Action is traditionally the point at which formal and ethical readings of fiction intersect. To act is to be “heroic,” at once in the formal sense of being a main character and in the ethical sense of being a hero. This essay argues, though, that this formal-ethical emphasis on action actually comes into conflict with another ethical tradition that runs throughout traditional fiction: the idea of anonymous tacit agreement, or sensus communis. In order to sketch out how this ethical tradition operates in storytelling, the essay turns to an analysis of a usually overlooked genre of narrative: the ethical example, and particularly the so-called trolleyology of Philippa Foot, Judith Jarvis Thomson, and Bernard Williams. Reading the examples from these thinkers against the tradition of English intuitionism, I ultimately argue that a certain sort of individual inaction—a letting things happen—is itself not only an ethical position but also a formal principle in realist fiction.
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Jesse Rosenthal; Being in the Plot: Action, Intuition, and Trolleys. boundary 2 1 May 2013; 40 (2): 25–39. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-2151785
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