Stylistics and Ethical Literary Criticism

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1 Citation (Scopus)


Stylistics is the study of linguistic choices. Ethics is the study of moral choices. Both disciplines attempt to understand and explain the choices individuals make and the significance the most fine-grained choices can sometimes make. The two disciplines, indeed, both originate in classic Aristotelian rhetoric, which fully recognised the ethical import of the words we choose. Choice is unavoidable in language and life, and choices matter. The awareness that comes from engagement in ethical choices through literary reading is one important way into this desirable moral education. Classic English literature of the late 19th century seems particularly concerned with the moral choices characters make and their consequences - fictions like Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, The Picture of Dorian Gray, or Jekyll and Hyde come immediately to mind. One of the finest discriminators in the English language in that period was Henry James, noted for his distinctive stylistic elaborations as well as for his moral concerns. In a recent Handbook chapter I argued that literary criticism could benefit from a closer, more systematic and better informed attention to language.1 Here I take instances from ethical and stylistic studies of James's fiction to suggest what a stylistic awareness or at the least an awareness of stylistics might offer to literary criticism's pursuit of what Blake valued as "Minute Particulars": "He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars: general good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer" (William Blake, Jerusalem).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)62-72
Number of pages11
JournalForum for World Literature Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2015


  • Henry James
  • Language choices
  • Language education
  • Style
  • Stylistics
  • Stylometry

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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