Many critics have examined metanarrative aspects of Dickens's writing, and many have studied Dickens's ethics. None, however, has yet assessed the ways in which Dickens's directly interrogates the ethics of fiction. Surprisingly philosophical treatments of the ethics of fiction take place in A Christmas Carol and A House to Let, both of which turn the ghost story of the traditional winter's tale to metafictional purposes. No one has yet dealt with Dickens's own meta-commentary on the ethics of fiction with the degree of philosophical nuance it deserves. Writings about the ethics of Dickens's fiction (and of fiction generally) often involves a simplistic separation of the real and the fictional: the text is ethical inasmuch as it effects positive change in the "real world." Yet Dickens constantly blurs the line between the real and the fictional. He adopts a somewhat Kantian stance, namely that both the real and the fictional are fundamentally imagined. Dickens reflexively makes the ghosts in A Christmas Carol embodiments of the fictional imagination, seen most explicitly in the Ghost of Christmas Past, who is closely associated with the narrator, with imagination, with memory, and with fiction. The other two spirits also personify aspects of the fictional imagination: that of Christmas Present embodies social imaginings; the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come embodies intentions. Dickens shows that these imagined realities are crucial parts of the real, proving that fiction cannot be defined as that which is merely "imagined." How, then, is "fiction" to be defined? Dickens's answer anticipates Levinas: the ethical encounter determines the real as real; its absence is what defines fiction. A House to Let is also strongly Levinasian: its very structure makes it a parable of the ethical relation. The plot centers on Sophonisba's "haunting" by an eye seen in the supposedly uninhabited house to let opposite. This "eye" and its effect are described in terms that equate it with the Levinasian "face," or the foundational ethical reality that precedes and conditions all discourse. Sophonisba reacts to this haunting by enlisting her closest male companions, Jarber and Trottle, to investigate the house. These two characters come to symbolize different general comportments by their reactions. The text unfavorably represents Jarber's primarily narrative orientation, and approves Trottle's response, which disrupts narrative self-satisfaction in favor of real-world intervention in behalf of the Other. There is a productive friction, then, between the metafictional message of A Christmas Carol (looking back to Kant and emphasizing fiction's positive effects) and that of A House to Let (looking forward to Levinas and emphasizing fiction's ethical dangers), evidencing Dickens's complex awareness of both narrative and pre-narrative levels of ethical reality.



College and Department

Humanities; English



Date Submitted


Document Type





Dickens, Levinas, Kant, A House to Let, A Christmas Carol, ethics of fiction