Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

The Moral of the Story: on Narrative and Ethics

Enrica Zanin

University of Strasbourg


I would like to question the connection between ethics and narrative, taking as a stand point the analysis of contemporary moral philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum. I will thus consider the so called "ethical turn" of contemporary criticism[1] from a narratological point of view, in order to see if it allows a better understanding of narrative. After briefly considering the theoretical context of Martha Nussbaum's analyses, I will apply them to a fictional plot in order to test their consistency. I will then try to go beyond her moral understanding, in order to contribute to a narratological theory of the ethical implications of narrative.

Theoretical context

Contemporary neo-Aristotelian philosophers, such as Hilary Putnam and Martha Nussbaum, assert that narrative - and in particular Aristotle's conception of muthos - allows a better understanding of the ethical question: "how to live?"

According to Hilary Putnam, narrative does not illustrate a general moral theory, but displays the complexity of particular moral cases. Instead of depicting solutions, narrative aids the imaginative re-creation of moral perplexities. It does not enable us to visualise ideal ways of life, but to consider the gap between ideal and feasible lives, in different times and societies (86,87). In other words, narrative is not a moral example that can be more easily expressed through a general maxim, but a mimetic process aiming at disclosing the meaning of the story. Therefore, according to Putnam, literature has an ethical value, which does not merely consist of explicit exemplarity and of moral imperatives, but allows for a better understanding of moral deliberation.

Martha Nussbaum further develops Putnam's analysis. She considers narrative as source of moral learning. According to Nussbaum, narrative discloses the failure of philosophical theory and the consistency of particular deliberation in the human pursuit of happiness and love. Nussbaum asserts that only narrative allows us to understand the possibility of love (Love's Knowledge; ch. 6, 13) and the fragility of goodness (The fragility of Goodness; ch. 11, 12, 13). Staging particular characters, narrative dwells on the gap between one's love for beauty and goodness, and one's attachment to one particular person, who may lack beauty and goodness (Love's Knowledge; ch. 1,3). By telling particular plots, narrative explores the gap between our goodness and our good living, between one's aspiration to goodness and how humanly well he or she manages to live[2].

Martha Nussbaum draws her theory of character and of plot from Aristotle's Poetics, and considers it as an application of his undestanding of human goodness in Nichomachian Ethics. Arguing against Plato's conception of goodness, Aristotle considers that to have a good character, or to be in a good condition is not sufficient for the fullness of good living (The Fragility of Goodness 380).

According to Martha Nussbaum then, Aristotle's definition of the tragic plot helps to understand ancient tragedy. She asserts that tragedy, relating the hero's search for happiness as well as his failure, is a source of moral learning, because it displays different cases of ethical deliberation and fosters an interpretation of the gap between aspirations for good life and the fragility of goodness. Martha Nussbaum later extends her moral interpretation of tragic muthos to every form of narrative. If, in The Fragility of Goodness, she analyses the ethical issues of ancient tragedy through the Aristotelian theorisation in Poetics and in Nichomachian Ethics, in Love's Knowledge she drives from Aristotle her ethical interpretation of modern novels, and in particular of Henry James' and Marcel Proust's works.

Though she never formulates a definition of narrative, she implies a neo-Aristotelian conception of it that can be summarized as such: narrative is the account of an event-sequence involving some kind of disruption affecting the action of the characters and the reactions of the interpreter. This disruption shows the fragility of general moral values and underscores the importance of emotions and of particular deliberation in ethical orientation.


Adopting as a working definition Martha Nussbaum's conception of narrative, I will further develop her analysis, in order to inquire how our understanding of narrative can be improved by ethical analysis, instead of noting how moral philosophy can benefit from narrative. I would thus focus on plotting, rather than considering the ethical implication of rhetoric in fiction[3] or the ethical responsibility implied by narrating or reading[4]. In order to do so, I will apply Martha Nussbaum's ethical analysis to a specific literary object, namely, to early modern tragedy. I believe that the constraints deriving from literary genre and from the history of literature may allow a better understanding of Martha Nussbaum's general assumptions on narrative and ethics.

The plot of early modern tragedy is suitable for this enquiry, mainly for two reasons. First, because it enables us to broaden Martha Nussbaum's analysis of the Greek tragic plot, by applying it to a similar object. Early modern tragedy inherits some features of Aristotle's poetical considerations, but, at the same time, early modern theorists adapt Aristotle's conception of plot to a new poetical context, thus giving rise to modern fiction. Second, because ethics appears to be a crucial issue in early modern narrative. According to modern theorists such as Vida, La Mesnardière (171) or Rymer (26), narrative has to be moral, and teach rather than please. However, the ideological complexity of the age of Reformation discloses the ambiguities of a moral understanding of narrative. 

