moral aesthetics

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

17.1 (Winter 2017)


Literary Criticism and Analysis


“Narrative Predilectics” One More Time: How Moral Fiber Enters the Weave of a Pleasing Text
John R. Harris

The art of weaving a story from human activity conjures into existence the paradox of “moral aesthetics”, since the credibility of arranged events depends largely on our personal estimate of human nature. This essay applies moral analysis to six very distinct literary texts.

Some months ago now, I filled a few pages of Praesidium with my dismay about the state of literary criticism and a possible way to draw that once worthy endeavor back into the realm of common sense, wherefrom it might enlighten the reading experience of “ordinary people”.  There is a kind of civic and social urgency to the project, it seems to me, inasmuch as a post-literate public of fluent “texters” and avid Netflix consumers will lack the subtle understanding of human nature necessary to participate helpfully in a democratic republic (let alone to build productive personal lives). The sophistication with which we handle stories is directly related to our moral maturity.

For the experience of story-telling (with its reverse angle of story-hearing) is essentially, if paradoxically, a moral one: that was one of my premises in the foregoing articles.  An advocate of my neo-Aristotelian stripe might be assumed to argue—as I myself indeed do—that narrative is an art form; and as such, that its distinguishing characteristic is its supplying pleasure to an audience.  First and foremost, stories are aesthetic creations… so how is morality implicated in the process?  If an entertaining tale also morally improves its readers or listeners, it exceeds the call of duty in a way that may redound to its credit; but teaching a “good lesson” can be held no more relevant to its fundamental “storiness” than thoughts of religious reverence can be insisted upon as part of a grand sunset’s majesty.

So sayeth the purist. Yet this interpretation of the matter is simplistic. The reason why such trenchant borderlines do not work in sensible, sensitive literary criticism is that stories are of made events, events are woven from people’s lives, people make choices in the act of living (often thereby generating the events that lead to narrative crisis), and choices are the stuff of morality.  Why do these characters in this story choose to stand instead of flee—or why does one stand while fifty flee?  Is the story’s represented behavior believable to the reader, given what he or she knows about human nature?  Do the ultimate consequences of the collective choices produce a story that appears to portray life accurately, or has the author merely engineered a bit of wishful thinking or of political propaganda?

My contention in the previous articles was that the literary critic should attempt an honest and profound response to such questions, as opposed to exploiting the story’s events by way of accessing a favorite ideological posture.  The critic should never appropriate narrated events merely to illustrate an abstracted extra-textual thesis; rather, the broader consequences of the textual “snapshot of human affairs” should be teased carefully from the characters as portrayed and the circumstances as presented. If the critic should then find that the philosophy implicit in such analysis conforms to or violates his own estimate of the human condition, then the concluding critical judgment might approve the work as having captured reality—or condemn it as having purveyed illusion.

At this final and conclusive level, the critic is of course transporting personal values into the analysis.  Nothing is wrong with that, as long as it is done in full self-awareness.  Indeed, the “ordinary person” responds to narrative literature at just such a level, as naturally as any sane person would stop and admire a rainbow.  We all rate stories according to their degree of “truth”, and most adults grasp that moral truths (i.e., those crystallizing life’s higher purposes) can be perceived somewhat differently by different individuals. Common sense tells us that tastes in food, in clothing, in home design, and in so much else observe a wide variety wherever human beings congregate. How much more tolerance, then, is required in treating an art form where moral judgments mingle with the sense of tasteful arrangement! Narrative literature is that art form. No discriminating reader will claim to love a tale just because all of its tensions are cunningly resolved by the last page—not if the resolution rudely violates that reader’s sense of what moral principles must be shown respect.

After much groping and wincing, I reluctantly hung the label of “narrative predilectics” upon my method in order to emphasize the role of moral assumptions in assessing a story’s realism. (A predilection, in the fundamental sense intended here, is a chosen but not rationally deduced attraction—a magnetized favorable response—to an object or idea.) In the ultimate subjectivity of the reader’s response to narrative nestles the joy and the utility of criticism; or, to put it more accurately, in the critic’s challenge to minimize subjectivity in his response rests literary criticism’s elevating discipline.  If the critic’s expectations of the text are too doctrinaire—too rigidly drawn from an ideological blueprint—then his or her ineptitude will grate upon the ear like a note played off key.  If the story itself has twisted human nature beyond reasonable semblance of daily reality, then the critic should be able to make that case by calling witnesses from among the characters rather than by constructing a lyrical but irrelevant closing argument.

