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If the stories we take in in our quotidian lives influence our ethos, or the kinds of people that we turn out to be, if we use them as founts of wisdom, as tools to guide our lives and make sense of the situations we encounter, then a discussion of narrative ethics, of narrative as an appropriate form of moral discourse, is a pertinent and worthwhile endeavor. To examine how fictions exert this influence, assess its effects, and therefore privilege the ethical aspects of these fictions are the tasks of ethical criticism.
The relationship between ethics and literature grew close in the late nineteen forties, when the influential literary critic F.R. Leavis called attention to the "great tradition" of English literature and advanced an ethical theory aimed at filtering literature's immutable moral truths.  Nevertheless, his theory gradually became obsolete during the nineteen fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties, decades that witnessed the increase in popularity of structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, and postmodernism, movements which, as Bárbara Arizti and Silvia Martínez-Falquina explain in their generous introduction to The Ethics of Fiction in Contemporary Narrative in English, were at odds with the "universalizing tendency of Leavis's moral criticism" (x). The dissatisfaction with and scepticism caused by the overly confident assertion of the moral values articulated by a work of art, on the one hand, and the cultural relativism ascribed to postmodern theories, on the other, established the absence of firm moral attitudes in the literary texts of the aforementioned decades, or, when values were not entirely lacking, the difficulty of discriminating between them. This state of affairs inevitably and seriously diminished the importance of the questions posed by narrative ethics.
In addition to affording readers the critical machinery for exploring the nature of concepts such as community, stylistics, and the goodness in narratives, ethical criticism provides us with a useful rhetoric for examining the function of storytelling in literary works. The act of narration can itself offer significant insight into the ethical properties of a given text. Ethical criticism presupposes through their depictions of so many morally disparate heroes, works of art necessarily implore us to render value judgments based upon our experiences as readers and members of the larger human community. Yet, the act of storytelling-the manner in which writers deliberately construct their narratives so as to register a moral impact upon their readers-remains largely unexamined. One of ethical criticism's main functions is to provide reader with the interpretive tools for recognising the ways in which writers create meaning through storytelling.
In spite of this climate that was unfavourable to ethical literary discussion, the animated philosophical debates on moral questions that proliferated especially in continental Europe  and their sense of urgency about such questions have provoked an increasing resurgent interest in the ethical in the literary theory of the last two decades. Contemporary fiction registers a return to the essentials-ethical values and a revival of the narrative, of more or less realistic storytelling, and narrative ethics has been reinstated as a serious and explicit topic of scholarly enquiry, new arguments having been formulated in its support. The ethical turn taken by critical discourse was announced by several collections of essays on the subject of ethics and literature, published in the first decade of the 21st century, which included the phrases "turn to ethics" and "ethical turn" in their very titles,  and which looked for an alternative approach to morality, bringing up the far-reaching question of whether our social and intellectual worlds can present any viable and consistent accounts of ethics or whether these worlds are too fragmented to offer an explicit common view about the moral life.
The revitalised interest in the potential of narrative to deliver vivid insights into ethics has also emerged as a response to the excesses of poststructuralism and postmodernism, to what Christina Kotte calls "the infinite deferral of solid foundations, including moral categories, principles, and codes" (qtd. Arizti and Martínez-Falquina x). The new narrative ethics differs from Leavis's traditional theory, usually associated with the old liberal-humanist tradition, in that it has assimilated the poststructuralist notion that meanings are fluid and unstable. It is an ethics which has distanced itself from its conventional prescriptive dimension, and though it acknowledges the power that fiction has to affect readers, it has moved towards a more open stance, informed and reshaped by the insights of poststructuralist thinking and bearing the mark of postmodern relativism. It may be thus seen as both reaction to and assimilation of the tenets of the major theories of the second half of the twentieth century.
A key text that heralded the ethical turn was Joseph Hillis Miller's deconstructionist Ethics of Reading, published in 1987, where the author attempts to express concisely the ethical nature of the act of reading. He states that he is interested "not in ethics as such but in the ethics of reading," and identifies a potential "ethical moment" in the act of reading. This moment is "neither cognitive, nor political, nor social, nor interpersonal, but properly and independently ethical" (1), and is defined by Miller as "a response to something, responsible for it, responsive to it, respectful of it" (4). Nevertheless, although he develops and refines a theory of the ethics of reading that has had an enduring influence on future studies on ethical criticism, Miller fails to explain what exactly is that "something" which commands our respect and responsibility.
Only one year later, Wayne Booth, a staunch advocate of the new ethical criticism, insists in one of his latter works, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, that ethics should regain its place at the centre of literary concerns. He provides us with a useful foundation for considering the ethical implication of storytelling. Booth's chief question is "[W]hat kind of company are we keeping as we read or listen? What kind of company have we kept?" (10). His hypothesis is that the company we keep as we read or listen to fiction may be judged for its underlying power over our hearts and minds in the same way that we judge the underlying power of real friends and acquaintances over our hearts and minds. All our friends have a potential influence on our "virtues," Booth claims. He uses "friends" as a metaphor for the capacity of fiction to feed our need for the intimate companionship of others, and "virtues" in its more traditional sense, to refer not just to our commendable traits, but to something broader, to "the whole range of human 'powers,' 'strengths,' 'capacities,' or 'habits of behaviour.'" (10). This key juxtaposition of the terms "friend," "ethical," and "virtue," allowed Booth to frame the following definition of ethical criticism:
If "virtue" covers every kind of genuine strength or power, and if a person's ethos is the total range of his or her virtues, then ethical criticism will be any effort to show how the virtues of narratives relate to the virtues of selves and societies, or how the ethos of any story affects or is affected by the ethosâˆ’the collection of virtuesâˆ’of any given reader. (11)
The critic describes the adjective "ethical" as covering "all qualities in the character, or ethos, of authors and readers, whether these are judged as good or bad," and "ethical criticism" as an attempt "to describe the encounters of a story-teller's ethos with that of the reader or listener" (8). According to Booth, the ideal reader is one who is permanently open to an exchange of ideas and a reconsideration of values through fiction, which offers a fruitful ground for readerly reflection by soliciting our imaginative understanding of others, a view which prefigured an ethics of alterity.
