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The Essential Wayne Booth

The Essential Wayne Booth

by Wayne C. Booth, Walter Jost (Editor)

Wayne Booth wrote some of the most influential and engaging criticism of our time, most notably the 1961 classic The Rhetoric of Fiction, a book that transformed literary criticism and became the standard reference point for advanced discussions of how fiction works, how authors make novels accessible, and how readers re-create texts. 



Wayne Booth wrote some of the most influential and engaging criticism of our time, most notably the 1961 classic The Rhetoric of Fiction, a book that transformed literary criticism and became the standard reference point for advanced discussions of how fiction works, how authors make novels accessible, and how readers re-create texts. 

While Booth’s work was formative to the study of literature, his essential writings have never been collected in a single volume—until now. Selected by Walter Jost in collaboration with Booth himself, the texts anthologized here present a picture of this indispensable critic’s contributions to literary and rhetorical studies. The selections range from memorable readings of Macbeth, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James to engagements with Booth’s intellectual heroes, such as Richard McKeon and Mikhail Bakhtin. But rhetoric, Booth’s abiding concern as a critic and thinker, provides the organizing principle of the anthology. The Essential Wayne Booth illuminates the scope of Booth’s rhetorical inquiry: the entire range of resources that human beings share for producing effects on one another. Whether about metaphors for our friendship with books or the two cultures of science and religion, the texts collected here always return to the techniques and ethics of our ways of communicating with each other—that is, to rhetoric.

The Essential Wayne Booth is a capstone to Booth's long career and an eloquent reminder of the ways in which criticism can make us alive to the arts of writing, talking, and listening.

Editorial Reviews

Virginia Quarterly Review - Ania Wieckowski
"[This collection] captures the broad range of Booth's subjects, from ethics, popular culture, and teaching, to Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and Mikhail Bakhtin. His invigorating and earnestly joyful style of writing matches hjis intense depth and breadth of reading. . . . His essays excite us because he so lucidly takes us along on his explorations."
Virginia Quarterly Review
[This collection] captures the broad range of Booth's subjects, from ethics, popular culture, and teaching, to Jane Austen, Shakespeare, and Mikhail Bakhtin. His invigorating and earnestly joyful style of writing matches hjis intense depth and breadth of reading. . . . His essays excite us because he so lucidly takes us along on his explorations.

— Ania Wieckowski

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University of Chicago Press
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The Essential WAYNE BOOTH


Copyright © 2006 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-06592-2

Chapter One

This essay was published more than fifty years ago, twelve years before any of the others in this anthology. It began as a term paper, when I was strongly under the influence of the so-called Chicago School, or neo-Aristotelian formalists. The leader of that "school," Ronald Crane, considered it "brilliant" and urged me to polish (and polish), and then publish, which I did-to my thrilled surprise-in the Journal of General Education (1951). That was one year after I finished my dissertation "proving" the "unity" of Tristram Shandy, and ten years before publishing my first book-also based on close reading.

Since formal analysis and close reading are now widely ignored, the essay may strike many readers as absurdly outdated-while my Vanity Self insists it is not. We are now flooded with "criticism" based on quick readings conducted in search of evidence for this or that ideological conclusion: "Ah, I've found proof that X was a homosexual" or "that Y was a sexist" or "that Z was a racist." Pursuing what Crane called the "high-priori road," critics too often simply ignore the artistic structure that the author intended to create, thrilled when they find the evidence that they knew in advance they wanted-and thus often escaping the deeper thrill offered by thework itself.

This first chapter is not Professor Booth's first published academic essay, having been preceded by two somewhat slighter pieces and, on the heels of his dissertation, an essay entitled "Did Sterne Complete Tristram Shandy?" (Modern Philology, 1951). The essay is, however, a fine example of why he was in such good standing as a junior member of the so-called Chicago neo-Aristotelians, whose concern with literary parts and wholes did not preclude (any more than it did for Aristotle) close attention to questions of ethics and rhetoric.