Hence my emphasis of the morally improving benefits of studying literature: for effective criticism, as I hope I have explained sufficiently, is nothing less than an intense session before the soul’s mirror. One must peer into the text for that which is like oneself; and one may also surprise oneself imposing personal prejudices upon the text rather than objectively viewing what the author has created. The Delphic Oracle’s “know thyself” is accomplished nowhere better in modern life, perhaps, than in the liberal education’s attention to great literary art. Is it any wonder that in postmodern life, where the self has been deemed a cultural construct merely and where “literary scholars” have one and all endorsed the notion that “all art is propaganda” (in the unhappy Orwellian phrase), we no longer comprehend civic virtue or make responsible political choices?

  1. Three Classic Works Obscured by Critical Prejudice

So much for my reprise (with a little clarification added here and there) of the presentation made in my earlier articles. In this final item of the series, I should like to examine a few specific texts—very cursorily—in order to exemplify the practice of my method. I shall begin with three works that, while now or at some time part of the Western canon, have seldom or never been fully appreciated thanks to the critical establishment’s textually unjustified presumptions.

Vergil’s Aeneid

Since the inception of the academy’s Classical Studies establishment early in the nineteenth century, Vergil’s epic has been handled as a praise of Roman manliness—of self-sacrifice to the interests of the commonwealth. Though Aeneas’s personal life lies in shambles about him along with the ruins of mighty Troy (a wife mysteriously slain or whisked away, a father lost, a lover abandoned, warfare constantly renewed), he faithfully lends himself to the accomplishment of Jupiter’s imperial plan. The many dark moments of his adventure only serve to underscore the heroic firmness of his dedication. This is the instructive tale for whose composition Augustus paid a handsome commission; it is the essence of the morality play which contemporary Romans apparently saw in the epic when portions of it were formally presented by the author. The tune of stoical public service harmonizes with what we know of the era’s mood. The “self-abnegation approach” must therefore hold the key the text’s full and correct interpretation.

The problem I see is that such interpretative straitjacketing ignores a host of steadily recurrent clues within the text itself. Situations are typically pastoral in a very pleasant sense (Edenic, we might say) before the disruptive forces of “divine will” roil them. Men and women live close to nature; trees grow and flocks multiply. Even the paleo-Carthaginians work at their rising walls like busy bees. Then destructive passion (often represented by the irrationally envious Juno) infects the scene. Fear, hatred, vengeance, greed, ambition, and all the rest kindle their figurative fires in the heat of some petty incident… and literal flames are likely to follow soon, along with smoke, darkness, wounds, blood, deadly blades and points, and various kinds and stages of madness and sacrilege. Such fatal degeneracy does not happen in spite of the gods, but—over and over—because of them.   This is as much as to say that the Olympians do not exist for Vergil in any Homeric sense, but are instead metaphors for the many tragic abysses within the human psyche. The all-seeing Jupiter himself, whose naïve utopian dream sows so much devastation, actually sees very little of what happens under his nose, and appears to be all the more fertile a source of catastrophe for not possessing the spite-nourished attention to minutiae of a Juno or a Minerva.

How is it possible that what one might well call a Judaic sense of self-sabotage and historical futility could masquerade behind a piece of highly jingoistic, contracted-and-paid-for propaganda? I will not examine the details of the case in a space so small as this one. I would merely stress two points. The first is that Vergil must indeed have been a genius to embed his Arcadian pessimism about human progress beneath a narrative surface that seems truly to celebrate the ascending staircase of the Roman political vision. The chore of singing a dirge under cover of a paean would lie beyond the abilities of most singers. Are we to ignore the haunting presence of sad echoes in this swaggering “onward and upward” chant, then, because no ordinary composer could ever have combined the two? Is it mandatory that Vergil be a “typical” poet?