Ethical critics have often been accused of being dogmatic moralists, mere censors who tell readers what to read, and who reduce literary texts to apologues as a result of their belief that the task of literature is to teach moral lessons. What the new ethical critics have in common is that they do not attempt to suggest that literature is an ennobling force that should be taken for granted. They do not conceive of "morality" as the normative provision of models of conduct, associated with coercion and censoriousness. Instead, they regard literature as capable of treating moral concerns in a variety of ways, and ascribe to morality a non-deontic sense, seeing it as a literary endeavour to uncover the unfamiliar and the unknown, to address and raise awareness about the marginal subject, and to enable access to a restricted universe. The "return" to ethics does not imply going back to a pre-theoretical union between the literary and the virtuous. Nor does the revisited approach to ethics reside in casting off typically moral concerns, as major ethical issues are still highly relevant. Rather, it implies a recalibration of the old ways of probing and dealing with moral problems.
Moreover, the novel perspective on ethics does not lay bare the relativism of morality, nor does it claim that ethical truths depend entirely on the individuals that hold them. Paradoxically, the kind of understanding that new narrative ethics facilitates affords a vantage point, but is hardly likely to make moral life easier, as it foregrounds ethical choice and ambiguity, reflected in narratives in which characters grapple with moral dilemmas and are subjected to the readers' ultimate judgement.
Ethical criticism as practiced by Wayne C. Booth, Richard Rorty, Martha Nussbaum, Charles Taylor and others undertakes to leave the ivory tower of an abstract aesthetic criticism out of touch with everyday experience; it goes in search of a pragmatic ethos that offers us some conceptual toeholds, but nevertheless acknowledges the plurality of post-modern life-choices and avoids falling into the trap of metaphysical illusions.
Commenting on the inescapable ethical effects of reading narratives, Prof. Marshall Gregory remarks in his preface to his book Shaped by Stories:
Truly, as our bodies are surrounded by air so are our lives saturated by stories. Both air and stories are so profoundly ubiquitous that we spend hardly any time thinking about how impossible or different our lives would be with them, but once we do start such a train of thought, an inquiry into how stories potentially influence ethos can no longer be viewed as a matter of narrow academic interest. It must be viewed as a matter of broad human interest. (xiv)
Stories give us information about other people's lives as we have practically no firsthand knowledge of most people's interior lives. Stories, whether fictional or not, are a common way of acquiring such knowledge. According to C.S. Lewis's troublesome student in the movie Shadowlands, "We read to know that we are not alone." The motive behind our constant demand for story lies in the involuntary and heartfelt shudder of repugnance we feel at the prospect of living a singular, isolated life. As Anna Quindlen says, "all of reading is only finding ways to name ourselves, and perhaps, to name the others around us so that they will no longer seem like strangers" (21). The value of narrative lies in its ability to organise the date of chaotic experience, to refer beyond the data itself to larger meanings in the universe, and to connect that data to ourselves. As Bill Buford says in a New York editorial, stories "protect us from chaos, and maybe that's what we, unblinkered at the end of the twentieth century, find ourselves craving...Stories are a fundamental unit of knowledge, the foundation of memory, essential to the way we make sense of our lives: the beginning, middle, and end of our personal and collective trajectories" (12). People have "returned to narratives-in many fields of knowledge," he writes, "because it is impossible to live without them" (12). I do not take this to mean that all of stories' insights are true, but I know that stories' insights, whether true or not, comprise important stuff that constitute the means by which we negotiate our way toward the truth. In the end, human beings rely on narrative's capacity to pattern the chaotic stuff of raw experience into intelligible and meaningful shapes.
The fact that stories cue our capacity for feeling, believing, and judging inevitably raises questions about their potential influence on character, for what is character other than the particular configuration of our own ways of feeling, believing, and judging? Ultimately, the choices that anyone makes over a lifetime configure his or her ethical identity, an identity that we call, in the deepest sense, "character" or "ethos."
