Annette Federico (James Madison University)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Stevenson’s Ethical Turn’

In Death Sentences, his 1986 study of representations of dying in Victorian fiction, Garrett Stewart emphasizes the essential triangulation of death, content, and form. His critical approach is principally deconstructive and stylistic, but textuality is never far from an ethical, humanist context: the reader’s experience is frequently figured in the moment of fictional death as recuperative intervention, “verbal close calls with the unutterable,” “redemption through reading,” or “demise by proxy.” As Stewart explains, there is always a “decentering” in narrative, a chasm between word and world, art and life. Through aesthetic displacement, fiction gathers into shape a confrontation with our identity and its annihilation (safely removed in art), and so helps us achieve a measure of clarity on mortal questions.

Stewart’s formulation may be helpful in looking at the meaning and stylistics of the violent deaths that haunt Stevenson’s writing, and especially the transformative or “revelatory potential” in his aesthetic treatment of death. Although many critics have discussed the dark side of Stevenson’s adventure novels, from the perspective of both genre studies and late-Victorian psychology, few have given him credit for articulating a serious view of the meaning of human life, and especially of developing a philosophical position about life’s termination. Stevenson’s chronic illness brought him often near death. His letters show a consistent interest in mortality and ethics, while essays such as “Pulvis Et Umbra,” “Lay Morals,” Pan’s Pipes,” and “Aes Triplex” reveal a mind profoundly alert to the fact that human suffering and death must be confronted without the consolations of religion or the belief in an afterlife (what he called a “fairy tale of an eternal tea-party”).

In this paper, I want to redirect attention to Stevenson’s explorations of death in both his fiction and nonfiction. The daring deaths in Treasure Island and Kidnapped, for example, may be read as a prelude to his more mature reflections on violence and mortality. In 1884, Stevenson wrote, “Some people regimb at death; I do not regimb at death.” Death in Stevenson is very much a literary matter, a question of aesthetic choices. But although Stevenson believed there was a clear difference between art and life (“these phantom reproductions of experience, even at their most acute, convey decided pleasure; while experience itself, in the cockpit of life, can torture and slay”), his treatment of death also involves the reader in the kind of moral reflection Garret Stewart describes. My paper, then, would also attempt to reorient Stevenson’s ouvre toward the “ethical turn” in contemporary critical practice.

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