My second observation concerns how very self-serving is such a “historicizing” argument. The times demanded propaganda, the author’s paymaster had specified a certain kind of propaganda, the audience perceived and embraced the resulting work of propaganda… therefore, the Aeneid is a vehicle of militaristic propaganda. A mold has been constructed beforehand which the creation must fit in order to be visible to the scholarly community. Textual pieces that leak out over the edges must simply be trimmed away. A graphic instance of this Procrustean treatment was indeed commemorated in legendary scholar Richard Heinze’s rejecting as entirely apocryphal the scene in Aeneid II where the hero prepares—all too unheroically—to cut down Helen. Vergil could never have written those lines! Victorian classicists knew in their bones that proper heroes would not so much as entertain the thought of striking a woman.

When scholars are actively editing a text based on whether or not it conforms to their preconceived expectations, they are not pondering the author’s vision of human nature and human affairs: they are ignoring the literary text to promote their own value system. Such readings must be discounted as fundamentally flawed.

Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso

Ariosto’s epic romance stands in a very similar relation to its contemporary audience and to later critics as Vergil’s great epic does. The Italian had overtly chosen to continue the rambling tale of Orlando and his Carolingian comrades that Boiardo had begun in Orlando Inamorato. The later work thereby invited comparison with the former… and few sixteenth-century literati were inclined or equipped, it seems, to draw any distinction. Rings of invisibility, winged horses, sorcerers who can conjure up castles in thin air—all of the marvels so fanciful and so abundant in Boiardo’s humorless poem also populate Ariosto’s. We must suppose, therefore, that when a lover is lamenting his lady’s indifference or bemoaning obstacles to the accomplishment of his erotic dream, his sincerity should pass unquestioned: this is what generations of critics require. To the scholarly community, indeed, the great tragedy of the quaint dreamland created by one poet and exploited by the other seems to be that lovers cannot always have their longing fulfilled. The defense of faith and empire is a relative sideshow against whose backdrop magically endowed young men seek to capture mystically beautiful young women in their arms.

A few canny readers like Galileo, however, could see that Ariosto had changed the rules of the game. The ethereal questing and pining of the earlier romance had run head-on into psychological reality, and the shock had left the vast cast of “heroes” unmasked and un-romanticized. Selfish carnal lust motivates amorous adventures in the case of Rinaldo and most of his competitor-cavaliers; idealizing delusions akin to idolatry eats at the lovesick heart of Orlando himself. The world of unicorns and fair princesses gazing from lofty towers is now—despite the persistence of magic—our tawdry earth of arrogant men eager to enjoy casual sex along with any other pleasure in their path… and, once in a blue moon, a fantasist hoping to turn life into a fairy tale by sheer will power.

The charmed and magical trappings of Ariosto’s courtly crew do not merely linger in useless narrative inheritance from his predecessor. They imply, rather, that no amount of supernatural help can save us from ourselves—that even if we were to possess wondrous enchantments, our corrupt judgment would proceed to deploy them in ways that would only intensify the trouble we make. Orlando’s impenetrable hide, for instance, allows him to become a legendary scourge of ordinary country folk once he loses his mind over Angelica and strips naked in his fury: the gift that should have prepared him to be Christendom’s premier defender instead befits him to be a hairy woodland monster that ravages harmless settlements. No amount of nostalgia and poeticizing can save us from our lower nature and our compromised, rationalizing intelligence. Ariosto’s delivery of this sobering insight from dozens of angles in the course of an enormous tale, always with heavy doses of good-humored irony, bespeaks real and rare genius.

Yet how many generations of translators (to assess the critical failure from available English texts) insist on rendering exquisite scenes with blunt, even stupidly cliché rigidity? Sacripante’s grotesque lament over being deprived (as he then believes) of Angelica’s “virgin flower” hardly belongs on the lips of a concerned and genuine lover. Nevertheless, most translations before Guido Waldman’s treat this debauch of egotistical sensualism as first cousin to one of Romeo’s soliloquies. An early edition of the Norton Anthology of World Literature (which at least recognized Ariosto’s deserved place in the canon sufficiently to include excerpts from the Furioso—an honor soon discontinued) handles Fiordelisa’s mistaking Bradamante for a handsome young man as a budding lesbian relationship in its introductory commentary. This is absurd. Fiordelisa is devastated precisely because her comely guest turns out not to be male; and in persisting to pine for that which can never happen between two women, she illustrates—for the umpteenth time in this chronicle of self-indulgent follies—the fearful power of subjective fantasy at war with the hard objective facts of life.

A critic who cannot see such themes in Ariosto through the fog of trendy political ideology does no good at all as a critic. The literary text might as well be jettisoned so that the commentator may be free to pen a homily without mutilating any thoughtful creations along the way.

Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure

In my judgment, Measure for Measure ranks among Shakespeare’s greatest achievements.  Its complementary themes of corruption in government, pseudo-religious self-righteousness, and sexual harassment (as we call it today) make the work extremely timely.  Yet the uncomfortable poise of the central characters between a medieval world of abstemious retirement and a Renaissance world of active involvement must have spoken to one of the era’s most preoccupying sources of uncertainty—an anguish further represented in the background of riotous license that has succeeded a lapsed faith in metaphysical reality.  This is an opus fit to address all ages; and if it has been classed among the “problem plays” because Duke Vincentio ultimately finds no formula to cure Vienna of moral corruption, a solution is nevertheless implied in the Duke’s final, inclusive clemency.  The solution, that is, may be that human affairs permit of no solution in matters moral. We humans are always on the verge of corruption, as are our societies and institutions.  Only good examples and humane chastisement—not terrorizing reigns of “zero tolerance” brutality—can keep us somewhere near the straight and narrow.

The devil, in this case, is in the detail.  Critics have shied away from the play (when they have not openly despised it) thanks to the pivotal character of Isabella.  Preparing to take her final vows as a nun, she is called back into the world to plead for her brother Claudio’s life, forfeit under an ancient, forgotten law that the Duke’s deputy Angelo has dusted off to make Vienna sober up.  Claudio is to die for getting his fiancée with child before their marriage bans have been published.  Though repelled by her brother’s deed, the severe Isabella nonetheless begs for his life with all her resources—so effectively that the yet more severe Angelo is perversely aroused by her passion’s very purity.  He offers to spare Claudio if the sister will surrender her heretofore untouched body to his newly conceived lust for a night.

That Isabella refuses this offer in horror has created the specific obstacle to esteeming the play which generations of critics (including Coleridge) have been unable to surmount.  A brother’s life in return for a quick toss in the sheets?  What monstrous prude—what pious fraud—would be so pompous as to decline such an easy, insignificant compromise?  Commentators of this inclination despise Isabella.  Her strict adherence to principle is the North Star around which the other characters revolve (a movement that draws Angelo’s stately rigidity into patent hypocrisy, the Duke’s growing misanthropy into admiring love, and Claudio’s boyish impulsiveness into full-blown pusillanimity). Rejecting that principle, therefore, as itself a mere pious show throws all of the play’s motions into a senseless spin.  If Isabella is a whited sepulcher, then no character is closer to a villain than she.

Yet what evidence does Shakespeare give us to impugn her virtue?  None whatever: quite the contrary.  Angelo’s obscene proposal is no sophomoric flirtation, but an attempted rape with a judge’s arbitrary power employed as a knife to the throat. In any case, the corrupt judge does not spare Claudio after mistakenly believing that he has enjoyed the sister in a dark, silent retreat: rather, he hastens the execution, worried that making good on his promise might open the way to Claudio’s avenging the outrage later.  And while it is true that Isabella harshly rebukes her brother in prison when fear unmans him and he begs her to submit to the assault, does the very excess of her resentment not absolve her of the charge of being a plaster saint?  Such a one as the critical establishment has made of her—priggish, self-important, icy at heart—would have greeted Claudio’s petition with a cool and feigned pity, defended her steadfast refusal with Scripture, and volunteered to pray for poor brother’s soul.  Our Isabella, in contrast, is flesh and blood.  It is precisely because she so loves Claudio that his imploring her to annihilate the values at the core of her identity moves her to a kind of fury. She desperately needed him to understand her position, and he betrayed her. She reacts as any honest person would.
Isabella’s critics detest her because their own choices in life have led them to view sexual escapades as innocent, joyous occasions, or no worse than impish pranks when worst of all.  They cannot bring her character into focus because they have not faced the truth about their own ill-governed and self-gratifying habits.  The filter of subjectivity is far too thick in their case for the play to be appreciated on its own merits.

III. Three Examples of Stories Undermined by Moral Assumptions

Now I offer three examples of narratives that I find flawed in some measure for reasons that have a moral basis, but which directly impact, as well, how the authors concerned have chosen to foreground and sequence the events they portray.