All of us deal with ethical considerations persistently, they lie at the centre of all human interaction, thus few of our thought about others are ethically neutral. They are deeply coloured by speculations about the impression we are making, about the approval or help we seek, about the disapproval we wish to avoid, and about the impression on us that other people make. In the words of moral philosopher Robert Louden,
Moral considerations have ultimate importance not (as many philosophers have argued) because they form a tightly packaged set of interests that can be shown to logically "override" all other competing sets of interests but rather because they concern values to which the pursuit of any and all interests, including scientific and technical ones, must answer. Morality is not just one narrow point of view competing against others...[Its] ultimate importance is [a function of its ] pervasiveness. Moral considerations literally appear able to pervade or permeate...more areas and aspects of human life and action (and once they gain entry, to have, somehow, the final word) than do any other kinds of considerations...All aspects of human life over which we exercise at least some degree of voluntary control have indirect moral relevance... Morality's fundamental importance stems not from its "standing above" everything else but rather from the fact that it literally surrounds everything else, lies underneath everything else, and is continually embedded in everything else. (20, 59, 80)
Fictional storytelling is especially suited to portray the chorus of voices involved in the narrative creation of the modern self. "Literariness" or "novelness" (romannost) in Bakhtin's terms, is characterised by "a dialogical exchange taking place on several different levels at the same time" (Holquist Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World), including "the dialogue between an author, his characters, and his audience as well as...the dialogue of readers with the characters and their author" (69). The act of reading, to borrow Wolfgang Iser's terminology, always includes a multitude of horizons or languages of heteroglossia, each of them, as Bakhtin puts it, "carry[ing] with them their own expression, their own evaluative tone, which we assimilate, re-work, and re-accentuate" IMG_5113bis. By comparing our past with our present experience as we read, we enter into what Wayne C. Booth calls a process of "coduction," i.e. a conversation with the many voices of the other potentially included in the text, modifying our previous knowledge in the encounter (Booth Company 71ff). In his defence of ethical criticism, Booth argues that literature introduces the reader to a multitude of conceptual horizons seldom encountered in similar density in "real" life. Each fictional narrative "provides an alternative story set in a created 'world' that is itself a fresh alternative to the 'world' or 'worlds' previously serving as boundaries of the reader's imagination" (Booth Company 17). In contrast to what we call reality, however, our encounter with the other of literary texts, does not entail any direct practical choice for the self in the "real" world of social interaction. Instead, literature furnishes us with a fertile testing ground for (moral) ideas. It supplies us with a great number of possible versions of the good life offered to us in the form of "relatively cost-free...trial runs" (Booth Company 485). Each work of literature invites us to take part in a "conversational gambit" (Antor "Ethical Plurivocity" cf. Booth Company 207). It tempts us to let our selves be "occupied by a foreign imaginary world" (Booth Company 139), induces us to compare our habitual horizons and frameworks of belief with the new horizons on offer and to play them off against one another. In other words literary narrative entices us to distance ourselves from ossified beliefs and rigid patterns of thought, it tempts us to search for fresh capacities, for possible new ways of conferring meaning and substance on the story of our lives.
Still, as Booth reminds us, we do well to carefully appraise the literary company we keep, refraining from making all offered horizons our own and letting our selves completely and uncritically dissolve in alterity. Bruner (Making Stories 94) conspicuously points out that "[t]he art of the possible is a perilous art. It must take heed of life as we know it, yet alienate us sufficiently to tempt us into thinking of alternatives beyond it. It challenges as it comforts." If the individual self is ever to be "at one" with its respective life choices, "at-one-ment" will be achieved via a pragmatic, critical "pluralism with limits" (Booth Company 489) characterised by the taking on as well as discarding of offered ideas. It is to this peculiarly post modern challenge which we will turn to in our discussion of Ian McEwan's novels.
While philosophy is traditionally characterised by a mentality that deals in moral theses and values orderly lines of argumentation leading to conclusions that transcend the particular, literature is concerned with the circumstantial or singular aspects of moral living. It puts forward hypotheses and reaches only "provisional conclusion[s] in which nothing is concluded, implying the continuation of moral reassessment, surprise, doubt, mental, travelling, musing" (Adamson Against Tidiness 104). Thus, literature compellingly portrays the complexity and ambiguity of a world where we must take a stand, where we must choose between conflicting values, yet where no single perspective can claim universal validity. As Vernon C. Gras points out with reference to our postmodern condition, "the struggle that accompanies choice is far more effectively shown in literary narrative than in philosophy" (Antor Ethics 70).
The aim of this chapter is an inquiry into the possible ethical significance of humankind's compelling preoccupation with stories as evinced in Ian McEwan's novels. A number of review headlines of McEwan's novels reveal, beside the review's diverse readings, an acknowledgement with the writer's obvious and lasting concern with ethical problems which individual characters face in a social environment shaped by history. A few examples proves this: about Atonement: "Unforgiven," "Tea in the Garden of Good and Evil," "And when she was bad she was..."; about Saturday: "The Enemy on Your Doorstep," "Have Mercy: The Subtle Study of Moral Sympathies," "The Age of Anxiety," "One Saturday after 9/11," and about On Chesil Beach: "No Sex, please, We're British!", "Love in England before the 60s Started to Swing," "A Stark Reminder of Less Liberated Times." While these titles stress principles of right and wrong in Atonement and Saturday, they also hint at the significance of social and cultural history, especially in On Chesil Beach. McEwan's own interpretation of his works will leave many readers surprised, since the expression of its ethical purpose echoes not only the humanistic tradition, but also the words of the Bible in an atheist's confession: "For me the moral core of the novel is inhabiting other minds. That seems to be what novels do very well and also what morality is about: understanding that people are as real to themselves as you are to yourself, doing unto others as you would have done to yourself" ("The ghost in my family." Interview of Ian McEwan with Bryan Appleyard in The Sunday Times 25 March 2007).
Reflecting on the function of the novel, Milan Kundera paraphrases the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch and writes in his brief but salient study on the European novel, The Art of the Novel, that "[t]he sole raison d'être of the novel is to discover what only the novel can discover: a novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral. Knowledge is the novel's only morality" (5-6). The link between morality and the literary representation of consciousness is a distinctive feature of the postmodern novel, which rejects the idea that there are certain aspects of existence which cannot and should not make the object of the novelist's investigation. If postmodern narratives consent to the use of any form of narrative strategies, their thematic content should be unrestricted as well.
Kundera's pronouncement could very well explain McEwan's penchant for "the twilight zone," as regards his choice of shocking, unusual, and taboo themes. Pluralism, fragmentation, and the defamiliarisation of conventional themes and modes of writing in his novels is not marked by ethical indifference, but, on the contrary, opens up new ethical facets, in particular an ethics of empathy. In his fiction, ethics is responsible for giving a voice to the disadvantaged, marginalized, alienated, and vulnerable other, for marking the unmarked, and for capturing "newness," and for particularizing the universal. What the novelist seems to suggest is that the only way in which we can meaningfully explore general questions about the nature of art and aesthetics is through close attention to the particularity and concreteness of specific cases. It is mini-narratives that the novelist favours, stories that emphasize the lived experience and explain small practices, local events, rather than grand narratives  and all-encompassing concepts.
