Two Answers to Every Question : Elizabeth Jolley’s Fiction, Ethics and Criticism

In The Newspaper of Claremont Street the major character, the one who has the reader's sympathy, deliberately leaves an acquaintance to die of exposure. The central character in 'Two Men Running', again one in whom the reader has developed a strong interest, reveals he has raped a woman then stabbed her to death. Mr Scobie's Riddle is set in a nursing home where elderly victims are imprisoned, maltreated, forced to sign away their property, then hastened towards death by the matron. Many of Jolley's other fictions deal with murder or manslaughter, theft, vandalism, incest and arson, not to mention many more ambiguous cases of deception and exploitation. All these narratives involve acts which most readers would regard as having a strong ethical dimension, that is, having to do with human values and responsibilities, and yet there has been very little critical discussion of ethics in Elizabeth Jolley's fiction. Faced with this extraordinary fictional array of violence, crime and mayhem, Jolley critics discuss repression and displacement, otherness and narrative rupture, desire and textual shift, often persuasively, but sometimes, one feels, circling around the purpose for which Jolley uses all these elements.

One reason for this critical evasiveness is the poststructuralist basis of most recent literary criticism. The claim that the signification of meaning in language is irrevocably relative, not backed by the authority of some 'transcendental signifier', opened a debate about ethical relativism which has waged for some time amongst philosophers, has even moved tentatively into cultural studies, but has largely been avoided by literary critics. Some 'interventionalist' poststructuralists, particularly feminists, Marxists and psychoanalysts (many of whom have been among the most interesting and influential writers on Jolley's work), treat ethical concerns as a largely 'assumed' part of ideological or 'corporeally-inscribed' power structures. They are still uneasy, though, with questions of personal ethical or moral agency which involve (naively?) treating fictional characters as though they were real people. Theoretical defences of ethics in literary criticism have begun to reappear in recent years, but it is still, as Wayne Booth says, an 'inherently murky' area (44). Academic literary critics still labour, too, under some residual post-Leavisite cringe about connecting ethics or morality too closely with judgements about fiction.

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Published 1 May 1995 in Volume 17 No. 1. Subjects: Australian literary criticism, Critical reception, Ethics, Narrative techniques, Postmodern criticism, Poststructuralism, Reader response.

Cite as: Livett, Jennifer. ‘Two Answers to Every Question : Elizabeth Jolley’s Fiction, Ethics and Criticism.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, 1995. https://doi.org/10.20314/als.c36942cc0c.