Cover for Sex, Lies, and Autobiography
Sex, Lies, and Autobiography
The Ethics of Confession
James O'Rourke

Jean-Pierre Barricelli Prize - United States, (2005)

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In Sex, Lies, and Autobiography James O’Rourke explores the relationships between literary form and ethics, revealing how autobiographical texts are able to confront readers with the moral complexities of everyday life. Tracing the ethical legacy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions in a series of English-language texts, the author shows how Rousseau’s doubts about the possibility of ethical behavior in everyday life shadows the first-person narratives of five canonic works: William Wordsworth’s Prelude, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Villette, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Offering a fascinating new way of thinking about ethics through literature, Sex, Lies, and Autobiography challenges the most fundamental principles of the philosophical study of ethics, revealing the innate difference between morality in life and morality in literature.

O’Rourke begins with Rousseau’s inability to reconcile his intuitive belief that he is a good person with the effects that his actions have on others, and he goes on to show how this same ethical impasse recurs in the five aforementioned texts. The ethical crises these texts describe, such as when Jane Eyre’s happiness can be purchased only at the cost of Bertha Mason’s suicide, or when Humbert Humbert’s artistry demands the sacrifice of Dolores Haze, are not instances of authorial ethical blindness, O’Rourke says, but rather are ethical challenges that force us as readers to consider our own lives. In each of these works, a narrator attempts to justify his or her behavior and fails; in each case, the rigorous narrative of self-examination demands a similar effort from the reader, whose own sense of moral rectitude is put into question.

Confronting the long-held philosophical construction that links ethical principles and life choices, thereby reassuring us of the ethical coherence of everyday life, the narrators of these literary autobiographies come to a very different conclusion; by looking back on their lives, they cannot understand how their most benevolent desires led to such damaging life stories. By leaving meaning inexplicit, O’Rourke argues, these texts are able to recover traumatic material that is ordinarily repressed and then bring that repressed knowledge to bear on self-justifying narratives.

For readers interested in autobiographical studies, ethical criticism, and trauma and literary studies, Sex, Lies, and Autobiography provides a groundbreaking analysis of the role of ethics in literature.

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