Patricia A. Ward

This document may be too large for your printer buffer to handle. We suggest downloading this document to a disk if printing difficulties are encountered or e-mailing the author for a hard copy by clicking on his/her name.

Special Note: This document is best viewed in Netscape 2.0.

A Lost Tradition

In the graduate seminar which I am teaching this semester, I recently introduced a "moral tale" by Jean-François Marmontel (1723-1799), an influential French writer in his time who is largely neglected today. Students may have been bemused by the story because Marmontel's aesthetic is so removed from contemporary taste. In the eighteenth century, his tales were extraordinarily popular both in France and in England. Published in the newspaper, Le Mercure, they were later released in collected form, starting in 1761. These moral or ethical stories represent a tradition that is quite alien to us, one that prized the role of reading in forming character. Nevertheless, the pedagogical concerns of writers like Marmontel still have something to say to us as higher education has begun to focus once again on values, ethics, and moral issues.

I want to use one of Marmontel's stories as a paradigm for this lost tradition. "La Bonne Mère" ("The Good Mother") is very simple in its plot. Emilie is an impressionable young woman of marriageable age who has two suitors. Verglan is a self-centered man whose charm and dissipation are novel attractions to Emilie. On the other hand, the wise and modest Belzors has a "just mind and an upright heart" at the "foundation of his character." While Verglan is without any ethical training and is totally relativistic in his response to the ambiguities of life, Belzors' "nature" has been trained from childhood so that he responds out of "habit" to such situations with "decency, honesty, and candor."

Emilie's mother is faced with a dilemma. It is clear that her daughter could conceivably marry Verglan because her heart has been seduced by his charm. What should the mother do? She could impose her authority and dictate that the choice should be Belzors, but she decides otherwise. "I prefer that the choice be the result of her natural inclination. But I can guide that inclination by enlightening it; that is the only legitimate use of the authority which been entrusted me."

The mother's method of educating Emilie is inductive. When the two suitors come to visit, Madame Troëne engages in conversation about the values, customs, and maxims of society. She fosters debate and, without taking a side herself, allows the character of the suitors and of her daughter freedom to develop. ("Elle animait la contradiction, et sans prendre aucun parti, donnait à leur caractère la liberté de se développer.") Madame Troëne also uses paradigmatic examples. When all society is talking about the fact that the Count of Auberive and his wife have agreed not to quarrel about their mutual lovers but to incorporate each other's lover into their home, this is discussed and the suitors reveal their contrasting views of marriage. When they attend the theater, a similar debate occurs. And when they play cards -- the rage of the time -- their response to adversity, to winning and losing, is also evident.

Emilie comes to self-awareness and realizes that she regrets what her reason is telling her. "I admire one and I love the other. What is this misalliance between the heart and the reason that causes one to continue to cherish what one has stopped esteeming?" Eventually, when her mother asks her preference so that it can be communicated to the two men, her daughter chooses Belzors because he is the man she respects the most. A reasoned moral choice prevails.

Thus the mother is morally good because she is a pedagogue at heart. She does not impose her will upon her daughter, but nourishes the circumstances which permit the development of Emilie's moral imagination. Envisioning the consequences of choices becomes a habit -- it becomes "natural." And Emilie is at last able to exercise her reason; sense wins over sensibility and she chooses the morally superior man.

Marmontel's theory of character formation and of moral education owes much to Fénelon, the great pedagogue of Louis XIV's grandson. However, he is part of a tradition which goes back through Plutarch to Aristotle and Plato. In the Poetics (VI), Aristotle views ethos or character in a particular way. Character is that which reveals an agent's moral habits or it is that which permits us to attribute certain qualities to an agent. In the influential discussion of character in the Ethics (IX), Aristotle develops more fully the relationship between agency, habit, and character. Although nature and circumstances affect individual character, we become what we do. Through choice, we act, develop habits, and create our character, with its virtues and its faults.

Aristotle's notion of character formation is eventually taken over by Plutarch who extends it to literature. Plutarch's works become essential to the promulgation of this ideal within education until the end of the eighteenth century. His moral essay, "How a Young Boy Must Listen to the Poets," more commonly translated "How to Study the Poets" or "How to Read the Poets," summarizes much of this tradition. Plutarch addresses the essay to the preceptor of young students; his goal is to form the ideal listener or reader. It is the "art of poetry" (poetike) which, under the tutelage of a mentor, provides preparatory teaching (propaideuein) which, like a friend or family member, accompanies or escorts the student eventually to philosophy (37 B). Paul Ricoeur has echoed this language recently when he comments that "literature is a vast laboratory in which we experiment with estimations, evaluations, and judgments of approval and condemnation through which narrativity serves as a propaedeutic to ethics" (Ricoeur 115).

In Plutarch's esthetic, poetry is an art, a speaking picture, and an imitation. It transports and provides pleasure through the variety and diversity of its detail. The young student has to realize that "poetry is the imitation of the character (ethos) and life (bios) of persons who are neither complete (teleios) or pure (katharos) but are made up of passions and of false and ignorant opinions." Yet, they are "capable, thanks to their fortunate natural disposition to transform themselves in order to become better" (26 A).

