Ethics and character in the representation of the past in Contemporary fiction
21 octobre · 9h00 – 22 octobre · 13h00
Responsable scientifique : Armelle Parey
Organisé par Armelle Parey (ERIBIA, Université de Caen Normandie) en collaboration avec Christine Berberich (Université de Portsmouth).
This conference aims to examine how and to what effect contemporary representations of the past display or ignore a commitment to ethical causes in particular through their use of character.
The past is a key component of contemporary literature which has witnessed a return of history and of the historical novel in mainstream fiction, from the historiographic metafictions of the 1990s to the “fresh commitment to what we might call the reality of history” (Boxall 2013) in 21st-century novels. Considering that character remains central to the novel, this one-day conference wishes to address the issue of the past in contemporary fiction through the question of the choice of protagonists and their representation. Indeed, if we believe with Paul Ricoeur that narrative is the foundation of textual memory, if “narrative imagination is an essential preparation for moral interaction” since it develops compassion and understanding in the reader (Nussbaum 1998), then the question that begs to be asked is: can one write anything about the past in the name of the freedom of fiction and art or is there an ethical limit to representations of the past in contemporary fiction?
Echoing Edward Said, Eaglestone evokes a contrapuntal approach to the past in fiction that “appropriates the past knowingly and rewrites tropes, narratives, identities from the past” (2019), granting a place and visibility to figures previously omitted from historical records and fictional accounts. For novelist Sarah Moss, “Historical fiction, then, is able to imagine the stories missing from popular history” (The Irish Times 20 July 2016). Re-creation of the past may depart from fact without any self-reflexivity to alert the unknowing reader or viewer. Such is the case in the TV series Victoria (2016-19), when the Queen shows an interest in the thousands dying in Ireland at the time of the famine whereas historians have established the opposite. If biofiction may serve “a desire for an empathic connection with the past” or conversely a “prying impulse” (Kohlke & Gutleben 2020) that ultimately disparages or cuts down to size well-known figures, in this particular instance of a historical or real-life figure turned character in a biofiction, the representation is positive, an embellishment of known facts. The stance adopted by works of fiction regarding the past, through their selection and treatment of characters, has a significant impact on the collective imagination and thus calls for scrutinising.