The essay was originally published in the Journal of General Education 6, no. 1 (October 1951): 17-25. It was revised and reprinted as "Shakespeare's Tragic Villain," in Shakespeare's Tragedies: An Anthology of Modern Criticism, ed. Lawrence Lerner (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1963), 180-90.

Macbeth as Tragic Hero

Put even in its simplest terms, the problem Shakespeare gave himself in Macbeth was a tremendous one. Take a good man, a noble man, a man admired by all who know him-and destroy him, not only physically and emotionally, as the Greeks destroyed their heroes, but also morally and intellectually. As if this were not difficult enough as a dramatic hurdle, while you are transforming him into one of the most despicable mortals conceivable, maintain him as a tragic hero-that is, keep him so sympathetic that, when he comes to his death, the audience will pity rather than detest him; they must feel relieved to see him out of his misery rather than pleased to see him destroyed. Put in Shakespeare's own terms: take a "noble" man, full of "conscience" and "the milk of human kindness," and make of him a "dead butcher," yet keep him an object of pity rather than hatred.

If we thus artificially reconstruct the problem as it might have existed before the play was written, we see that, in choosing these "terminal points" and these terminal intentions, Shakespeare makes almost impossible demands on his dramatic skill, although at the same time he insures that, if he succeeds at all, he will succeed magnificently. If the trick can be turned, it will inevitably be a great one.

One need only consider the many relative failures in attempts at similar "plots" and effects to realize the difficulties involved. When dramatists or novelists attempt the sympathetic-degenerative plot, almost always one or another of the following failures or transformations occurs:

1. The feeling of abhorrence for the protagonist becomes so strong that all sympathy is lost, and the play or novel becomes "punitive"-that is, the reader's or spectator's chief pleasure depends on his satisfaction in revenge or punishment.

2. The protagonist is never really made very wicked, after all; he only seems wicked by conventional (and, by implication, unsound) standards and is really a highly admirable reform-candidate.

3. The protagonist reforms in the end and avoids his proper punishment.

4. The book or play itself becomes a "wicked" work; that is, either deliberately or unconsciously the artist makes us side with his degenerated hero against "morality."

If it is deliberate, we have propaganda works of one kind or another, often resembling the second type above; if it is unconscious, we get works whose immorality (as in pornographic or sadistic treatments of the good-girl-turned-whore, thief, or murderess) makes them unenjoyable as literature unless the reader or spectator temporarily or permanently relaxes his own standards of moral judgment. Any of these failures or transformations can be found in conjunction with the most frequent failure of all: the degeneration remains finally unexplained, unmotivated; the forces employed to destroy the noble man are found pitifully inadequate to make his fall seem credible.

Even in works that are somewhat successful, there is almost always some shrinking from a fully responsible engagement with the inherent difficulties. For example, in Tender Is the Night, which is in many ways strikingly similar to Macbeth, Fitzgerald waters down the effect in several ways. Dick Diver, Fitzgerald's "noble" man, is destroyed, but he is destroyed only to helplessness-to unpopularity and drunkenness and poverty; he becomes a "failure." The signs of his destruction are never grotesque acts of cruelty or wickedness of the kind committed by Macbeth or of a kind which, for the modern reader, would be analogous in their unsympathetic quality. Rather, he speaks more sharply to people than he used to; he is no longer charming. This is indeed pitiful enough, in its own way, but it is easy enough, too, especially when the artist chooses, as Fitzgerald does, to report the final demoralization of the hero only vaguely and from a great distance: one never sees Dick Diver's final horrible moments as one sees Macbeth's. The result is that, at the end of his downward path, Diver has been more sinned against than sinning, and we have no obstacles to our pity. On the other hand, since the fall has not been nearly so great, our pity that the fall should have occurred at all is attenuated, compared with the awfulness of the last hours of Macbeth. Other attenuations follow from this one. If the fall is not a very great one, the forces needed to produce it need not be great (although one might argue that even in Tender Is the Night they should have been greater, for credibility). Nicole and a general atmosphere of gloom and decay are made to do a job which, in Macbeth, requires some of the richest degenerative forces ever employed.

