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Goldman: A novel's message is in the eye of the beholder

{{youtube:medium|ow1dxRvKtVA, Goldman: 'Philosophy and the Novel.'}}
As a reader, Alan Goldman doesn’t agree that there’s only one correct way to interpret novels. As a philosopher, he went about making his point the way an author would – by writing a book.

Philosophy & The Novel is the eighth book written by Goldman, Kenan Professor of Humanities and professor of philosophy at William & Mary.

Just under 200 pages, the book is divided into two major sections: philosophy of the novel and philosophy in the novel.

“I wrote it mainly in reaction to narrower views about literary value and interpretation and what we can learn ethically by reading novels,” Goldman said. “I argue that our cognitive engagement with the themes and theses implicit in novels is part of their literary value – an important part – and therefore philosophers have something to contribute to literary criticism.”

Goldman argues against “intentionalist theories,” in which the idea of interpretation is to uncover what the author intended. That seems to imply that there is only one true interpretation – the one the author intended.

 The professor shows that there are multiple, incompatible – but acceptable – interpretations of many books, and that such interpretation is aimed at maximizing the reader’s appreciation of the work.

 “Aesthetic value consists in the capacity of a work – any kind of work – to engage us on all mental levels: conceptual, imaginative, emotional, cognitive. That holds for literary works as well.”

 Goldman buttresses his point by providing incompatible, but acceptable, interpretations of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

 In the second half of Philosophy, Goldman looks at different aspects of moral development, as well as moral disintegration, in four iconic novels: Pride and Prejudice, Huckleberry Finn, The Cider House Rules and Nostromo.

In Pride and Prejudice, Goldman argues that Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy begin as egocentric, but develop morally through their relationship with each other and their different perspectives. While psychological theories of moral development emphasize either the cognitive or emotional aspect, Goldman said, author Jane Austen seemed very much aware of both.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn centers on an age-old question philosophers have had regarding moral motivation: whether it is rationally required or against reason to act immorally. Goldman says Huck Finn shows that the answer is negative. Finn is faced with question of whether to turn in friend Jim, a runaway slave. Finn thinks he’s morally required to do so, that Jim is property and property must be returned to his rightful owner.  But he can’t get himself to do it because he sympathizes with Jim’s plight.

“When he realizes it, he says he’s going to wash his hands of morality,” Goldman said. “He’s no longer going to be motivated at all by sincere moral judgment.”

 In addition, Goldman states, Finn’s decision is both rational and motivated by his moral emotion, which begs the question: Are moral emotions rationally required?

In The Cider House Rules, Goldman said that author John Irving shows how complex our attitude toward society’s moral rules have to be. Homer Wells, the lead character, is uneducated, but trained to perform abortions by the doctor who runs the orphanage in which he lives. Wells steadfastly refuses to perform abortions until he meets a group of migrant workers, including a young woman who has been impregnated by her father.

Despite his anti-abortion beliefs, Wells comes to realize that he has to perform the procedure precisely because of the law against doing so.

 Finally, Goldman uses Joseph Conrad’s 1904 novel Nostromo as a reverse example. Its theme is the moral disintegration of all the book’s characters, but especially Nostromo.

During one of the many revolutions that occur in a fictional South American country, the owner of a silver mine seeks to prevent his silver from becoming a spoil of war and commands trusted employee Nostromo to take it offshore so that it can be sold.

Eventually embittered that he has never been accepted into upper society and is viewed as a pawn by the wealthy, Nostromo reports that the silver has been lost at sea when, in reality, he has hidden it and plans to recover the silver for himself.

When he attempts to retrieve the silver, however, he is mistaken for a trespasser and shot to death by his fiancée’s father.

“Conrad’s view of history is bleak, and what happens is none of the characters is able to maintain their reputation or live up to their social image or their personal images either,” Goldman said. “All are overcome by what philosophers today call ‘circumstantial moral luck.’

 “Their actions are morally well-intended but constantly frustrated. In the end they all disintegrate into fanaticism on the one hand or fragmentation of themselves. They can’t perceive value in what they are doing and they remain socially isolated.”

Says of the book: “By narrating the course of characters' lives, including their inner lives, over extended periods, these novels allow us to vicariously experience the characters' moral progressions, positive and negative, to learn in a more focused way moral truths, as we do from real life experiences.”