Wandering the Inferno Without a Guide: The Fiction Reader’s Experience of Morality

Something that has always fascinated me as a student of reader-response criticism is the idea that as readers, we are voyeurs into a character’s life, and our sympathies within a work of fiction may not lie where they would in the same real life situation.

As readers of literature, we are trained and therefore predisposed to look for conflict, to not want everything to work out for the main characters (otherwise, we may as well be reading fluff fiction in which there is always a happy ending—boring, yes, but every reader has his or her own tastes.  The real point here is that fluff fiction, where all the characters get what they want and nobody gets hurt or experiences any adversity, is not a true imitation of reality.)

Drafting chapters of my novella, I have kept Stanley Fish’s thesis in mind from Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost*;  Fish argues that the reader sympathizes with Milton’s Satan over the character of God because of the reader’s own fallen, sinful nature.  I don’t entirely agree with this statement, but it serves as the basis for my own claim that readers who have an inherently good nature (as the binary opposite to evil…oooh, should we go there?) cannot help but wish to witness or experience the bad in fiction, the morally questionable thoughts and deeds of a main character such as this narrator, because these good-natured readers would never make such choices in real life.

However, where Fish argues that reading a text in this way—cheering on the “bad” characters—is a reflection of the reader’s sinful nature, I believe the reader’s choices are simply made by looking for that which we would not or could not ever experience in our own lives and “aligning” ourselves with deviant characters for the duration of the text, safe within the confines of the imagination.                        

First-person narration is also effective in any story with such gray areas of right and wrong, sympathy or hatred toward the narrator, because there is no didactic third-person voice (representative of the author or reader’s conscience) to moralize and analyze the characters and their situations—it’s like trying to move through the darkness and confusion of Dante’s Inferno without a guide, a much more exciting prospect than being told how to think or feel within the text.

I’ve realized that the negative characteristics of my narrator and those with whom she interacts may be considered evil, but all are directly influenced by the situation or context in which they occur, and I have ultimately found in writing these chapters that the notion of evil, just like that of morality and goodness, is nothing if not relative.

*Fish, Stanley.  Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

**Image Credit – Engraving by Gustave Dore (1870). Photo Courtesy: iStock

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