Moreover, the novelist steers clear of writing prose works that are intended at persuading people of a certain point of view, of confining his work to the province of ideology, as he is wary of the danger of assuming "moral positions that might pre-empt or exclude that rather mysterious and unreflective element that is so important in fiction," as he stated in an interview with John Haffenden (31). He does not rule out the possibility of engaging in free investigation. He seems to write not with the aim of illustrating or making a point but with that of exploring and questioning his concerns, which go beyond the inner and private spheres to open up into the wider circles of society and politics.
One of McEwan's primary concerns as a novelist is to trace the moral dilemmas that result from contingency, from randomness. The author himself reveals his fascination with the transfiguring event: "The random element in life is a gift to a novelist to make a pattern of it, to make some sense of it, to contest its meaning or even ask whether there's any meaning to it at all" (qtd. Shoeck). The ballooning accident in Enduring Love, the encounter with a stranger on a street in Venice in The Comfort of Strangers, the abduction of a child in a supermarket in The Child in Time, the appearance of threatening dogs on a mountain road in Black Dogs, the death that destroys an old friendship in Amsterdam, the rape followed by a false accusation and wrongful imprisonment in Atonement, and the encounter with ruffians after a minor car accident in Saturday are all life-changing occurrences that infringe upon his characters' daily routines, taking them aback and throwing their lives out of balance, and their rendering suggests an impulse to dramatize chaos and the arbitrary nature of experience. Contingency enters the protagonists' lives in the form of single, disturbing events that turn out to have unpredictable, far-reaching consequences in their lives, threatening the integrity of selfhood, frustrating their "desire to belong" (CT 60), shaking their confidence in accustomed beliefs, and endangering the stability of intimate relationships. However fragile and endangered consistent selfhood has become in a universe of contingent forces, despite the absence of metaphysical foundations, despite the precarious nature of all attachments and frameworks of belief, McEwan's characters do not abandon the quest for the good life, for meaning, for purpose, but remain inside an ongoing discourse of values. In his novels of ideas (CT, BD, EL) different versions of the world are juxtaposed, and battles are fought out over incommensurable explanatory patterns. In CT, Stephen's artistic imagination is confronted with "a whole supermarket of theories" (115) about chaos and relativity, in BD, mysticism and scepticism are set off against each other, and EL takes up the two cultures debate between science and literature, opposing at the same time the epistemologies of science and religion. Atonement constitutes a departure from the novel of ideas into the terrain of character and emotion. As McEwan stated in an interview conducted in 2002:
I think I've come to an end of a cycle of novels with EL, which began with CT, included BD and I. Those were novels in which ideas were played out. They are, among other things, novels of ideas. Both Am and At are moving off in another direction. I suppose that emotions...will mean more to me...I think that I might push forward in my own little projects to make my novels more character led...When I got to the end of At I felt that Briony was the most complete person I'd ever conjured, and I'd like to do that again and take it further. (Reynold and Noakes 23)
McEwan's move from a reflective, philosophical engagement with conflicting ideas in his novels of the 1980s and mid-1990 to focus on character and emotions in his latest works, coincides with a subtle shift of emphasis that can be currently observed in ethical criticism. While literary critics of the late 1980s and early 1990s decried the exile of evaluation in their domain and tried to achieve an open acknowledgement of the necessity of value commitments, "the terms 'value,' 'ethics,' and 'aesthetics' have become the privileged centrepieces of all theoretical vocabularies" IMG_5120bis. With evaluative reading well-established within the literary academy, ethical criticism now sets out to broaden its thematic horizon by incorporating new aspects into existing theories. In Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2001), for example, Martha Nussbaum takes the ethics debate into a new direction by positing that there can be no adequate ethical criticism without an adequate theory of the emotions. According to Nussbaum, emotions such as fear, love, grief, guilt, or loss are "forms of evaluative judgement that ascribe to certain things and persons outside a person's own control great importance for the person's own flourishing" (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001: 22). As "value-laden ways of understanding the world" (Nussbaum Upheavals 88, emotions are ineradicably part of our accounts of a complete human life, they essentially contribute to the ethos or character of an individual. By focusing on Briony's intense feelings of guilt as she tells and re-tells the story of her life, Atonement reveals Briony's value-laden way of understanding the world, rendering her perspective of events with "a degree of self-consciousness which far exceeds that found in any of [McEwan's] previous novels" (Eric Schoeck An Interview with Ian McEwan).
In his fiction, interaction with others, or social encounter, particularly the critical, dangerous encounter, makes the world of the characters as they knew it fall to pieces, twists their fate, and forces them to look inward, revealing them to themselves and forcing them to reassess their lives and relationships.
The late 1970s and early 80s marked "an important point of departure in...British fiction, the clear emergence of a new generation or grouping of writers and of new concerns in fiction" (David Malcolm Understanding Ian McEwan 91). Dissatisfied with postmodernism as "a culture of pastiche, depthless intertextuality and hermeneutic break with the real" IMG_5115bis, writers like Martin Amis, Graham Swift, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, turned to innovative forms of plot-oriented storytelling that combined a pronounced interest in contemporary culture and history with a concern for social and ethical questions. The rising generation of the British novelists of the 1980s was keenly aware of the fact that storytelling, by throwing a net over the random nature of experience, caters to the human yearning for meaning.
