The Ethical Turn

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review

Colleges, School and Institutes


This chapter explores the evolutions that gave rise to the late-twentieth-century critical turn – or return – to ethics in literature. Literary ethics fell out of favor in the first half of the twentieth century, after the Aesthetes and Modernists rejected the moral imperatives that had been a common foundation of Victorian novels. By the late nineteen-seventies, Victorian fiction had regained a privileged place in the canon, but it was only when deconstruction began to wane that literary criticism and theory again overtly embraced the ethical, by adopting a reader-centred approach. After summarizing the early voices of the turn—Martha Nussbaum, Wayne Booth, and J. Hillis Miller—this chapter considers some of the more important iterations of the trend in Victorian literary studies, with the ethics of social formalism (Hale), detachment (Anderson), and epistemological uncertainty (Levine) forming one nexus, and sympathy/empathy studies (e.g. Jaffe, Keen, Greiner, Mitchell) forming another.


Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRoutledge Companion to Victorian Literature
EditorsDennis Denisoff, Talia Schaffer
Publication statusPublished - 4 Nov 2019


  • Ethical Turn, Victorian Literature, Sympathy, Empathy