Manzoni’s I Promesi Sposi

Along with Walter Scott, Alessandro Manzoni may fairly be dubbed the founding father of the historical novel. His claim is owed exclusively to a volume first published in 1827 and generally translated into English under the title, The Betrothed. The work is an epic undertaking. It traces the lives of various characters through the harrowing vagaries of the Thirty Years War and, specifically, of the bubonic plague’s appearance in northern Italy as the war wound down. Certainly Manzoni is to be praised for the diversity of scenes, the broad array of character types and social classes, and the minuteness and color of descriptive detail which he imported into his masterpiece.

While a personal chef d’oeuvre, however, the novel is nonetheless quite flawed on one point. It metes out life and death as if the Plague were truly the judgment of God upon good people and wicked ones. Our rather comical and lovable heroes, the lowly Fermo and Lucia, naturally survive and end up marrying as they had planned to do before all the trouble started. The more shady actors in higher places who disrupt innocent lives (including our betrothed peasant pair’s) like a kind of socio-political plague are swept away by buboes and fever. The saintly Fra Cristoforo also perishes, but he does so almost of his own volition, volunteering his time and labor tirelessly to serving the poor and the suffering until, at last, he too succumbs. In contrast, the untrustworthy but relatively harmless and mousey priest Don Abbondio is scourged by the Plague’s miseries but allowed to linger in this world, perhaps a little wiser and clearly more harmless than ever.

Epidemics and natural catastrophes were assumed by the unlettered adherents of many faiths to be the wrath of God, right up until out own time. (Such a view of the Irish Potato Famine circulated widely among the afflicted poor; and the AIDS scare of the latter twentieth century was not without advocates of this position.) If the buon cattolico Manzoni had in fact fully intended to show in the historical plague of the early seventeenth century a “correction” sent into human affairs from the high heavens, therefore, we should scarcely be surprised. As a literary critic, my objection to the narrative is simply that it strains credibility to the breaking point. During the Middle Ages, approximately ninety percent of Europe’s population was eradicated by the bubonic plague in affected areas when it made an initial landfall. To suppose that the majority of fatal cases among the infected in this and later pre-antibiotic ages almost perfectly reflected the percentage of scoundrels on earth may be more than a bit misanthropic; but to suppose further that the fatalities precisely intersected the “bad apples” would likely infuriate anyone who has ever lost a loved one to a random disease.

I fault Manzoni’s novel, therefore, on the strictly moral ground of misrepresenting material tragedy as a comprehensible expression of divine wrath. I Promessi Sposi is a beautifully wrought novel—but its moral premises are preposterous. In my opinion, we do not find in this book a recognizable portrait of reality.

Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

Lest I seem to my traditionalist Catholic friends to be joining the Mob in eviscerating the Church (for Catholicism is a very low-hanging fruit these days for academic bully-squads), I will immediately add that atheist Ayn Rand’s celebrated libertarian novels deserve just the same criticism. Rand, to be sure, is not a figure of great literary stature; but she continues to enjoy an immense following, and her novels are widely read and translated to this day. Her talents should not be underestimated, for that matter. A brilliant mind brilliantly educated, she could hold her own as a designer of dramatic scenes and a visionary of futuristic, radically altered societies.

Her final novel, Atlas Shrugged, was the culminating fusion of these talents. I shall not attempt to review the complex plot, but will content myself with stressing that neither Dagny Taggart nor Hank Rearden nor the elusive John Galt nor any of Rand’s other rugged-individualist heroes strikes me as being terribly individual. To the extent that Rand protagonists succeed in approaching Olympian stature (and this is true of all her creations, though the final novel exhibits the most polish), they have unburdened themselves of any debilitating attachment to their fellow beings and surrendered to a “virtuous selfishness”. Perhaps a better way of phrasing the same point is to credit them—the most heroic, that is—with a beneficial effect upon their fellows paradoxically accessed through advancing personal interests. Those who would help others in some magnanimous and sacrificial way are but frauds who cripple others (and themselves) in the furtherance of an anemic and general spinelessness. Those who would put their own preference and profit first, in contrast, are most likely to serve others usefully and to inspire a healthy competitiveness that keeps the species vibrant.

