particular philosophical tradition. I do not, for example, recommend that Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum, self-described Aristotelians, become Kantians or deconstructionists—or that J. Hillis Miller and Gayatri Spivak become Aristotelians. Instead, in my concluding chapter I am interested to show how theorists who disagree philosophically about the meaning and nature of ethics all agree that certain features of novelistic narrative offer the reader an ethical encounter with otherness, an encounter that begins with a writerly or readerly act of self-restriction. And for an overwhelming number of these new ethical theorists, the novelist who provides the master lesson in the narrative art of otherness is Henry James.


1. For example, do David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano really present us with important findings when they conclude from their 2013 empathy study that “whereas many of our mundane social experiences may be scripted by convention and informed by stereotypes, those presented in literary fiction often disrupt our expectations”? Kidd and Castano admit that their study does not “fully capture the concept of literariness, which includes among others, aesthetic and stylistic matters not addressed in this research.” But while Kidd and Castano seem confident that the qualities of literariness can be distinguished from the ethical operations of literary fiction, they simultaneously assume literariness as a distinguishing feature of their archive. What they don’t seem to recognize is how they have in advance of their empirical findings assumed that what defines literary fiction as literary is its ethical power. Their operative assumption is that literary fiction distinguishes itself from popular fiction and nonfiction through the techniques that literary fiction uses to “expand our knowledge of others’ lives, helping us recognize our similarity to them” and thus reducing “the strangeness of others” (“Reading Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” 377). We can see the mutually supporting nature of sociological and literary study in a follow-up report on Kidd and Castano for the New York Times (Belluck, “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov”). When asked their opinion of Kidd and Costano’s findings, professors of literature overwhelmingly regarded them as happy confirmation of what they already know about literary fiction, rather than as findings that “disrupt” or alter their own expectations (pars. 21–22). In a follow-up opinion piece for the Times, Gregory Currie points to the uncontroversial nature of the assumption that “exposure to challenging works of literary fiction is good for us” and asks, “Why would anyone need evidence for something so obviously right?” (“Does Great Literature Make Us Better People?,” pars. 1–2).

2. Tellingly, Kidd and Castano cite M. M. Bakhtin and Roland Barthes as authorities for their view of literary fiction as fostering readerly participation (and thereby Theory of Mind) without taking into account the ways that both of these theorists have also been interpreted as theorizing the limits of not just empathy but the centered subjectivity upon which the notion of empathy depends.

3. For other recent critical studies of ethics as a narrative practice, see Berman, Modernist Commitments; Childs and Green, Aesthetics and Ethics in Twenty-First Century British Novels; Glowacka and Boos, Between Ethics and Aesthetics; Hughes, Ethics, Aesthetics, and the Beyond of Language; Jottkandt, Acting Beautifully; Larson, Ethics and Narrative in the English Novel, 1880–1914; Levinson, Aesthetics and Ethics; Masters, Novel Style; Öztürk, Evolutionary Aesthetics of Human Ethics in Hardy’s Tragic Narratives; and Serpell, Seven Modes of Uncertainty.

4. On the lyric as apostrophe, see Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric and Barbara Johnson’s “Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion.”

5. Terry Eagleton provides an excellent example of a critic whose view of the novel as a genre recapitulates the sense of both the limitlessness and the restriction that I am describing. In his introduction to The English Novel, Eagleton asserts that the novel as a genre can be anything at all, that “there seems to be nothing it cannot do,” that its anarchic nature “cannibalizes other literary modes and mixes the bits and pieces promiscuously together” (1). But in the English tradition that is the topic of his study, the novel’s limitless generic possibility is self-restricted to the protocols of the realist novel and the premium it places on the representation of characters within a social world.

6. See Ross, “Modernist Ethics, Critique, and Utopia” for an alternative view of the nature of modernist ethics. Following Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Ross argues, “I presume and argue for a fundamental ethics to modernism: modernism was a fundamentally ethical set of projects, even when specific modernists disagreed with one another over the specific content of the ethics they sought. In this regard, my reading is somewhat at odds both with older understandings of high modernism as amoral and with the more recent critical models that have concentrated on restoring the full breadth of modernist cultural production” (49). See also Berman, Modernist Commitments, who similarly draws on Adorno but qualifies his understanding of modernism: “Though [Adorno’s] theory helps us understand the possibilities of a noninstrumental politics, the way back to the world that emerges out of radically experimental texts, and the potential for critique in the fractured forms and languages of many varieties of modernism, it posits the work’s autonomy and its disengagement from reality as a first principle. As I have argued, literary modernism knits together aesthetics and the ethico-political experience of modernity so that the world becomes the problematic to be addressed, transformed, configured, and reconfigured, rather than refused” (25–26).

7. For example, although Henry James uses “ethics” and “morals” as synonyms in his review of J. W. Cross’s 1885 biography of Eliot, “moral” and “morality” are by far the preferred terms to describe what James sees as Eliot’s didactic tendencies: “the author’s general attitude in regard to the novel, which for her, was not primarily a picture of life, capable of deriving a high value from its form, but a moralized fable, the last word of a philosophy endeavoring to teach by example” (50). By contrast, the transitional sense of “morality” to an ethics of novelistic form is reflected in James’s statement that “the essence of moral energy is to survey the whole field, and I should . . . say not that the English novel has a purpose, but that it has a diffidence. To what degree a purpose in a work of art is a source of corruption I shall not attempt to inquire; the one that seems to me least dangerous is the purpose of making a perfect work” (“Art of Fiction,” 25).

8. James’s deep admiration for Eliot always struggled with his exasperation at what he calls “the absence of free aesthetic life.” See James’s review of Cross’s biography (esp. 49–52) and also James’s review of Middlemarch, in which he declares that novel “a treasure-house of details but . . . an indifferent whole” (424).

9. Hale, Social Formalism, 22.

10. Fowles, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, 96.

11. Proust, In Search of Lost Time, vol. 1: Swann’s Way, 91.

12. Ibid., 92. See Genette, Narrative Discourse, 175–186.

13. In her interview with Smith for The Telegraph, Gaby Wood ends her brief summary of Smith’s family biography by emphasizing the close temporal connection between Smith’s name change and her reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God: “[Zadie was] a studious girl and precocious author of sonorous words (at 14, around the time her mother gave her Zora Neale Hurston to read, she changed her name from Sadie to Zadie)” (“The Return of Zadie Smith,” par. 23).