The reader cannot respond to poetic narratives with emotions of simple admiration, fear, or superstition alone. Rather, the student must become habituated to evaluation -- to proclaiming "This is not good" (orthos) and "This is not fitting" (prepon) (26B). Plutarch's reader thus seems to empathize with fictional personages but to supersede this level of reading to move to an analytic level in which important questions are asked and evaluations, made.

As Plutarch was translated in the Renaissance and his influence spread, literature came to be seen as superior to philosophy in the formation of character. This was a reversal of Plutarch's own hierarchy. In England, Sidney articulates this view, but he is preceded by Amyot, the French translator of Plutarch. "Examples," Amyot says, "are more apt to move and to teach then are the arguments and proofs of reason." Why? Examples are particular and contextualized, but arguments are general. The latter appeal to the understanding, but examples "tend to bring into operation and to execute. They not only show how one must act, but they imprint the desire to act" (Amyot 29).

The notion that literature is an effective medium for the formation of character and for education for right conduct, as represented by Plutarch and his interpreters, held sway until after the French Revolution, the rise of philosophical aesthetics, and the separation of the beautiful from the good and the true. Although ethical issues and moral demands have on occasion captured the attention of literary critics in the past two hundred years, it is intriguing that questions of ethics have recently re-entered the literary scene. I wish now to discuss two recent discussions of the ethics of reading and then propose an approach to the issue of character formation in the teaching of literature.


In Allegories of Reading, Paul de Man reformulated the ethical into a purely linguistic category which has nothing to do with the will of a subject or to relationships between subjects. "Morality is a version of the same language aporia that gave rise to such concepts as 'man' or 'love' or 'self,' and not the cause or the consequence of such concepts. The passage to an ethical tonality does not result from a transcendental imperative but is the referential (and therefore unreliable) version of a linguistic confusion" (de Man 206). In other words, the ethical themes of literature are nothing but allegories of the inherently unresolvable ambiguities of language.

Building on these assumptions, J. Hillis Miller takes a radically skeptical position about the teaching of literature and the "conduct of life" in his 1989 essay, "Is There An Ethics of Reading?" As a paradigm for his ideas, Hiller chooses a novel by Henry James, What Maisie Knew (1897). If Marmontel's piece was about reasonable choices and a model parent and child, James' work is about the ambiguity of choosing as the precocious child, Maisie, becomes aware of the infidelities of her divorced parents. Finally, she is asked by Sir Claude, the former fiancé of her mother Ida, to join him and Miss Overmore, her former governess who has been become Mrs. Beale. (Maisie has been under the influence of another governess, Mrs. Wix.) Maisie tells Sir Claude that she will give up Mrs. Wix and live with him if he will give up Mrs. Beale.

Miller points out that Maisie is one of a series of Jamesian protagonists who decide to give up something but that, in this case, Maisie's decision to give up Sir Claude will always stand as a judgment upon his adulterous liaison because it is she who first brought Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale together. The novel illustrates "the irreducible ambiguity, as James sees it, of any moral act" (Miller 90).

Miller then extends the thematization of renunciation to the reading and teaching of narratives. Narratives are indeed "indispensable to thinking about ethics" (86), but it is not due to their thematization of the conduct of life. Rather, they highlight the "linguistic necessity" of all literature. Miller denies a referential continuity to the text, for it is a series of problematic signs in a discontinuous relationship along a temporal life. Reading becomes a series of acts which are really allegories of reading -- analogies for the undecidability which is at the heart of a narrative.

The ethics of reading becomes an act of renunciation for Miller; he will give up any attempt to reach a conclusion about the meaning of Maisie's decision at the end of the novel, for it is ultimately "unreadable." He concludes:

[...] I have argued that the proper ethical decision that a teacher of literature should make, a decision analogous to Maisie's giving up, is to teach the irrelevance of the thematic assertions of even the most apparently morally concerned literature for the making of moral decision, since the moral decision and judgments within the work are only an allegory of the way language works. That way may be defined as a perpetual obscuring of grammatical and logical clarity by the rhetorical or figurative dimension of language. I have made an ethical judgment and passed on an ethical command: do not make the thematic dramatizations within a work of literature the basis of ethical judgments and actions in the real world (Miller 99).

Miller's essay epitomizes a form of rhetorical criticism which redefines the ethics of reading in ways that undermine the old Plutarchan tradition with its seeming innocence about the nature of language. On the other hand, Wayne Booth's The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988) reinstates the referential world of the novel. In doing so, Booth attempts to recapture the tradition of character formation and to reformulate it. His reader is really a plurality of selves, but with moral agency. In identifying with the personages of any fictional world, the reader builds "a richer character out of adopted roles, roles critically chosen from those stories our society offers us" (Booth 251).

Character thus is formed through reading, and the reason that such growth can occur is due to the relationship between the reader and the text. For Booth, reading constitutes a friendship with an implied author, a presence behind the text, and this relationship is governed by mutual respect and empathy. The fictional world is a metaphoric commonwealth entered by the reader who is enriched by this world just as she is changed by the roles she adopts as she reads.