I find these formulations not only unconvincing, but hopelessly contradictory. If the “socially conscientious” are a liability because they end up degrading individuals and fatally disabling the social unit’s functions, then their great flaw is that they actually harm others… but are we not to ignore the harm we do to others, according to Randist doctrine? If so, then on what basis have the anemic and the feckless failed? Perhaps they enjoy lives of drooping etiolation, in some “virtuously selfish” manner. And if the virile and the competitive are the salvation of the community because they force others to stand up and be strong, then selfishness can no longer be their great virtue, because they have saved the community; or if the communal benefits of their self-seeking behavior are simply incidental, then we should also admire that behavior at moments when it does not benefit the community but, instead, disrupts or destroys it. Rand seems to insist that no such moments exist. Then the great virtue of independence is that it promotes independence in others, and not that it is a good in itself.

The philosophy of life which I draw from Rand’s dystopian fables, in short, strikes me as invincibly circular. A kind of “bait and switch” confidence game is ongoing which is forever celebrating one hand because of what it does for the other hand.

Dagny’s romance with Hank and, earlier, with Francisco d’Anconia is awash in this kind of spiritual leakage. Love is never satisfying over the long term because it demands sacrifice, and sacrifice is always a betrayal of one’s true powers and (in some sense) one’s destiny. Yet a dedicated expression of one’s will to power seems to draw kindred spirits to oneself in a strange mimicry of love, as if admiration of a person’s resistance to the emotion’s weakening effects were a natural, normal, and adequate cause of the emotion. Dagny is never fulfilled as a happy human being, but she appears always to be on the verge of happiness (or at least drawing closer to one of its borders) as long as she keeps trekking across her bleak, dystopic socialist surroundings toward that looming utopian horizon of unbridled self-interest.

A deconstructionist critic would have a field day with Atlas Shrugged. I long ago concluded, though, that deconstruction runs on flawed novels with moral contradiction at their core. Hence I do not join such critics in supposing that Rand (or any other author) elucidates the inescapable futility of life; I contend merely that Rand is a flawed novelist. There is a heavy artistic price to pay for importing one’s ideology into the fictive universe so heedlessly that the result is gross distortion rather than clever compression. Atlas doesn’t compress life’s essential truths: it hacks away at those truths until the mutilated remnant fits the author’s paradigm.

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

This novel continues to appear in every World Literature anthology, and my chipping away at its fame is sure to have about the same effect as a single grain of sand colliding with Mount Rushmore. Yet I would argue that the work’s assured position in the pantheon is a sign of its essential artistic flaw. To be plain, Flaubert’s backhanded assassination of the petty bourgeoisie is such a delight to sniping academic professors of literature that an immeasurably loathsome victim is considered to have excused a mildly loathsome crime.

My erstwhile mentor, Jean-Pierre Cauvin, was thoroughly puzzled by my distaste for Flaubert and begged me to read him more broadly. Obviously, I had failed to communicate the nature of my protest; for Flaubert, perhaps even more than any other author mentioned in this humble piece (except for Vergil), was a master of style. I would never call into question his genius for evoking just the right mood for a scene with deft word choice and proper cadencing of his prose. It is this, I believe, that earlier generations of French scholars have always admired in him, and their admiration was well placed.

But the purpose of my present essay is to analyze narrative art, in particular: not the scene, but the sequence in which the scene figures. Let us concede that Emma Bovary is a would-be or self-styled romantic whose sentiments are in fact tiresomely trite and whose puny life has nothing like the cosmic importance she wants to bestow upon it. Let us concede, further, that in being so, she would have represented a certain type of person—and let us even concede that the type was quite common in the mid-nineteenth century. The abundance of playwrights and novelists who were drawn to denounce it (from Ibsen to Tolstoy to Maupassant to Galsworthy) certainly suggests as much.

What I hold against Flaubert, then, is not that he should have offered Emma caustically as a portrait in smug hypocrisy and pretentious small-mindedness—the portrait, indeed, of his class and era. I begrudge him, rather, his own hypocritical guise as an objective, dispassionate recorder of events: a cameraman making a quasi-scientific study more than a caricaturist deliberately exaggerating prominent features. And the style so beloved of my esteemed professor is, to be honest, part of the problem here. That Flaubertian facility for highlighting just the right objects and viewing them from just the right angle implies a testimony all its own—and it can be a highly prejudicial testimony. Nineteenth-century readers were not remotely as aware as are we that cameras lie when carefully positioned. Flaubert’s third-person omniscience only seems objective; the truth is that it tends to show gross partiality, catching snatches first of one character’s thoughts, then of another’s—and always at the least flattering moments. Emma’s vanity, especially, leaches into descriptions which might just as well have flowed from the novelist’s impartial pen if he wished truly to create the setting for a dramatic scene… but it appears more important to surprise her tawdry judgment at an awkward instant. So for the lesser characters: Mme. Bovary’s lover Rodolphe will log a sordidly self-interested rumination for a paragraph, then the ambitions pharmacist Homais will carry the narrative another few steps as we eavesdrop on his coarse calculations.