If, then, comparison on these structural points is just, in spite of the strong differences between the works, it indicates that in point of the difficulties created, Shakespeare in Macbeth has it all over Fitzgerald, as he has it all over anyone else I know of who has attempted this form.


A complete study of how Macbeth succeeds in spite of-or rather because of-the difficulties is beyond the capacities of any one reader. But the major devices employed by Shakespeare-one never knows how "consciously"-can be enumerated and discussed quite simply.

The first step in convincing us that Macbeth's fall is a genuinely tragic occurrence is to convince us that there was, in reality, a fall: we must believe that Macbeth was once a man whom we could admire, a man with great potential. One way to convince us would have been to show him, as Fitzgerald shows Dick Diver, in action as an admirable man. But, although this is possible in a leisurely novel, in a play it would have wasted time needed for the important events, which begin only with Macbeth's great temptation at the conclusion of the opening battle. Thus the superior choice in this case (although it would not necessarily always be so) is to begin your representation of the action with the first real temptation to the fall and to use testimony by other characters to establish your protagonist's prior goodness. We are thus given, from the beginning, sign after sign that Macbeth's greatest nobility was reached at a point just prior to the opening. When the play begins, he already covets the crown, as is shown by his excessively nervous reaction to the witches' prophecy; it is indeed likely that he has already considered foul means of obtaining it. But, in spite of this wickedness already present to his mind as a possibility, we have ample reason to think Macbeth a man worthy of our admiration. He is "brave" and "valiant," a "worthy gentleman"; Duncan calls him "noble Macbeth." These epithets have an ironic quality only in retrospect; when they are first applied, one has no reason to doubt them. Indeed, they are true epithets, or they would have been true if applied, say, only a few days or months earlier.

Of course, this testimony to his prior virtue given by his friends in the midst of other business would not carry the spectators for long with any sympathy for Macbeth if it were not continued in several other forms. We have the testimony of Lady Macbeth (the unimpeachable testimony of a "bad" person castigating the goodness of a "good" person):

Yet do I fear thy nature; It is too full o' the milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great, Art not without ambition, but without The illness should attend it. What thou wouldst highly, That wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false, And yet wouldst wrongly win.

No such verbal evidence would be enough, however, if we did not see in Macbeth himself signs of its validity, since we have already seen many signs that he is not the good man that the witnesses seem to believe. Thus the best evidence we have of his essential goodness is his vacillation before the murder. Just as Raskolnikov is tormented and just as we ourselves-virtuous theater viewers-would be tormented, so Macbeth is tormented before the prospect of his own crime. Indeed, much as he wants the kingship, he decides in Scene 3 against the murder:

If chance will have me King, why, chance may crown me, Without my stir ...

So when he firstmeets Lady Macbeth, he is resolved not to murder Duncan. In fact, as powerful a rhetorician as she is, she has all she can do to get him back on the course of murder.

In addition, Macbeth's ensuing soliloquy not only weighs the possible bad practical consequences of his act but shows him perfectly aware, in a way an evil man would not be, of the moral values involved:

He's here in double trust: First, as I am his kinsman and his subject, Strong both against the deed; then, as his host, Who should against murderer shut the door, Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been So clear in his great office, that his virtues Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against The deep damnation of his taking-off ...

In this speech we see again Shakespeare's wonderful economy, as we saw in the opening of the play: the very speech which shows Macbeth to best advantage is the one which shows the audience how very bad his contemplated act is, since Duncan is blameless. One need only think of the same speech if it were dealing with a king who deserved to be assassinated, or if it were given by another character commenting on Macbeth's action, to see how right it is as it stands.