I will then apply Martha Nussbaum's analysis to the early modern versions of Oedipus rex story, and in particular to the French and Italian adaptations of the ancient plot. I will thus consider three main issues of Nussbaum's approach, namely the connection between ethics and poetics, the kind of ethical meaning arising from narrative, and the way through which the ethical meaning of narrative reaches and affects the reader. I will then try to go beyond Martha Nussbaum's moral understanding of plot, in order to contribute to a narratological theory of the ethical implications of narrative.

1. Martha Nussbaum's theory in the scope of narrative

Early modern tragedy at first sight seems to confirm Martha Nussbaum beliefs about ethics and narrative. However, early modern versions of Oedipus' story show a moralized version of Aristotelian ethics, both embodying and going beyond Martha Nussbaum's approach, thus pointing out its limitations.

1.1 The connection between ethics and poetics: Aristotle's hamartia and tragic flaw. 

Martha Nussbaum asserts that narrative has an ethical meaning because it expresses Aristotelian ethics and theory of action. Tragedy as well as the novel display the particular circumstances of moral choice, and ask the character and the reader to imagine possible behaviours and ethical solutions. According to Nussbaum, narrative is the most appropriate vehicle for Aristotelian morality[5]. Narrative may not only be understood through Aristotelian philosophy, but it expresses and embodies Aristotelian ethics, because of its nature.

However, in order to explain de connection between ethics and narrative, Martha Nussbaum does not analyse the "nature" of narrative, but rather shows how some modern authors, such as Henry James or Marcel Proust, seem to convey in their novels an ethical concern that may be brought back to Aristotle. If her analyses are cleverly led and reveal the ethical insight of great works such as The Ambassadors, or David Copperfield, her examples do not provide a narratological explanation of her Aristotelian beliefs. If some narratives seem to convey Aristotelian ethics, is every narrative bound to express Aristotelian views? Since Martha Nussbaum considers how moral philosophy can benefit from narrative, rather than the reverse, she does not ask this question, but implicitly implies that if some narratives reveal Aristotelian concerns, it is likely that every narrative may do as well. Of course, from a narratological point of view, this generalization is not plain but needs to be demonstrated.

In order to do so, I will analyse some narratives that follow Aristotle's conception of plot and see if they express Aristotelian ethics. I will thus consider a crucial element of Aristotelian ethics: namely, human error, which is also a crucial device of the tragic plot. I will then be able to understand if narrative has to be ethically Aristotelian, but also if a narrative that is poetically Aristotelian needs to be ethically so.

The plot, as defined in Poetics 13, depicts the actions of the hero until he commits a mistake and falls into great misery. The dramatic hearth of tragedy is therefore the tragic flaw that causes the reversal of its plot. The structure of the plot, as defined in Poetics, helps us to consider Aristotle's conception of ethical error. The tragic flaw, as it is explained in Poetics, shares the same features of Aristotle's conception of hamartia in Nicomachean Ethics[6]. It is neither a fault (adikèmata) nor an accident (atukèmata), and the hero is neither guilty nor innocent of the crime he has committed. The moral ambiguity of the hamartìa arouses the emotions of the public, and thus achieves the so-called tragic katharsis.

Some early modern theoreticians - such as Robortello (131-132) and Piccolomini (195-196) - also try to account for the tragic flaw through the Aristotelian theory of hamartìa. However, Aristotle's moral definition of hamartìa is not acceptable for early modern dramatists. Indeed, they cannot conceive of a flaw which is neither a fault nor an accident, because they assume that the hero should be innocent or guilty and that there is no continuity between innocence and guilt, but that a hero who is not completely innocent is already guilty. They draw this understanding of Aristotle's ethics from Saint Thomas Aquinas[7].

Therefore, in modern adaptations of Oedipus rex, Oedipus is considered as guilty or as innocent. Dacier considers that he is not guilty of his patricide and incest, because he did not know what he was doing, but that he is guilty at least of imprudence and of murder, because he killed a man on the road, the day after the oracle predicted that he would kill his own father[8]. On the contrary, Corneille, in his Œdipe, considers that Oedipus is innocent, and that his misfortune is a terrible ordeal displayed by God to prove his goodness[9]. In some adaptations, Oedipus is considered as guilty but not fully responsible for his crimes[10]. However, this interpretation does not express the Aristotelian conception of hamartia, but rather it conveys the Augustinian theory of original sin, because the hero, though not fully responsible for his crimes, is considered as fully guilty of them.