Our “omniscient” third person very nearly seems to know nothing other than the vulgarity and stupidity which his all-reaching hand borrows now from this mind, now from that one, in a macabre relay race. Yet he knows more, if only because he feigns to know only so much: he knows that this is all there is among the puny people whom he ponders like insects in a glass jar. How does he know this, I wonder? What privileged perspective allows him to hold up the jar and shake it? Why is he not in the jar himself, if he is a human being, as well? Or if not… then is he a god? He certainly appears to be so in his own eyes.

A wanton god-child inhabiting an off-stage Olympus, the author hasn’t an ounce of pity for the puny mortals at his fingertips. I think particularly of the gratuitous, wholly anticlimactic annihilating of Emma’s daughter Berthe months after the mother’s suicide. The little girl, we are told, ends up slaving in a sweatshop thanks to Emma’s having spent the family into bankruptcy. Is this last bit of expectoration on the middle class entirely necessary? Necessary for what? Can it be anything more than sheer, repellent vengefulness on Flaubert’s part?

I would prefer to see an accomplished author convict such a protagonist of her sins head-on, using words from her own mouth, deeds of her own doing, and situations of her own making. Of these there are plenty in Emma’s case, to be sure… yet also too few. Flaubert’s constant veiled or hooded intrusions in other limited, debased intelligences do not permit us to focus on Emma as the specific cause of her own ruin. It seems, rather, that the sweetest disposition or the most generous heart would be doomed to perish just as ignominiously in the vile nest of vipers which is industrial, bourgeois Europe (cf. the Flaubert short story, “Un Coeur Simple”). I do not see how all people can be as bestial at all times as the novelist makes out—and even less do I understand just where he locates himself in this species of primate whose self-destruction he so minutely chronicles.

I confess that I find Flaubertian narration morally abhorrent. If literary scholars were in need of yet another term to wash around in their jargonal ocean, I would propose to them “backstabbing omniscience” to represent literary set-up jobs like this one.

Might it not be quintessentially bourgeois, by the way, to prejudice an audience with a passive-aggressive faux objectivity? I think it very probable, in any case, that Emma would have written this same kind of novel about Flaubert if the tables had been turned.

  1. Concluding Remarks

Nothing I have volunteered above is intended to be purged of moral parti pris. On the contrary, my objective has been to show that our moral value system necessarily affects our judgment of any narrative’s aesthetic quality—its coherence and its drama. Differing assumptions about human nature will cause readers to make different assessments of a story’s power. Yet I would place a closing emphasis upon the very worthy critical ambition of rising above such personal assumptions. If we must ignore clues in the text in order to foist our preferred interpretation upon them, then our inattention can be documented and indicted, and we should be willing to acknowledge it as an error. I have sought to present three instances of such abusive readings. Likewise, if we may rightly draw from the text a philosophy that flatters our own, we should nevertheless not dismiss the possibility that we may have lent the author a helping hand to clear certain artistic hurtles which he or she inadequately addressed in the text. Of this error, too, I have tried to supply examples.

Ultimately, the discipline of story-reading will lead to a discipline of moral reasoning if pursued with honesty and thoroughness. There is a wealth of information we can learn about our own beliefs, assumptions, and inclinations by studying how we respond to tales about other people in life-altering situations: the practice of literary criticism has indeed (as I suggested when beginning this piece) the potential to put a mirror before our soul. Some of what we see there may so surprise us that we resolve to make adjustments or corrections, and some of what we see may cause our convictions to root more deeply and sensibly. We ought to become better people as a result of such exercises.

I leave it to my audience to decide if self-improvement is currently a common outcome at most venues where literature is formally taught.

Dr. John Harris holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin, and teaches English in that system’s outlier at Tyler.  His new blog column may be found at