Morality at work in the novels of Ellen Douglas.




Hall, Rebecca G.

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In Ellen Douglas's novels, characters must negotiate the rules of their professions to act justly. Truth and justice neither vanished nor became irrelevant with the collapse of metanarratives that formerly defined these guiding principles of humanism. Rather, Douglas's novels show characters acting justly by listening to marginalized, silenced characters; in Jean-Francois Lyotard's terms, these characters play by justice's rules, and justice is one of many language games that structure society in the absence of metanarratives. Justice occurs at the level of the quotidian in Douglas's novels; a character's profession—a language game—determines his power to silence and marginalize or to listen and act justly. These novels also show Southern society further marginalizes the individual based on gender and race, and, as the twentieth century progresses, limits work options through the institutional hurdles of increased specialization and the cult of expertise which restrict the professions in which one can participate and sometimes influence characters to try to assert the rules of their professions in other areas of their lives. The medical profession in Douglas's novels requires the doctor to dehumanize the patient in the twentieth-century efficiency-minded medical industry, so Douglas's doctors are particularly susceptible to acting unjustly and marginalizing other characters. Douglas's entrepreneurs are not anti-humanist or evil, necessarily, but the characters who only develop, who are salesmen above all else, must victimize others to gain control of their assets. Hired help—domestic workers and farm hands—are the most vulnerable to exploitation because most are black in a political context that denies black workers and black people their rights and their voices, either by law or by custom; these workers must play inventively to survive, but to preserve their humanity against the temptation to hate their employers and exploiters, they have to be willing to break the rules of their professions when they must do so to act justly. The artist characters that are also narrators play the justice through their artistic practice, trying to approach truth through their creations.


Includes bibliographical references (p. 151-154).