How do we come to share an ethical outlook with others? Is it possible to teach ethics? What does it mean to live with others when we do not (always) inhabit the same world? J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello engages these profound ethical questions in its very form. Whereas critics argue that the novel either takes up or evades the task of ethical instruction, this article shows that the text disputes the basic assumptions of ethical literary criticism. Elizabeth Costello makes a powerful case for the difference of the novel vis-à-vis other forms of ethical discourse. What is at stake in Coetzee’s choice of the novel qua fiction is an attempt to engage the status of fiction in relation to the status of ethical discourse in our time. Contemporary ethical discourse unfolds within a context in which it is considered to be no more than a necessary fiction. Coetzee’s text places this stance within the framework of fiction—not primarily to demonstrate its falsity but to stage an alternate or rival fiction, one that challenges our fundamental assumptions about fiction, ethics, and existence.

You do not currently have access to this content.