“ART FOR HUMANITY'S SAKE”
The Social Novel as a Mode of Moral Discourse
The social novel ought not to be confused with didacticism in literature and ought not to be expected to provide prescriptions for the cure of social ills. Neither should it necessarily be viewed as ephemeral. After examining justifications of the social novel offered by William Dean Howells (in the 1880s) and Jonathan Franzen (in the 1990s), the author explores the way in which social novels alter perceptions and responses at levels of sensibility that are not usually susceptible to rational argument, push back moral horizons, contribute to the creation of social conscience, and expose the complexity and contextuality of moral discernment. As a concrete example, Howells's 1889 novel A Hazard of New Fortunes is analyzed (and defended against its detractors) in terms of its sophisticated treatment of the dilemmas that arise from a recognition of personal complicity in structural sin, its disclosure of the context-indexed evolution of values, and its attention to the importance and fragility of social trust.