"In some moods, or for some people, the desire to improve can
seem so natural as to be banal. The impulse drives forward so much
in our culture that it can color our thoughts and shape our actions
without being much noticed. But in other moods, or for other
people, this strenuous desire becomes all too noticeable, and its
demands crushing. It can then drive a sleepless attention to
ourselves, a desolate evaluation of what we have been and what we
are." from The Burdens of Perfection
Literary criticism has, in recent decades, rather fled from
discussions of moral psychology, and for good reasons, too. Who
would not want to flee the hectoring moralism with which it is so
easily associated-portentous, pious, humorless? But in protecting
us from such fates, our flight has had its costs, as we have lost
the concepts needed to recognize and assess much of what
distinguished nineteenth-century British literature. That
literature was inescapably ethical in orientation, and to proceed
as if it were not ignores a large part of what these texts have to
offer, and to that degree makes less reasonable the desire to study
them, rather than other documents from the period, or from other
Such are the intuitions that drive The Burdens of Perfection, a
study of moral perfectionism in nineteenth-century British culture.
Reading the period's essayists (Mill, Arnold, Carlyle), poets
(Browning and Tennyson), and especially its novelists (Austen,
Dickens, Eliot, and James), Andrew H. Miller provides an extensive
response to Stanley Cavell's contribution to ethics and philosophy
of mind. In the process, Miller offers a fresh way to perceive the
Victorians and the lingering traces their quests for improvement
have left on readers."
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