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Ethical Fiction: Essential? Desirable?

Robin Joyce

Part 2

Is ethical fiction ever irrelevant? While an initial response could be

‘Of course fiction should be ethical. Writers should not encourage

racism, sexism or classism. They should not give

credibility to unethical behavior.’



However, what of the Tom Ripley series, Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground, Ripley’s Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water, by Patricia Highsmith which take the reader into an amoral world. Although in one of the final paragraphs of the first novel Ripley envisions a group of police officers waiting to arrest him, and wonders, “…was he going to see policemen waiting for him on every pier that he ever approached?”, this seems a small punishment for murder, theft and forgery – and Ripley’s chosen unethical lifestyle. Paranoia is a typical penalty for Highsmith’s protagonists but is more punishing in her other novels. Ripley continues to prosper. Unethical novels also prosper – Gone Girl is a best seller and the film a box office hit. Perhaps, in a diverse society, ethical fiction is merely desirable?


The value of ethical fiction is partly in its role in bringing a critical reading to unethical fiction. However, even if it is accepted that ethical fiction is merely desirable in a diverse society, where it is vital is in new democracies.
The most important feature of ethical fiction is its role in providing readers with a multifaceted way of looking at the world. Although it would be ideal to be able to demonstrate the impact of ethical fiction to my knowledge research is not available. However, we are able to surmise that attacks on books encouraging diversity are the product of fear of such diversity. Of course the media can have an important and more immediate role in promoting a range of views. However, freedom of the press in a newly democratic society is a concept that needs development, including government legislation. And, although freedom of the press may be boosted by media laws, that may not be enough. To understand that a multiplicity of choices is available can be nurtured by ethical fiction. The fiction does not need to be didactic, indeed it is better that it is not, but an ethical sub-text is valuable. Ethical fiction provides a long term underlying challenge to unethical practices of government and other powerful institutions.


The typical ethical novel is when an ethical dilemma is posed and the protagonists seek to resolve it. The reader is also drawn into the conflict of ideas. Liane Moriarty, an Australian writer, provides examples in The Husband’s Secret, Small Lies and The Hypnotist’s Love Story. In the first novel a man who kills a teenage friend is protected by his mother, and later, his wife. Both claim their responsibilities towards their own children are paramount and ignore the impact on the dead girl’s parents. The mother of the girl believes she knows the guilty person and when her claims are dismissed by the police attempts to punish her suspect, but maims the guilty man’s child. In the second novel lies about criminal assault at home and the effects of prejudice provide the dilemma. The third novel focuses on the effect of a stalker on their victim: in this case a man stalked by a woman. A complex moral dilemma, the story involves not only a woman as stalker, but her relationship to the man and his child. Initial amusement becomes a complex ethical dilemma for the hypnotist and the reader.
ML Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans raises a poignant ethical dilemma, the rights of children, the biological parents and foster parents who have cared for a child through its formative years. A couple claims a lost baby as their own, but later meet the grieving biological mother. What should they do?


Academic theft is a major topic of ethical literature. AS Byatt’s Possession, Barbara Pym’s An Academic Question, Philippa Gregory’s Perfectly Correct and Henry James’ Aspern Papers all raise questions about intellectual ownership. Public rights to access to works of artistic merit are often outweighed by the unattractive characterisation of the would-be thieves. In Possession and An Academic Question information that could be lost is brought to light, by (possibly) unscrupulous academics. In The Aspern Papers and Perfectly Correct elderly women thwart young men’s access to their material.


Other novelists give value to people and events that are usually undervalued. For example, Pym valorises spinsterhood in an era in which marriage was considered the only option for a woman. She consistently undermines the contention that spinsters fulfil the stereoptype:

The old maid provides a […] convenient butt for hostility against women […] since she [does] not justify herself by being a wife or mother. Hence she was often depicted as a figure of fun, stripped of the sentimental chivalry with which other women were swathed, caricatured as ugly, disagreeable, and relentlessly in pursuit of men.’

Zoe Fairbairns’ novels persistently give feminist ideas value and significance. Women’s friendships are the focus of many novels, again undermining not only the commercial and coldness of the adage, ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ but the idea that women are necessarily opposed to or in competition with each other. Long Song by Andrea Levy highlights racism through slaves’ lives in Jamaica; her Small Island the racism exhibited towards Jamaicans in Britain. Philippa Gregory’s A Respectable Trade is the story of the African slave trade in Britain.
Dickens’ novels are descriptive of appalling conditions and class differences. Elizabeth Gaskell’s work makes a more analytical examination of class differences.
In contrast with the ethical novels that infer that behavior can justifiably be different over time and location The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver centres on the direct question of whether there is an eternal rightness of particular behaviour.
It is possible that other types of novels can be labelled ethical. These examples cover the fictional ethical dilemma; works that describe inequitable conditions; analytical examination of unethical conditions; promoting ethical positions through fictional accounts; undermining harmful stereotypes; the conflict between the public right to know and privacy with academic ownership an integral part of the debate; and questioning the infallibility of particular behaviours.
A diverse society can cope with a range of ethical and non-ethical writing. What promoting ethical fiction is about is ensuring that readers are given tools with which to make feelings, ideas and events intelligible and choices available.


Robin Joyce is an independent scholar with a particular interest in labour history and women’s writing.

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