However, our ineradicable need for patterns of meaning and orientation is countered in our post-metaphysical age by the unsettling awareness of the relative validity of value commitments, the constructedness of all frameworks of belief, and the heterogeneity of local narratives. McEwan's novels draw the reader's attention to the difficulty, complexity, and relativity of value commitments in a world where prescriptive master narratives have been debunked. On the formal level, "the paradox of the desire for and the suspicion of narrative mastery - and master narratives" (Hutcheon Politics 64) manifests itself in the merging of a basic narrative realism with metafictional elements. Hence, McEwan's novels evoke the existence of a real and familiar world outside the text in which the respective story could have taken place, but involve at the same time a significant degree of metafictional self-consciousness about their status as fiction.
At the beginning of his career, Ian McEwan appeared to reviewers to be, along with Martin Amis, one of the enfants terribles of a new kind of writing that was emerging in the 1970s, which heralded a rebellious reaction to the British fiction of that decade which, according to Dominic Head, was generally judged as being stagnant (33), and accordingly created the need to reinvigorate it. His short stories and early novels seemed to be written with the deliberate aim to provoke, and, indeed, they produced outraged reactions, establishing him as a controversial writer and earning him a reputation for producing shocking, disturbing, and inaccessible fiction that tackled bizarre subjects like secret burial, incest, sexual perversion, and obsession with death. For a long time he was known as "Ian Macabre," a nickname he would be associated with for many years.
The novelist admits that he chose to shape an "intense and enclosed fictional universeworld" (qtd. Louvel 68) in his early stories, and that his two collections of short-stories, First Love, Last Rites (1975) and In Between the Sheets (1978), were "a dream-like recapitulation" of his own life up to then (68), in which he staged "de-socialised, distorted versions" of his existence (67). The stories included in these collections articulated his feeling of alienation, which stemmed from his dislocated background. His parents were both working class, and his father was commissioned as an army officer, "but not an officer of the middle class," and posted with his family to Singapore, North Africa, and Germany. He spent his school years at a state-run boarding school for working class children, an experience which liberated him from "the niggling irritations of English class" (McEwan qtd. Remnick 156), and which was deepened by the years spent at the University of Sussex, a new university that also kept him away from the typical education of English writers. The sense of social and geographical rootlessness in his life paralleled a sense of not being in line with the English writing of the time, "which took the form of social documentary, and which was principally interested in the nuances of English class" of which he seemed to be oblivious (McEwan qtd. Louvel 67). As a result, he looked for a voice of his own, one that could draw on his socially estranged personal experience, and that found expression in a fiction which deliberately avoided specific times and places.
The writer conceived these early stories mostly as pastiches of a particular style or a particular writer (e.g. Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, John Fowles), as taking-off points and shortcuts for the material from his own life that "didn't suggest itself immediately" (McEwan qtd. Hamilton 14). The stories usually presented disrupted families, male rites of passage, adolescent erotic fantasies, and sexual abuse, and featured first-person narrators that allowed for a great degree of intimacy, making the stories appear as confessions. From the perspective of his later fiction, his early short-stories may be seen as experiments, as an apprenticeship that is rather restricted in terms of content. Nevertheless, as innovative works that dissected taboo subjects, they were in many ways groundbreaking, as they allowed the novelist to test different things and discover himself as a writer, giving him the confidence to move on to longer fiction and anticipating an ampler exploration of similar preoccupations in his mature and socially conscious works.
McEwan's first two novels, The Cement Garden (1978) and The Comfort of Strangers (1981), which were actually novellas or extended short stories, showed a similar set of concerns with his early short-stories, and were dominated by the same dark, sinister, and claustrophobic mood, though they allude to a broader moral and social context. Both novels are organised around a central idea, aimed at what Edgar Allan Poe called a "single effect," and both deal with internalised emotion, psychological states prevailing over relationships between individuals, diseased and degenerate minds over dissolute and troubled societies, private worlds over public ones.
The Cement Garden portrays isolated children who find themselves in a situation that forces them to look after themselves, a subject matter that caused critics to see the novel as "an urban Lord of the Flies" (Smith qtd. Finney). It revolves around the relationship between social control and the savage forces of nature that are freed when the children are left alone to do as they please. The cement garden becomes a metaphor for the state of urban distress that takes hold not only of the children's dysfunctional family but also of the entire neighbourhood, set in a sterile and hostile London landscape, and, by extension, of the entire society.
To a certain extent, The Comfort of Strangers seems to reverse the situation of the characters in The Cement Garden. Whereas Jack and Julie in the previous novel are adolescents who are forced to become adults too soon in their own family home, Colin and Mary are travelling adults who regress to a childlike state and become incapable of looking after one another in the unfamiliar hotel in an unnamed labyrinthine European city that appears to be Venice, and this results in the destruction of their relationship and eventually in Colin's murder. As in The Cement Garden, the setting is suggestive of a state of claustrophobia and oppressiveness that reflects the main characters' inner unease. The darkest of McEwan's novels, as the author himself considers it in an interview with Melvyn Bragg, The Comfort of Strangers tackles concerns that the novelist developed in his later works, particularly gender stereotypes, irrational violence, domination within relationships, and the lack of moral codes by which to live, but it also betrays the writer's inability to produce crucial social echoes in his early fiction. The novel seemed to many critics to take McEwan to the end of a creative stretch he had taken up with his first short stories.
The ethical turn in McEwan's writing career, brought about by the awareness that "nobody hangs free" of value commitments (McEwan qtd. Begley The Art of Fiction), echoes the insights formulated by ethical critics in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It is thus part of a greater cultural movement which endeavours to open-mindedly address inescapable questions of value and which regards imaginative literature as an indispensable partner in this enterprise.
