Classic 19th-century British novels that give full expression to complex ethical problems necessarily project the claims of conflicting or interfering values and thus complicate the strategies for resolving the dilemmas they dramatize. This book reasserts the importance of the ethics of reading. It analyzes a developing dialogue between moral philosophers and literary critics, all of whom in their different ways celebrate literature's capacity to confront us with values in conflict. They agree that a key reason for rereading and arguing about classic novels is that they often hypothesize moral dilemmas in more realistically particularized detail than any abstract, rational discussion of ethics could match. But even if novels provide specifically situated explorations of moral issues, this does not mean that they can resolve the problems they dramatize.
This book considers interfering values in novels by Austen, Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy and the difficulties in interpreting these works. Each novel has caused protracted disputes among critics because of its heroine and its conflicting values. Different readings of these novels reveal how critics engage in interpretive strategies to defend or deplore what they read. But while they try to articulate and limit the reader's responses, the novels break through the frames they would impose, thus enlarging our awareness of the problems of making judgments.
Introduction Reading Philosophically Ethical Criticism Fractured Works/Edgy Readings Mansfield Park Bleak House Middlemarch Tess of the D'Urbervilles Bibliography Index