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Journal of Philosophy: A Cross-Disciplinary Inquiry

Volume 8, Issue 19, Fall 2013

Heidi L. Pennington
Pages 33-47

“But why must readers be made to feel. . . .”
Repulsing Readerly Sympathy for Ethical Ends in the Victorian Realist Novel

In this article, I investigate the ethical potential of Victorian literature that markedly discourages readerly sympathy with the protagonists. Generating sympathy for fictional characters was, and often still is, considered to be the primary way in which the novel promotes ethical thoughts, feelings, and behavior in readers. For this reason, the ethical prospects of novels that fail or refuse to make their main characters appealing and instead inspire aversion in readers have received very little critical attention. Taking an unpopular novel by Anthony Trollope as my primary example, I analyze how the formal narrative strategy of “disnarration” (theorized by Gerald Prince) creates profound dislike for the book’s protagonists. Further, I propose that these same passages of disnarration, by emphasizing the text’s fictionality, can encourage readers to seek the sympathetic fulfillment that the text refuses them by engaging with the real world. In this way, I argue, even Victorian realist novels that defy the conventions of sympathy might still share an investment in realizing the ethical potential of fiction.