Nevertheless, McEwan's artistic growth has not followed a straight course from creative immaturity to adult and responsible craftsmanship, his oeuvre undergoing digressions and comebacks, the obsessions of the earlier fiction returning to haunt his later writing with, for instance, On Chesil Beach, which brings intimate relationships back into focus. The moral concern is unmarked in novels like Amsterdam, which returns to an amoral stance, and Solar, his latest novel, where he deals with climate change and green energy without taking any moral position. His early fiction should be seen as an integral part of his entire oeuvre, as a bedrock on which he built his later fiction.
To smooth the way into his characters' minds, McEwan switched from the first-person narrations of his early fiction, which created the impression of intimacy but also of claustrophobia and formal constraint, to more flexible third-person narrations. Besides allowing for an effortless shift of perspectives and for narratorial comments, the third-person narrative mode makes demands on the readers to reflect on the different positions in the text they could relate to.
An ethics grounded in empathy aspires to bridge the gap between moral theories defending rationality and universality as the only warrants for morality, and the moral theories that endorse positive emotions like love and solicitude as sources of morality. This reconciliation is essential if we are to steer clear of oversimplification and grasp the full complexity of the human being, endowed with both reason and emotions, which are intertwined and inseparable. An ethics of empathy assuages the difficulties we encounter when faced with acknowledging other people's freedom, and enhances our responsibility for the other. Its infinite value lies in it being a perfectible and accessible ethics, as opposed to an ethics of perfection, destined for ideal humans.
Gregory deftly elucidates the power of stories, how making ethical or moral judgments is unavoidable, destroys the notion that stories do not affect us (why, only children are susceptible to the good and bad in stories, us adults are so much more sophisticated, right?), and makes a solid case that art cannot be truly evaluated without considering the ethical values put forth by any piece of art.
Marshall Gregory uses the term "a story's ethical vision" to refer to "a particular configuration of rights and wrongs that any story puts in motion within a represented human context" (37). Every author has ways of letting us know which characters deserve our sympathy and which do nor, whose ambitions we should support and whose ambitions we should fear, and so on. Each story requires us to approve and disapprove, not just vaguely, but intensely and vividly, of its characters and their actions. Not to understand the ethical vision of a story is also not to understand its aesthetic shape. To understand an ethical vision is to see it as a possibility, and to see things as possibility generates the choices out of which we make our lives. In the words of Matthew Kieran,
Art as such typically stimulates and engages the imagination in order to promote a sound appreciation of what the imaginings concern and thus thus serves to promote imaginative understanding...It is through the imaginative understanding that art is tightly linked to our moral aspect. Our moral perception and sensibilities are themselves dependent upon our imaginative understanding of the world, people, and forms of life. (342)
The ethical vision of a story is its attempt to capture the valences of all those rights and wrongs that operate at the core of its characters' everyday existence. Asserting that stories exert ethical influence on those who consume them does not entail a belief that stories exert their influence on us coercively, the way political actions or law enforcement policies do. But stating that stories work noncoercively also does not mean that the influence is superficial. Tony Kushner, the playwright of Angels in America, makes this point right in a New York Times interview, and the clarity and keenness of his insight make it worth quoting at length.
It's never the case that a work of art is directly responsible for changing the world. Only activism, direct political action, does that. But can help change people, who then decide to change their own lives, change their neighbourhood, their community, their society, their world. I don't think art alone changes people, but consciousness, the life of the mind, is a critical force for change and art helps the sharping of consciousness. For instance, I have always felt, and I get this in part from my experience making plays and productions, and also from William Shakespeare and Bertolt Brecht, that watching theatre teaches people a way of looking at the world with a doubleness of vision that's immensely influential-transformative, even...On stage and off, in the theatre and in the real world, "things," as W.S. Gilbert put it, "are seldom what they seem."...
Again, no one learns to see the world entirely because of plays or books or paintings or dance concerts. Art has a power, but it's an indirect power. Art suggests. When people are ready to receive such suggestion, it can and does translate into action, but the readiness is all. People make the world; art is one of the many ways we do that. (June 4 2004)
An often repeated objection to ethical criticism is based on the assumption that stories' effects cannot penetrate our ethical core because they are only secondhand experiences. But those who wish to dismiss the formative power of stories because of their second-hand status fail to consider that in the second-hand realm of story we experience an immediacy of feeling, a rush of emotion, and a flow of sensations that frequently surpass the intensity and flow of firsthand experience. Stories lift us out of the here-and-now and take us to the there-and-then. Reading a narrative, or seeing one (in a move or drama), is itself a firsthand experience, even if the events and characters being depicted are fictional. The ethical responses to stories are the same emotional, intellectual, and ethical responses we have to life. We toggle back and forth between life and stories, and each of these domains assists us in understanding the other. In the words of Peter Lamarque, "we can know something is fictional without having to believe or even half-believe it. We can reflect on, and be moved by, a thought independently of accepting it as true" (302). Or as Samuel Johnson puts the issue (with his usual cogency and economy) in his "Preface to Shakespeare," "the reflection that strikes the heart is not that the evils before us are real evils, but that they are evils to which we ourselves may be exposedâ€¦.Imitations produce pain or pleasure not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind" (224). And when realities are brought to mind by the "as if" of story, the "as if" characters and events can lead us to ideas, values, views, and feelings that mold us as readily as firsthand experience. It is precisely because stories look life and yet differ from life and yet relate to life that we find them endlessly fascinating.
The reason why the intellectual's protest against ethical criticism on the grounds that "I could never be that naÃ¯ve" misses the point is that our ceaseless consumption of stories is not driven by naiveté but by need. Storytelling techniques may sometimes be sophisticated, but, fundamentally, stories as a response to and an extension of human nature are not sophisticated intellectual enterprises. They endlessly recycle enduring human preoccupations, and, overwhelmingly, human preoccupations are not issues of intellect. They are issues of emotion, imagination, perception, drives, needs, and social relations. Even the most sophisticated of storytellers recognize in their bones what academic and professional critics sometimes fail to recognize in their heads, namely, that human beings tell and consume stories because they need to.