Reading, Teaching, and the Moral Imagination

Miller and Booth represent two competing paradigms. Miller is a deconstructionist adjusting to the rise of new extra-textual historical and cultural critical methodologies. Booth is a rhetorical critic of another stripe, restating humanist values and a faith in the referential value of fiction. Given such radically different approaches to the ethical dimension of reading, both derived from divergent views of the text and of language, we may feel that it is impossible to resolve this impasse in today's university classroom.

I would suggest that the theme of character or ethos and of its formation is still rich in implications for the contemporary classroom. Character emerges through time as a self exercises its agency and habitually chooses or makes decisions. Because the values of right conduct, taken for granted in the story by Marmontel with which I began, are not necessarily reached by concensus in a pluralistic society, I am not suggesting that the literature classroom can become the site of prescriptive teaching. Rather, there is a more tentative or preliminary kind of habituation which can be accomplished in the classroom.

This is the fostering of the moral or ethical imagination of students. By this I mean the capacity to recognize the ethical dimensions of a literary text as it is read--to find ethical moments, to envision the moral implications or consequences within that text, to make evaluations of these fictional issues. In discussing the ethic of Iris Murdoch, Stanley Hauerwas begins to sketch an "aethetic ethic" based on "the significance of vision," or what I am calling the moral imagination. "The moral life," he says, "is more than thinking clearly and making rational choices. It is a way of seeing the world" (Hauerwas 36). Ethically responsible behavior emerges from an attentive way of looking at the world -- of seeing it stripped free of illusion. The implication of such a position is that the moral imagination which begins to truly "see" in an aesthetic or literary context will, over time, become habituated to transfer that imaginative capacity to the existential reality of everyday life in society.

Discussions of the nature of reading or the ethics of reading often fail to distinguish between reading as a private act of the individual and as a communal act. (Stanley Fish's view of communities of readers and the establishment of the meaning of a text is really a theory of interpretation.) The individual reader builds the imaginative construct which constitutes a particular fictional context, bringing his or her values into contact with those of the implied author and of the fictional context or world. Wolfgang Iser has aptly noted that the reader is always anticipating and weighing possibilities during the act of reading. The reader not only interacts with fictional characters but is constantly comparing, contrasting, and making judgments. (An exception would be the reading of escape literature in which complex judgment is suspended.) Thus, any act of private reading should involve respect, attention, and care as the reader is engaged in an increasingly complex process in which time appears to be suspended as she inhabits a fictional world which is partially of her own making.

Communal reading, such as that which takes place in a classroom, is a form of re-reading which is anchored in "real" time and space. It may involve the sharing of interpretations which have emerged from private readings. It is also an act of discovery requiring the full attention of all the readers. Communal reading leads not only to multiple interpretations of the text, but also to the articulation of its significance, its regulative function within the community of readers and within the value-structure of the individual reader.

It is in the posing of questions and in the astute establishment of dialogue that the teacher of literature sets the stage for the formation of the moral or ethical imagination of the readers in her community, that is her class. Such an approach is crucial in establishing the significance of the text. And, over time, if the questions and the dialogue are directed toward the ethical dilemmas, the implications of values, and the habitual actions in fictional texts, the individual reader will be changed. He or she will begin to ask similar questions, to interact with the text, -- to develop "vision" or "imagination" to see things from an ethical perspective.

Elsewhere I have used the pedagogical example of the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate how one might foster the development of the ethical imagination of students (Ward 187-188). It is worth returning to purely as a literary example. The narrative (Luke 10) is framed by a dialogue, a series of questions and answers, as would befit a rabbi. When the expert of the law stands up and asks a question, Jesus responds with questions and then a story, that of the Samaritan, to illustrate the nature of the law. After telling the story, Jesus then asks the expert, "Which of these three was a good neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"; the expert replies, "The one who had mercy on him." The moral imagination has come into being.

Works Cited

Amyot, Jacques, Tr. Les Vies des hommes illustres de Plutarque. Ed. Emile Faguet. Vol. 1. Paris: Nelson, n.d.

Booth, Wayne. The Company We Keep. An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

de Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading. Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979.

Hauerwas, Stanley. Vision and Virtue. Essays in Christian Ethical Reflection. Notre Dame: Fides, 1974.

Marmontel. "La Bonne Mère" pp. 306-333 in Oeuvres complètes, New ed. Vol. 3. Paris: Verdière, 1818.

Miller, J. Hillis. "Is There an Ethics of Reading?" pp. 79- 101 in Reading Narrative. Form, Ethics, Ideology. Ed. James Phelan. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989.

Plutarch. Oeuvres morales. Vol. 1, part 1. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1987.

Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another. Tr. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Ward, Patricia A. "`An Affair of the Heart': Ethics, Criticism, and the Teaching of Literature." Christianity and Literature, 39 (Winter 1990), 181-191.

Copyright Patricia A. Ward

FAX: (615) 343-6909

Talk to the Conference Participants

Questions and comments may be directed to the Conference Convenor, Alvin G. Burstein or individual authors by clicking on his/her name.


This page has been accessed times.

Last updated: June 4, 1996