Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Marilyn Edelstein: Love, Literature, and Morality

"A book can be moral if it raises moral questions even if it doesn't provide moral answers." That's the view of Marilyn Edelstein, associate professor of English at Santa Clara University, who leads her students through novels such as Lolita, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Beloved, with an emphasis on the ethical issues each addresses.

Edelstein finds a resurgence of interest in the question of ethics among those in literary studies. In July, she gave a paper at the International Conference on Literature and Ethics at the University of Wales. Entitled "What's Love Got to Do With Postmodernism?" the paper "examines the possibility of a postmodern ethics based on love and hope," she says.

She has also written on John Gardner's book On Moral Fiction, which raised the hackles of writers and literary scholars when it appeared in 1978, condemning contemporary art as amoral or immoral. Gardner had been regarded as an avant-garde writer, but his demand that novels be life-affirming and address universal values seemed old-fashioned and preachy to many critics, Edelstein says.

Edelstein believes that Gardner's argument was dismissed too quickly. Her paper, "Ethics and Contemporary American Literature: Revisiting the Controversy Over John Gardner's On Moral Fiction" — delivered last November at the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association Conference — will appear in the association's journal, Pacific Coast Philology.

Edelstein is also hoping to develop a course on ethics and literature. "If you don't believe literature can have a positive effect on people," she says, "why in the world would you devote your life to teaching it?"