Stories display the universality of such emotions, for example, as fear, grief, envy, remorse, compassion, lust anger, confusion, shame, despair, and joy. We can tell that these emotions are common because they crop up again and again in stories across many cultural divides. Second, stories from all cultures also display such common human motives as ambition, pride, greed, sex, dominance, honor, revenge, self-defence, familial protection, and the impulse to compensate for perceived weakness, failures or deprivations. Third, stories from all cultures display such common human actions as cruelty, tenderness, work, honesty, dishonesty, laziness, treachery, infidelity, loyalty, making war, making peace, making love, telling stories, listening to stories, and so on. Fourth, stories from all cultures display the commonness of such existential conditions as happiness, despair, loneliness, self-confidence, insecurity, self-love, self-loathing, fear of death, hopefulness about the future, hopelessness about the future, regret, nostalgia, and so on. If these emotions were not transcultural, translations of literature and other forms of stories would not and could not work, for translation can only work if the concepts referred to and expressed by the original language exist in both the culture and the language into which the original is translated. The moment we begin socializing with others storytelling forms the primary matrix of our interactions.
The features of a story that make it so much more compelling than any other form of learning seem to be the following: its capacity for holistic representations of human life; its capacity to embed represented lives into a fully realized context of concrete details; and its capacity to vivify and identify those issues about which human beings tend to be in a perpetual froth of concern such as personal development religion and ideas, good and evil, shame and redemption, comfort and deprivation, love and hate, and the causes of happiness and misery. In the end, human beings rely on narrative's capacity to pattern the chaotic stuff of raw experience into intelligible and meaningful shapes. Stories assist the human dilemma of making choices by allowing us to negotiate vicariously among different lines of action and thought across a wider scope of possibilities than would ever be possible on the basis of firsthand experience at all.
Our impulse for stories is, in fact, the desire to give up mastery and to let the story direct and shape our attention, feelings, judgements, and ideas, at least for the time that we and the story are interacting. The yielding that we give to stories may look like giving ourselves away, or voluntarily diminishing ourselves, but the truth is that such yielding bolsters our sense of self by giving us the data for seeing our real selves in relation to other selves. This data is crucial to our ability to create an authentic self. C.S. Lewis is eloquent in his description of our responses to stories:
You submit to the text, you relinquish yourself, because you need to be transported. You know with complete certitude that, when you are yourself, you are only, at best, half aliveâ€¦When it's the real thing, literature enlarges us; strips the film of familiarity from the world; creates bonds of sympathy with all kinds, even with evil characters, who we learn are all in the familyâ€¦I confess to never having been able to get enough of the real thingâ€¦All the great veil-piercing booksâ€¦[are] great because veil-piercing. Books propel me out of the narrow life that I lead in my own little world, offering me revelations of strangers, who turn out to be totally strange; a variety of real worlds, unveiled for me, for the first timeâ€¦It's the literary experience of liberation. (An experiment in Criticism 63)
Human beings are eager for the influence from stories because stories' invitations to feel in certain ways, to believe in certain ways, and to judge in certain ways give us deep pleasure and also operate as paradigms and models that we can use as guides for generating the steady stream of firsthand emotions, beliefs, and judgements that we must deploy in order to deal with people and events in real life. Our eagerness for fictional pleasure and paradigms, not to mention the nearly ceaseless engagements we have with narratives, cannot help but render us vulnerable to their influence.
Because everyone's everyday life is saturated with stories, and because of stories' role in shaping ethos, it is both logical and indeed imperative that everyone who values autonomy of personhood and independence of mind should develop supple, thoughtful, nuanced, and interrogative modes of ethical criticism (as opposed to dogmatic assertion or condemnation) for assessing whether the narrative influences we invite into our lives should be wholeheartedly embraced, examined at an arm's distance, thoroughly rejected, or examined in a way that combines some or all of these responses.
Kenneth Burke asserts that fiction "names" the situations that define our own ethical agency. By representing these situations in all of their concrete embeddedness, and by helping us "adopt an attitude," stories provide us with models, Burke argues, for how to deal with life's situations.
The main point is this: A work like Madame Bovary (or its homely American translation, Babbitt) is the strategic naming of a situation. It singles out a pattern of experience that is sufficiently representative of our social structureâ€¦for people to "need a word for it" and to adopt an attitude toward itâ€¦Art forms like "tragedy" or "comedy" or "satire" would be treated as equipments for living that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes. (296-304 The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action)
We may feel exalted by a writer's work not by reveling in all the disasters, but by learning from his language and his insights and his storytelling genius how certain other people lived and thought. We are privileged to enter into the most private domains of their lives and they become our friends or people I'd keep at least an arm's length or people I pitied, feared or loved. This is a truly uplifting experience, something akin to real friendship.
Since the 1980s, Ian McEwan's literary oeuvre has displayed a growing concern with the relation between literature and ethics, becoming progressively more involved with public and historical issues, and turning attention to the moral possibilities of the novel itself.
McEwan's fiction provides a very particular form of moral questioning by engaging the reader in a coherent, powerful, and meaningful reading experience.
Aesthetics and Ethics
The ethics underlying the aesthetics
McEwan's maturation into a political writer is a commonplace of reviews, early criticism,4 and McEwan's own self-description. In the 1980s he memorably complained of having been 'labelled as the chronicler of comically exaggerated psychopathic states of mind or of adolescent anxiety, snot and pimples' and determined to be more political.5 In the Preface to A Move Abroad (1989) he began to engage directly the alienating spirit of Margaret Thatcher's Britain of the 1980s in which: 'Something had been released in people, something that was both acquisitive and fearful. A fear perhaps of being left behind in the scramble.'6
He also redefined the political terrain, suggesting that novels can offer only 'frail testimony against the self-generating "truths" of politicians', that 'the successful or memorable novels we think of as "political" are always written against a politics' and that: 'The "political" novel at its
best, just like any other good novel, remains an open-ended voyage ofexploration of experience; and not only the experience of the victim, but his oppressor too' (A Move Abroad, xvi, xi, xii).