After this soliloquy Macbeth announces again to Lady Macbeth that he will not go on ("We will proceed no further in this business"), but her eloquence is too much for him. Under her jibes at his "unmanliness," he progresses from a kind of petulant, though still honorable, boasting ("I dare do all that may become a man; / Who dares do more is none"), through a state of amoral consideration of mere expediency ("If I should fail?"), to complete resolution, but still with a full understanding of the wickedness of his act ("I am settled ... this terrible feat"). There is never any doubt, first, that he is bludgeoned into the deed by Lady Macbeth's superior rhetoric and by the pressure of unfamiliar circumstances (including the witches) and, second, that even in the final decision to go through with it he is extremely troubled by a guilty conscience ("False face must hide what the false heart doth know"). In the entire dagger soliloquy he is clearly suffering from the realization of the horror of the "bloody business" ahead. He sees fully and painfully the wickedness of the course he has chosen, but not until after the deed, when the knocking has commenced, do we realize how terrifyingly alive his conscience is: "To know my deed, 't were best not know myself. / Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!" This is the wish of a "good" man who, though he has become a "bad" man, still thinks and feels as a good man would.

To cite one last example of Shakespeare's pains in this matter, we have the testimony of Macbeth's character offered by Hecate (III, 5):

And which is worse, all you have done Hath been but for a wayward son, Spiteful and wrathful, who, as others do, Loves for his own ends, not for you. This reaffirmation that Macbeth is not a true son of evil comes, interestingly enough, immediately after the murder of Banquo, at a time when the audience needs a reminder of Macbeth's fundamental nobility.

The evil of his acts is thus built upon the knowledge that he is not a naturally evil man but a man who has every potentiality for goodness. This potentiality and its frustration are the chief ingredients of the tragedy of Macbeth. He is a man whose progressive external misfortunes seem to produce, and at the same time to be produced by, his parallel progression from great goodness to great wickedness. Our emotional involvement (which perhaps should not be simplified under the term "pity" or "pity and fear") is thus a combination of two kinds of regret: (1) We regret that any potentially good man should come to such a bad end: "What a pity that things should have gone this way, that things should be this way!" (2) We regret even more the destruction of this particular man, a man who is not only morally sympathetic but also intellectually and emotionally interesting. In eliciting both these kinds of regret to such a high degree, Shakespeare goes beyond his predecessors and establishes trends which are still working themselves out in literature.

The first kind-never used at all by classical dramatists, who never employed a genuinely degenerative plot-has been attempted again and again by modern novelists. Their difficulty has usually been that they have relied too completely on a general humane response in the reader and too little on a realized prior height or potentiality from which to fall. The protagonists are shown succumbing to their environment-or, as in so many "sociological" novels, as already succumbed-and the reader is left to himself to infer that something worth bothering about has gone to waste, that things might have been otherwise-that there is any real reason to react emotionally to the final destruction. The second kind-almost unknown to classical dramatists, whose characters are never "original" or "fresh" in the modern sense-has been attempted in even greater extremes since Shakespeare, until one finds many works in which mere interest in particular characteristics completely supplants emotional response to events involving men with interesting characteristics. The pathos of Bloom in Ulysses, for example, is an attenuated pathos, just as the comedy of Bloom is an attenuated comedy; one is not primarily moved to laughter or tears by events involving great characters, as in Macbeth, but rather one is primarily interested in details about characters. It can be argued whether this is a gain or a loss to literature, when considered in general. Certainly, one would rather read a modern novel like Ulysses, with all its faults on its head, than many of the older dramas or epics involving "great" characters in "great" events. But it can hardly be denied that one of Shakespeare's triumphs is his success in doing many things at once which lesser writers have since done only one at a time. He does produce the general effect of classical tragedy: catharsis of pity and fear. We do lament the "bad fortune" of a great man who has known good fortune. But to this he adds the much more poignant (at least to us) pity one feels in observing the moral destruction of a great man who has once known goodness.


Excerpted from The Essential WAYNE BOOTH by WAYNE C. BOOTH Copyright © 2006 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Wayne C. Booth (1921–2005) was the George Pullman Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. His many books include The Rhetoric of Fiction, A Rhetoric of Irony, The Power and Limits of Pluralism, The Vocation of a Teacher, and Forthe Love of It, all published by the University of Chicago Press.Walter Jost is professor of English at the University of Virginia.

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