Early modern tragedy then does not only express Aristotelian ethics, but can also be interpreted through Thomistic and Augustinian understandings of human weakness. The tragic hero wants to act well but he cannot because he inherits a frailty that dooms him to fail. Modern interpretation of Oedipus' blindness shows this new understanding of the tragic flaw. For instance, Oedipus blinds himself because he refuses to see the light of divine grace, in dell'Anguillara adaptation of the plot[11], while in other versions, such as Tesauro's play (159), Oedipus blinds himself because he accepts he has always been blind and that he needs the assistance of grace to find his way. Therefore, the analysis of some early modern tragic plots shows that, if narrative is connected with ethics, it is not the embodiment of Aristotelian ethics, but it can also disclose other ways to answer the question: "how to live?"

1.2 The kind of ethical meaning displayed by narrative: univocal or plural? 

Martha Nussbaum's analysis implies that the structure of the plot and the deeds of the main character deliver an ethical meaning, which is not a moral theorisation but a practical and particular knowledge. Her interpretation of The Golden Bowl of Henry James, for example, studies very cleverly the ethical evolution of Maggie Verver's deliberation, but always tends to convey a single and unequivocal moral understanding of the plot[12].

If we consider early modern tragedies, they also seem to convey a single and unequivocal moral meaning. Theorists such as D'Aubignac assert that the tragic plot should show virtue rewarded a vice punished, in order to recommend the practice of the former[13]. In the tragic plot, some characters seem to express the general and unequivocal moral meaning of the story[14]. In Dell'Anguillara's Edippo, for instance, the last chorus of the play explains the moral meaning of the plot:

Quindi si può veder, che'l sommo Dio

Non sol dispon, che i volontarii eccelsi

Condannin l'huomo al debito castigo:

Ma quei peccati anchor, ch'alcun commette

Per ignoranza, e contra il suo volere,

Vuol, che condannin l'huomo a penitenza. (63)

Therefore we can see, that the almighty God does not only chastise men for intended abuses.

He wishes that sins committed out of ignorance, unwillingly, condemn man to punishment.

The ethical meaning of the play seems to be unequivocal: if Oedipus falls into misery, it is because his crimes, although he was ignorant of them, condemned him to be punished.

However, the ending of Oedipus rex shows the discrepancies between the uttered morality of the chorus and the implicit meaning of the plot. In fact, despite the explicit purpose of the chorus, it is impossible to draw any ethical learning from Oedipus' story. Oedipus' plot shows that every ethical strategy is useless, because, despite his good will, he could not prevent committing those very crimes he wanted to avoid. Oedipus' misery contradicts the explicit moral message the tragedy wants to convey, because it betrays the absence of any moral order and the injustice of any ethical retribution. Therefore, there is no single and unequivocal meaning of Oedipus' story. If theorists and dramatists eagerly assert that their tragedies have a single moral meaning, it is because they know that the ambiguity of the plot prevents the reader from drawing from it an unequivocal moral knowledge.

The ethical meaning of early modern tragedy is thus either plural or absent. Tesauro, in his adaptation of Oedipus' story, shows how the hero is himself unable to understand the moral meaning of his misfortune. He, who successfully disclosed the riddle of the Sphinx, considers himself as a new Sphinx, whose illfate is impossible to understand.

Spignetemi alla rupe, onde la Sfinge

Balzò se stessa: e su quel sasso infausto

Fatto Sfinge più fiera, a' passaggeri

Reciterò questo implicato enigma:

"Genero all'avo io son; rivale al padre;

fratel de' figli miei, padre a' fratelli;

e de' nipoti miei l'avia fu madre"

Io stesso rimarrò da sì confuso

E intricato parlar, confuso e vinto. (161)

Drive me towards the rock, from which the Sphinx threw itself. And from this ill-fated rock, as a more savage Sphinx, I will declaim to the passers-by this intricate enigma: "I am the son-in-law of my grandfather, the rival of my father, the brother of my children, the father of my brothers, and the grandmother of my grand-children is their mother". I will myself be puzzled and overcome by this puzzling and impenetrable talk.

Despair and self-hatred seem to be the only lessons Oedipus can draw from his story. Dell'Anguillara's adaptation of Oedipus' plot also displays the despair of the hero, who asks to die without dying, in order to suffer everlastingly for his crimes (40). However, the other characters of the play hold a different interpretation of Oedipus' misery. The messenger from Corinth asserts that Oedipus is not responsible for his crimes, therefore, he should not accuse himself but rather should part from his wife and sin no more (38). If Oedipus blinds himself, he gives up the possibility of leading an innocent life, and thus he is responsible for his unhappiness. On the other hand, Tiresias, the oracle who predicts Oedipus' misfortunes, considers that Oedipus cannot avoid his misery (2). He assumes that any deliberation is useless when the gods predestine one to misery.

