Analysis Of Wayne C. Booth's The Company We Keep : An Ethics Of Fiction

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In the central chapter of his 1988 book The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, Wayne C. Booth uses François Rabelais’s famous sixteenth-century comic novel Gargantua and Pantagruel as a case study for his investigation of the role of ethics in literary criticism. Through a polemics with Mikhail Bakhtin and his perhaps most influential text Rabelais and His World, Booth sets out to prove that the French novel which the Russian scholar uses as a paradigm for his definition of the carnival spirit is, because of its propensity for the ridicule of women, ultimately an unethical work. Though Booth admits that both he and his wife once found the supposedly canonical novel very funny, his recently acquired understanding of the feminist…show more content…
Just how significant an ethical problem laughter poses for Booth’s critical methodology can be seen from the final chapter of his book where at least one of the remaining three case studies again revolves around the question of what a contemporary reader should or should not find amusing. His reading of Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn begins with a reference to the novelist’s rejection of moralist criticism and continues with a number of compliments about Twain’s use of American colloquial idiom. Booth then adjusts the focus of his interpretation and analyzes the very end of the work in which no amount of the author’s humour can conceal the latent racism of the novel’s denouement. While he concedes that it might be possible to defend the book by “the attribution to Huck, not to Mark Twain, of all the ethical deficiencies” (470), Booth eventually concludes that it is the plot’s ending, and not the character’s words, which violates the basic ethical principles and, therefore, makes Huckleberry Finn into a critical liability.
Booth’s is, by no means, an isolated opinion. For many years before critical theory rehabilitated the role of ethics in literary and cultural criticism, a number of scholars, philosophers, and writers observed that laughter as a common audience response may have “an ethical edge to it” (Booth

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