That his work explores areas of personal and gender politics at least if not more than those of conventional politics is also by now well known. It seems especially appropriate to its mixture of political and family life that he began to write A Child in Time (1987) at the time when he 'was about to become a father' in 1983 (A Move Abroad, xxv). Since then, the much-publicised break-up of his first marriage, the ensuing custody battles and his subsequent second marriage have brought his own personal life still more into the public eye, though the novels evade reduction to biography.
The implication that his interest in psychopathic states of mind was somehow an immaturity which he abandoned in order to become political is surely an oversimplification. The uneasy state of mind itself becomes the political and the political is experienced as an uneasy state of mind in his work. His capture of uneasy feelings as the essence of the political fits also with a broader critique of the oversimplifications of rationality and its dangerous political dimensions in his work.
In the novels of the eighties and nineties, The Child in Time (1987) depicts a menacing dystopic new politics of educational managerialism set against the spontaneous or intuitive world of childhood and it includes a grotesque satiric portrait of a disturbingly authoritarian,
gender-ambiguous Prime Minister. Black Dogs (1992) includes scenes from the reunification of Berlin in November 1989, treats the potential threat of a fascist revival, and has an extended historical retrospect to the Nazism of the Second World War in occupied France as well as its
vital scene of a visit to the Majdanek concentration camp on the edges of the Polish city of Lublin in which the passion between the narrator and his wife is suddenly sparked. Amsterdam (1998) draws on the world of media sex scandals that contributed to the downfall of the John Major government in the Blair landslide election of 1997, arriving at a fully-fledged political novel just at the time when politics, as traditionally performed, was conspicuously unwrapping itself and John Major's 'Family Values' slogans gave way to a series of scandals in which, 'When Stephen Milligan was discovered â€¦ hanging in women's stockings in his home, it seemed to many merely the tragic culmination of a farce.'7
In McEwan's version of them, the eighties and nineties of the last century were times of a precarious-seeming prosperity which barely masked deep uncertainties in the political state.8 Uncertainty recurs in these novels as a prime symptom of the malaise as well as a condition
that may implicitly challenge the status quo. We can find it in A Child in Time, with its critique of rationality and chronological temporality and representative discussion of the intuitive new physics through the character of Thelma Darke, and through Enduring Love, with its
gendered contrast and separation between the sceptical rationalism of the science journalist Joe Rose (especially hopeless to deal with the chaos of the events that overwhelm him) and his more emotional wife Clarissa, let alone between Joe and the obsessive pathological state of
his homosexual stalker, Jed Parry.
In the same vein, Jean-François Lyotard derives his definition of postmodernism from the idea that postmodernist thought questions and deconstructs metanarrativesâˆ’grand, large-scale theories and philosophies of the worldâˆ’by noting that the endeavour to create order or unity always creates disorder as well. "The grand narrative," the philosopher argues in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, "has lost its credibility, regardless of what mode of unification it uses, regardless of whether it is a speculative narrative or a narrative of emancipation."  Postmodern critics know that these grand narratives are designed to veil social inconsistencies, and opt for small narratives, stories prefer small practices to wide-ranging theories, and that are temporary and haphazard, abandoning all pretence to universality, certainty, or permanence.
Iris Murdoch's ï¬ction is underpinned by a moral philosophy, though it could be claimed that her novels approach a kind of moral philosophy itself, in practice.
In the case of writers like McEwan or Amis, the ethical content is often embedded in disturbing ï¬ctions, in which a narrator may take up a position that is dubious or depraved.
McEwan and Amis represent a more tortuous ethical effort that implies that the writer needs to be unhampered by 'conscious educative intent and political decorum' in order to 'push back the frontiers of moral understanding'. There is no certainty about innate human goodness in this, but a determination to use ï¬ction to exorcise ourÂ collective complicity in the worst excesses of the contemporary. The persistence of moral or ethical inquiry in successive generations ofÂ novelists underscores the link between the novel and society, concerning especially our perception of public life, our understanding of cultural forms, and the construction of our personal identities.
Debates about the novel, however, have sometimes failed to register thisdegree of vigour and vitality, rooted in diversity.
Rather, concerns aboutthe health of the novel have tended to concentrate on a simple division be-tween realism and experimentalism
While Ian McEwan's earlier fiction is famous for its dark scenes and macabre psychological material that contains no explicit references to specific times or places, his mid-career and recent novels are more overtly socially and politically engaged, approaching themes that range from childcare to German unification, international terrorism, global warming and new sources of energy. The novelist has grown increasingly aware of the possibilities of reconnecting narrative fiction with moral sense, particularly of how narratives might be ethical without relying on absolute truths. He approaches morality as a subjective phenomenon which rejects any universal standards, his ethics being therefore an ethics renewed and informed by the insights of poststructuralism and postmodernism, and one in which empathy is an effective instrument for improvement through literature.
Through his employment of perspective-taking strategies and by drawing attention to the power and function of storytelling, McEwan points to the different ways of (mis)interpreting the world, and shows that we are confronted with a welter of contradictory yet not mutually exclusive truths, with a plurality of competing narratives, all reflecting coherent worldviews, none of which can be granted a superior position. The author strives to keep the novel a vibrant form by reclaiming it as a locus for meaningful moral discussion through his ongoing investigation of the self, the other, and morality.