As asserted by some critics such as Terence Cave (171-182) and Joachim Küpper (271), the meaning of early modern narrative is not unequivocal but plural and piecemeal. If the plot has a moral meaning, it is often impossible to draw from it a coherent and achieved ethical conception of a good deliberation. Tragic plot conveys mainly a scattered and plural ethical meaning that asks the reader to take a stand and to interpret personally Oedipus' story.

1.3 Ethical meaning and reader-response theory: ethical cognition through emotions. 

Martha Nussbaum asserts that narrative originates moral learning through arousing the reader's emotions. She develops an original interpretation of Aristotle's katharsis, assuming that the emotions triggered by the story lead the reader to an ethical "clarification", i.e. to a moral learning through a better understanding of his own emotions[15]. In Love's Knowledge, she further develops Adam Smith's understanding of the emotions arising from reading and of their cognitive power. She asserts that going to plays or reading stories is a valuable part of moral development, because it is among the ways in which we constitute ourselves as moral beings. According to Nussbaum, narrative arouses in the reader a kind of sympathetic attention that is highly characteristic of morality[16].

Early modern theorists also advocate for an ethical interpretation of katharsis. Giraldi asserts that the downfall of the tragic hero arouses the spectator's pity and fear: the public sympathises with the hero and fears undergoing a similar misfortune[17]. But through this ethical interpretation, they try to fight the dominant Platonic conception of tragic emotions. Giraldi's remarks about the cognitive and pedagogic power of emotions are to be understood in the context of the quarrell about the morality of literature, and in particular of the morality of dramatic performances. Giraldi, as well as other dramatic theorists, tries to defend fiction against the Platonic criticism of his contemporaries, who accuse fiction of immorality.

According to Pierre Nicole, for instance, the emotions arising from drama, and more generally from narrative, deprave the public. Nicole assumes that tragic emotions are deprived of any cognitive power: the public goes to the theatre because they desire to feel, and to feel pleasure, but from this pleasure cannot arise any ethical knowledge, because the images causing this emotional outburst are fake and misleading[18].

The Aristotelian conception of reader-response theory, advocated by Martha Nussbaum, fails to consider the ambiguity of the effects of fiction. The emotions arising from tragedy may also not lead to any moral knowledge. Moreover, Martha Nussbaum's analysis of the reader's response implies a community of views shared by the public. However, the response of the reader varies and allows different understandings of the ethical meaning of the plot, as asserted by some critics, such as Joseph Hillis Miller (43-59). The supporting characters in Oedipus' play, for example, react differently to the hero's misery. In Tesauro's adaptation, both Jocasta and Antigone feel deeply for Oedipus' misfortune, but their feelings lead them to different moral reactions. The outburst of emotions does not lead Giocasta to a moral knowledge but induces her to commit suicide (169). Antigone, on the other hand, feels pity for Oedipus, and thus understands her moral task. She will take care of her blind and miserable father:

ANTIGONE: Ti veggio, ti conosco: e se cangiato

sei nell'aspetto, entro il mio cor ti serbo

qual sempre fosti: anzi, più caro assai,

come più caro è il sol, quando si perde [.]

or m'avveggio che [.]

quella via che tu cerchi anch'io cercava.

Reggiti sul mio braccio (162)

ANTIGONE: I understand you, I know you. If your appearance is changed, in my heart I see you as you always were. Indeed, you are dearer to me, as the sun is dearer, when it is lost. Now I realise that the way you are searching for is the one I want to follow. Lean on my arm

The application of Martha Nussbaum's moral theory to a literary example, namely to early modern tragic plot, leads us to further develop her understanding of the connection between narrative and ethics. The Aristotelian view on narrative needs to be broadened in order to get a better understanding of the connection between ethics and narrative, the plurality of ethical meanings arising from narrative and the way through which the ethical meaning of narrative reaches and affects the reader.

2. Toward a broader understanding of ethics and narrative. 

If Martha Nussbaum accounts for the philosophical interest of narrative, her remarks have to be grounded on specific narrative processing strategies, in order to get a better understanding of the ethical concern implied by stories.

2.1 The connection between ethics and poetics: the inner structure of narrative as the expression of ethical concern.

In order to set a general model of the connection of narrative and ethics, going beyond Aristotelian ethics, it is necessary to look for ethical issues in the structure of narrative itself. Paul Ricoeur, in Time and Narrative, shows how mimesis itself implies moral issues, and thus proves how an Aristotelian conception of plot can lead to a general understanding of the connection between ethics and narrative. According to Ricoeur, narrative structure results from the poetical configuration of our practical understanding of life. Narrative presupposes a familiarity with the conceptual network constitutive of the semantic of action and with the symbolic conventions that furnish the descriptive context of particular actions (Time and Narrative 56-58). Narrative implies an understanding of ethics, i.e. an understanding of the ethical value of human deliberation and of the ethical consequences of human actions[19].

