Excerpt From:  “Escaping the Prison of Singularity:  The Behavioral Axis of the Narrative Transaction,” CEA Critic LXIII.2 (Winter/Spring 2001):  1-25.


NB: This publication received the Robert Miller prize from CEA as “the best article to appear in the CEA Critic in 2001,” awarded at the April, 2002 CEA convention.


Our ethos becomes what it is because of what we do. Choosing actions by taking models and images from literature is an important way not just of doing but of being. Sometimes we may take a stance of belligerence or strike a pose of dignity; sometimes, we may use a colloquial expression or employ a Brahmin inflection; sometimes, we may tap our fingers as a sign of boredom or roll our shoulders in evasion of a question; sometimes, we may assert leadership in a group or maintain a retiring self-effacement; sometimes, we may sit up front in class or sit in the back; sometimes, we may speak to others in varying tones of compassion or contempt or love or teasing; sometimes, we men may shave our heads or comb our hair over our bald spots; sometimes, women may indulge in "big hair," complete with lots of hair spray and tiny bows; sometimes, we may express our different group affiliations or merely our varying moods by wearing cowboy boots or hiking boots or tasseled loafers; sometimes, we may define brave behavior as demanding respect on the street or asking the dean for a raise or being willing to kill other human beings in wars initiated by our country's leaders.


Whenever we engage in these or thousands of other behaviors, we often do so not because we can articulate the idea that lies behind or that justifies the behavior but just because we have learned these behaviors from other people and can imitate them in circumstances where the role models help us choose behaviors that fit the situation. Whenever we choose behaviors this way, the chances are good—and this is the point at which this issue becomes pertinent to ethical criticism and not just to developmental psychology—that many of our models for specific behaviors come not from the behaviors of people we have observed in first-hand life but from the behaviors of people we have observed in everyone's favorite form of second-hand living: stories. The ethical significance of imitating fictional figures from television, movies, historical narratives, and literature can carry no less significance than that of imitating real-life people. . . . That Emma's narrative models have led her to nothing but frustration, disappointment, and eventually a ghastly death does not mean that she abandons these models, nor does her refusal to abandon them mean that she is stupid or that she intends to be blatantly self-destructive. For that matter, Francesca and Paolo don't intend to be unfaithful, Criseyde doesn't intend to fall in love, and Manfred doesn't intend to see all his powers brought to nothing by an early death. These fictional characters, like all of us, intend to live life finely and fully, but they are influenced far more than they realize by the narrative models they take in—as are we all.

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