In their ongoing rejection of what I call “ethical retirement,” Sarah Fielding's pair of novels, David Simple (1744) and Volume the Last (1753), mobilize a satirical criticism of mid-century worldly conceptions of the ethical worth of private and privative individualism. The works reveal a peripatetic ethics that serves as a formal alternative to both the values of cynical self-interest and of a generic tradition of beatus ille poetic images associated with narratives of ethical retirement. The two novels produce a drama in which genres vie with genres; modes of storytelling in this generic romance turn out to define ethical relation and to establish limits and laws that determine the form of relations between selves and others. The novels taken as a pair gesture past notions of ethical retirement by proposing through this drama of genres that faithful relation to God and vulnerable responsiveness to others are one and the same—a commitment that must be translated into worldly action and exposure. The genres of the picaresque, the quixotic, and the Joban fable will, the novels indicate, allow us to imagine that translation better than the literary traditions that emphasize ethical retirement. Tracing the drama of genres inaugurated by the first novel's opening generic engagements into their denouement in Volume the Last, we can confront the span and the dialectical motion of Sarah Fielding's winnowing of the ethical potential of genres.
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Bill Knight; David Simple and the Ethics of Genre. Genre 1 July 2017; 50 (2): 267–295. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00166928-3890064
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