Therefore, we can assert that not only some poetic genres - such as drama - or some specific authors - such as Henry James - do express an Aristotelian morality, but that narrative itself, through its configuring action, deals with ethics and presupposes the ethical question: "how to live?".

Moreover, narrative is not necessarily the embodiment of Aristotelian ethics, but can configure every possible way of living. Ricoeur, echoing Aristotle, asserts that the structure of narrative is grounded on the tension between plot (muthos) and character (ethos). This tension between action-sequences and acting character is the poetical configuration of the tension between time and human acting. According to Paul Ricoeur, narrative shows how a character faces certain "events" (certain "adventures") and thus stages the deliberation of a character who tries to preserve his identity through the events he is driven to face. Preserving one's identity, according to Ricoeur in Oneself as Another, is a moral deed[20]. It means both being reliable and responsible for one's actions, and therefore preserving the unity of one's character against the discordance and scattering of the events.

Therefore, the dialectic between plot and character asks the question "how to live?" and depicts how a character fights to preserve his goodness and to reach his happiness through the events that befall him.

2.2 Narrative as the expression of ethical pluralism.

Narrative, we have seen, does not always express a single and unequivocal moral stand, but it generally conveys a scattered and plural ethical meaning. In other words, narrative can neither be reduced to an ethical example, nor be understood as a particular philosophical discourse. Narrative discourse is not only the expression of particular moral choices - as Martha Nussbaum asserts - but also the depiction of plural and conflicting ethical positions. As we have seen, despite the attempts of early modern theorists to reduce tragedy to a moral example, the structure of the tragic plot conveys a scattered and multiple morality.

That is why, as Leona Toker asserts, ethics has to be sought not only in the structure of the plot and in the deeds of the characters, but also in what Hjelmlev called "the form of contents", i.e. in the relationships between the themes, patterns of imagery, the deployment of the motives, and the corresponding shaping of the plot (2-3). Only the analysis of the form of contents can reveal the moral complexity of the plot. As Robert Eaglestone asserts (77-78), criticising Martha Nussbaum's approach, poetical devices such as Bakhtinian conceptions of polyphony and dialogism can give the ethical analysis of narrative a better consistency. Early modern versions of Oedipus rex show that the ethical meaning of the story cannot be reduced to the position of one single character, be it the chorus or the prologue of the play. The moral meaning of narrative consists of the mutual addressed and often contradictory voices staged in the play. Saying that the moral meaning of narrative is polyphonic (22), does not imply that the moral of narrative is partial. It means that narrative does not express a moral thesis, but rather the making of it, i.e. the process of mutual addressivity and of commitment that allows for a better understanding of ethical truth.

Narrative stages not only a plurality of voices but also a profusion of discourses that make its ethical meaning ambiguous and dialectic. Bakhtin's idea of dialogism[21] allows for a better understanding of the variety of discourses that render narrative ethics complex and multiple.

The oracle stating Oedipus' responsibility for the Theban plague is a good example of the dialogic representation of Oedipus' guilt. Tesauro's version of Oedipus rex shows the ambiguous meaning of the oracle's report. If it voices the will of mythological gods it also expresses, in the 17th century, the providential design of the Christian God. Thus, its meaning is controversial: is it possible that a benevolent God may accuse an innocent man and order his banishment? Besides, is it possible that God may express himself through oracles? The report of the oracle is then considered, in Tesauro's play, as the conventional discourse of mythological gods, as the controversial utterance of a benevolent God, or as the cunning invention of a perverse character. Indeed, it is first credited to the pagan gods[22], according to a poetical convention that Tesauro imitates and later disrupts. In Act II, Oedipus refuses to accept that the gods accuse him of crimes he is not aware of and re-interprets the oracle, crediting it to Creon (107), and asserting that he invented it in order to cause Oedipus' ruin. In Act V, Oedipus reads the oracle's report once more in front of the city senate, and his words, rather than stating his moral responsibility for the plague, expose the ethical ambiguity of the oracle's injunction, thus arousing the assembly's sorrow and grief (156-157). Oedipus' guilt appears then as highly dialogical. Does it condemn a pagan belief, or does it claim the paradoxical mystery of a benevolent and yet cruel God? Does it denounce the conspiracy of a character or the inner guilt of Oedipus himself? The tragic plot peruses all of these possibilities and thus shows the ambiguity of guilt.

 Therefore, in order to produce an ethical analysis of narrative, it is necessary to consider the plurality of moral meanings that narrative conveys, because of its plural and dialogical discourses, and because of its structure: plotting a story does not mean explaining an example, but telling a number of events occurring to a number of characters.

2.3 Which kind of response can arise from the ethical pluralism of narrative?

Ethical pluralism does not necessarily imply, as Martha Nussbaum fears (Love's Knowledge 220-229), moral relativism or sophism. It shows that, in order to answer the question "how to live?", the reader must interpret the text and commit himself to the moral enquiry led by the narrative.

In fact, the analysis of emotions, advocated by Martha Nussbaum, must be connected with the literary examination of the textual strategies that aim at orienting the reader's response. Ricoeur's definition of poetic refiguration allows a better understanding of the affections arising from the act of reading. If narrating is configurating the ethical pre-understanding of life - i.e. orienting the reader's response - reading is rethinking the plot, disclosing its moral meaning through the interpretation of the contradictions and the ambiguities of the text[23].

According to Paul Ricoeur, then, the emotions arising from reading do not immediately provoke an ethical learning, but lead the reader to interpret the text. In The Conflict of Interpretations, Ricoeur shows how an ethical knowledge can arise from the plurality and ambiguity of narrative, asserting that the story of original sin, instead of delivering an ethical concept, allows a deeper, yet more complex, understanding of evil[24]. Ricoeur's analysis gives a revealing insight into the ambiguous story of Oedipus rex[25]. The spectators of Oedipus' misery cannot derive a moral lesson from Oedipus' story, but can only be overwhelmed by sorrow and grief, as the city assembly in Tesauro's Edipo. However, if sorrow and grief do not construct a moral theory, they lead the way to interpretation, asking the spectator to take a stand on Oedipus' misery, and thus to elaborate his own moral understanding of evil. The hermeneutic task of the reader stems from his pre-comprehension of evil, or, in Monika Fludernik's words, from experientiality[26]. The reader refigurates Oedipus' story according to his own experientiality, i.e. according to the cognitive schemata that construct his or her experience. Therefore, there is neither a shared nor a unique moral knowledge arising from Oedipus' story, but a tension between what the reader believes and what he or she understands, which, according to Ricoeur, accounts for the only possible modern form of the search for meaning[27].

This tension that strives towards the understanding of the meaning of Oedipus' story says something about the experience of evil, revealing its ambiguous complexity which constitutes, according to Ricoeur, the "tragedy" of evil[28]. Therefore, Oedipus' misery shows that evil cannot be conceptualized, because even the concept of stain or of original sin cannot disclose, as narrative does, the complexity of our experience of evil. Evil is there "before us", before any malevolent intention, or any wicked action, and cannot be reduced to individual guilt. Evil is a state that affects the agent, before being the effect of the action he makes. This analysis of evil, led by Ricoeur in The Conflict of Interpretations (284-331)[29], is the ethical "learning" that can be drawn from Oedipus' early modern adaptations. The emotions arising from the reading experience lead the way to interpretation, and thus show the contradictions and the ambiguities of Oedipus' aspiration to goodness, rather than giving a univocal answer to the question "how to live?"

James Phelan's rhetorical analysis of the reader's ethical response broadens Paul Ricoeur hermeneutic understanding of ethics in fiction. James Phelan's model, grounded on rhetoric and focused on the characters', the tellers' and the readers' moral stands - rather than on a poetical conception of the plot as Ricoeur's -, cleverly condenses our remarks on ethical plot, ethical meaning and ethical response. According to Phelan, narrativity is a double layered phenomenon: at the first layer, narrative involves the report of a sequence of related events during which the characters undergo some changes. The instability of the plot and of the character's actions expresses ethical issues. At the second layer, narrativity stimulates the audience's response. According to James Phelan, the readers make three main types of narrative judgement, each of which affects the other two: interpretative judgements about narrative actions lead the reader to ethical judgements about the moral value of the character's choices, as well as to aesthetic judgements about the artistic quality of the narrative (Experiencing Fiction  7-9). Those judgements are plural and evolve during the progression of the plot. Therefore, not only the moral meaning of the plot is either plural or absent, but also the reader's response to it is likely to be so.

As Martha Nussbaum asserts, narrative deals with ethics, not as a moral example or as a general ethical theory, but as a particular answer to the question "how to live?". Besides, our analysis shows that the moral meaning of narrative is not only particular, but also plural, polysemic, dialogic, scattered in many contradictory voices and discourses and deeply rooted in literary history and genre tradition. Only a broader method, based on a careful understanding of the structure of plot itself, on the complexity of literary discourse and on the rhetoric of reading can allow a good understanding of the plural ethical meanings of narrative.

Therefore, narrative not only accounts for the gap between our goodness and our good living, but also deals with the ambiguity of our good will and of our actions, and shows that our actions and our will have to be questioned and interpreted. Our understanding of narrative, rather than delivering a moral message, pre-supposes an understanding of good and evil, and leads to the refiguration of our ethical expectations. Narrative, rather than delivering an ethical knowledge, renders the fragility of goodness at least tellable, and asks the sympathetic reader to interpret its reasons and forms, in order to improve his or her phenomenological understanding of life.


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[1] See Todd F. Davis 5-15.

[2] "The great tragic plots explore the gap between our goodness and our good living, between what we are (our character, intentions, aspirations, values) and how humanly well we manage to live. They show us reversals happening to good-charactered but not divine or invulnerable people, exploring the many ways in which being of a certain good human character falls short of sufficiency for eudaimonia. [...] If you think that there is no such gap or that it is trivial, you will naturally judge that tragedy is either false or trivial; and you will not want to give it a place of honor in a scheme of public instruction. Aristotle's belief that the gap is both real and important illuminates his anti-Platonic claim that tragic action is important and a source of genuine learning", Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness, Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, 382.

[3] Cf. Wayne C. Booth 10-21, James Phelan Living to Tell about It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration 3-20.

[4] Cf. Carl Tighe 5-23. 

[5] "Novels prove to be appropriate vehicles for the Aristotelian conception. [...] In their very structure they contain the interplay between the evolving general conception and the rich perception of the particular; and they teach the reader to navigate resourcefully between those two levels", Martha Nussbaum The Fragility of Goodness 86.

[6] "There are then three ways in which a man may injure his fellow. An injury done in ignorance is an error (hamartèma), the person affected or the act or the instrument or the result being other than the agent supposed; for example, he did not think to hit, or not with this missile, or not this person, or not with this result, but it happened that either the result was other than he expected (for instance he did not mean to inflict a wound but only a prick), or the person, or the missile. When then the injury happens contrary to reasonable expectation, it is a misadventure (hatukèma). When, though not contrary to reasonable expectation, it is done without evil intent, it is a culpable error (hadìkema); for an error is culpable when the cause of one's ignorance lies in oneself, but only a misadventure when the cause lies outside oneself", Aristotle Nichomachean Ethics 1135b 6-7.

[7] Thomas Aquinas 1a 2ae, quaestiones 71-89.

[8] "La faute de Œdipe, c'est la faute d'un homme, qui emporté de colère pour l'insolence d'un cocher [.] tue quatre hommes deux jours après que l'oracle l'a averti qu'il tuerait son propre père", André Dacier 192. Translation: "Oedipus' fault is the fault of a man who kills four men, driven by anger at an coachman's insolence. And this, two days after that the oracle warned him that he will kill his own father".

[9] "Œdipe: Aux crimes malgré moi l'ordre tu ciel m'attache, // pour m'y faire tomber, à moi-même il me cache, // il m'offre en m'aveuglant sur ce qu'il m'a prédit, // Mon père à mon épée, et ma mère à mon lit", Pierre Corneille 87. Translation: "Oedipus: The stars tie those crimes to me against my will. In order to make me fall, they conceal my deeds to me. Heaven blinds me on what it predicted for me, and throws my father against my sword and my mother into my bed".

[10] See Giovanni Andrea dell'Anguillara, Jean Prévost. Gédéon Tallemand des Réaux.

[11] See the allegorical interpretation of the sacrifice, Giovanni Andrea dell'Anguillara 12.

[12] Martha Nussbaum Love's Knowledge 125-167. Martha Nussbaum does not consider, for instance, that the plurality of characters in the novel as well as the plurality of voices (the author, the narrator, the characters utterances) may display plural ethical meanings (see below section 2.2).

[13] "La principale règle du poème dramatique est que les vertus y soient toujours recompensées ou pour le moins toujours louées, malgré les outrages de la fortune, et que les vices y soient toujours punis, ou pour le moins toujours en horreur, quand même ils y triomphent", Abbé d'Aubignac 40. Translation: "The main rule of drama is always to show the virtue rewarded, or at least always praised despite misfortunes, and always to stage the vice punished, or at least execrated, even when it triumphs".

[14] In Bracciolini's version of Oedipus rex (13), for instance, an angel appears in the first scene of the play and explains that the hero is guilty of his crimes and therefore deserves to be punished.

[15] "We can then say without hesitation that all along the meaning 'clearing up' and 'clarification' will be appropriate and central ones for katharsis, even in medical and ritual contexts", Martha Nussbaum The Fragility of Goodness 390.

[16] "Going to plays and reading novels and stories is a valuable part of moral development: not because it points beyond itself to a separately moral realm, but because it is among the ways in which we constitute ourselves as moral, and thus as fully human, beings. [.] Interpreting a novel or play involves one, indeed, in a kind of sympathetic reason-giving that is highly characteristic of morality; for we ask ourselves, as we try to enter into the plot, why the characters do what they do, and we are put off if our inquiries lead to nothing but mystery and arbitrairness", ibid. 346-346.

[17] "La tragedia, con l'orrore e colla compassione mostrando quello che dobbiam fuggire, ci purga dalle perturbazioni nelle quali sono incorse le persone tragiche", Giovan Battista Giraldi Cinzio 32. Translation: "tragedy shows us, arousing pity and fear, the errors we shall avoid, and thus frees us from those distressing emotions which overwhelmed the tragic characters".

[18] "Ce qui rend le danger plus grand, est que la comédie éloigne tous les remedes qui peuvent empêcher la mauvaise impression qu'elle fait. Le coeur y est amolli par le plaisir. L'esprit est tout occupé des objets extérieurs, et entièrement enivré des folies que l'on y voit représenter, et par conséquent hors de l'état de la vigilence crétienne nécessaire pour résister aux tentations", Pierre Nicole 44-45. Translation: "What makes the danger [of drama] greater, is that comedy removes all the remedies that could prevent the bad influence it has on its public. The hearth of the spectator is weakened by pleasure. His mind is fully occupied by exterior objects, and totally intoxicated by the folly represented on stage. Therefore, he his incapable of Christian vigilance, which is necessary to resist temptations".

[19] "We can see the richness in the meaning of mimesis1. To imitate or represent action is first to preunderstand what human acting is, in its semantics, its symbolic system, its temporality. Upon this preunderstanding, common to both poets and their readers, enplotment is constructed and, with it, textual and literary mimetics", Paul Ricoeur Time and Narrative 64.

[20] "The notion of narrative identity helps to clarify the relations between narrativity and ethics [ .] in narrativizing character, narrative returns to [narrative identity] the movement abolished in acquired dispositions, in the sediment of identifications-with. In narrativizing the aim of the true life, narrative identity gives in the recognizable features of characters loved or respected. Narrative identity makes the two ends of the chain link up with one another: the permanence in time of character and thet of self-constancy", Paul Ricoeur Oneself as Another 133 and 138. See also Thomas Claviez 173-230.

[21] Mikhail Bakhtin 259-421.

[22] "Al teban regno, e alle anfionie squadre, // Tornerà mite il ciel, l'aura serena, // Se partirà dalla mia Dirce ismena // Un tebano uccisor del proprio padre. // Ei contro a Laio imperador di Tebe, // Perduelle distrinse il ferro ingrato: // E osceno ritornò là donde e nato", Emanuele Tesauro 100. Translation: "Heaven will have mercy of the kingdom of Thebes and of the people of Amphion, when a Theban who killed his own father leaves the city. He fought Laius, the king of Thebes, and killed him with his sword. He obscenely re-entered the place where he was born".

[23] "Reading is at its best a struggle between two strategies, the strategy of seduction pursued by the author in the guise of a more or less trustworthy narrator, with the complicity of the "willing suspension of disbelief" (Coleridge) that marks the entry into reading, and the strategy of suspicion pursued by the vigilant reader who is not unaware of the fact that she brings the text to meaningfulness thanks to its lacunae, whether there be intended or not", Paul Ricoeur Oneself as Another 188. See also Paul Ricœur Time and Narrative III 9.

[24] "The concept of original sin is false knowledge and it must be broken as knowledge. [.], not because of a lack of rigor but because of an excess of meaning. [.] The story of the Fall is situated not at the level of concepts but at that of mythical images. Far from explaining anything at all this story expresses by means of a plastic creation, the unexpressed basis of human experience - which is inexpessible in direct and clear language". Paul Ricoeur. The Conflict of Interpretations 266-26. "Myth excercises its symbolic function only through the specific means of narrative; what it wants to say is already drama", ibid., 290.

[25] Ricoeur studies Oedipus' story in The Conflict of Interpretations 115-117.

[26]  Monika Fludernik 14-30. On the connection between Ricoeur's understanding of "temporal experience" and Monika Fludernik's conception of "experientiality" see Monika Fludernik 15-18, and Jan Alber 54-75.

[27] "Such is the circle: Hermeneutics proceeds from the preunderstanding of the very matter which through interpretation it is trying to understand. But thanks to this hermeneutic circle, I can today still communicate with the Sacred by explicating the understanding which animates the interpretation", Paul Ricoeur The Conflict of Interpretations 294-295.

[28] "What is lacking, what si lost [in the conceptualisation of evil] is the darksome experience fo evil which surfaces in different ways in the symbolism of evil and which constitutes properly speaking the "tragic" aspect of evil", ibid. 300.

[29] See also, Paul Ricoeur Evil. A Challenge to Philosophy and Theology 1-30.