This year I have been thinking often about exemplars – figures in history, or fiction, seen as admirable or exemplary in some way. The main reason for this is that I have been moonlighting as the assistant for an Oxford-based discussion group called Ethics through Fiction and Film, which has been partnering this year with a research project at the University of Northampton, titled ‘The role of exemplar narratives in character formation’.

Following the established EFF format of gathering a small group to read a book and watch its film adaptation, with guided discussion folllowing both, we’ve contributed several sets of data to this exemplar narrative research. The narratives we focused were diverse and all produced fascinating discussion: the dystopian young adult novel The Hunger Games and its 2012 film adaptation; a biography of the nineteenth-century escaped slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, Bound for the Promised Land, and the recent biopic of the same, Harriet; and The Chosen, Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel about Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, and its film adaptation.

The research theme required us to focus quite explicitly on the moral or exemplary qualities of the characters we encountered in these narratives, whether fictional or historical. We asked our participants (and ourselves!) whether our reading and viewing had led to new reflections and even new actions in our lives.

It was often a challenging way to approach these stories! Our discussions led to some thorny questions about how far we take moral or ethical instruction from the stories we tell and are told, and in what subtler ways they can affect us.

In some ways our approach (one of several ways the project collected data) was limited by its fairly short-term nature. We had small groups for each narrative, who were gathered over one term and met only twice for discussion. It made me wonder if there was a way to see if our encounters with these stories and characters, whether exemplary or quite the opposite, might bear fruit over a longer period of time.

So often we are only able to identify the people who have influenced us, been examples to us, in hindsight. This is as true with fictional exemplars as real ones.

Some of our discussions in EFF incorporated an element of this longer-term view, as people re-read stories they had read in the past and reflected on the differences between the two readings. But one of the key aspects of EFF as an approach to books and films is its communal nature – the idea that we can learn more, and more effectively, from reading and viewing together, sharing our thoughts and impressions and hearing others’ perspectives. And very often this dimension is increased by familiarity and listening over time, learning others’ particular expertise and point of view, and building the trust that helps us to learn.

These realities point a way towards thinking about moral formation, and learning by example, not just based on a rational identification of qualities or comprehension of lessons, but based in a community, taking account of how all the aspects of our lives fit together. One of the clearest benefits for me of discussions in EFF is the creation of a community – even a very short-term one, over two meetings – where threads and ideas floated in the first meeting can be picked up again in the second, helping us find deeper nuance and develop our perspectives in dialogue. 

This seems more in keeping with how we often came to think about the exemplarity of the characters we encountered: based not so much a like-for-like imitation, but in a sustained engagement with their complexity, not setting aside critical thinking but embracing the whole of what a story can mean.

My thoughts here perhaps have most relevance for those of us in literary and historical disciplines. If that’s you, it’s worth reflecting on how the ‘characters’ involved in your work, whether fictional or not, are forming you morally. It’s almost certain that they are, on some level! How can you work towards making this process more conscious, more communal, and more committed to the longer term?

For all of us in any field, however, it’s clear that unique kinds of learning and formation come out of community sustained over time. How does, or could, that principle play a part in your working life?

Alicia Smith
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Alicia Smith

Alicia has been blogging for Faith in Scholarship since 2016. She completed a doctorate on the prayer practices of medieval solitary recluses in 2020. She lives and works in Oxford.

1 Comment

Richard Gunton · June 20, 2022 at 9:57 pm

Thanks for this glimpse into literary circles, Alicia, and the provocation to reflect on conscious and subconscious ways in which other people’s characters (both real and invented!) form our own. It makes me reflect on how colleagues form our character, especially our supervisors. We can of course be critical (at least privately) of our PhD supervisors and postdoctoral P.I.’s, but I think it’s the unexpected displays of brilliance from fellow scholars that can form our own character most especially. Often it might be attention to detail, or clarity of writing style, or sheer self-discipline and commitment; sometimes it might be the ability to ask perceptive questions in seminars, to see fallacies in people’s arguments, or to suggest fruitful new avenues of inquiry.

Overall, doesn’t the very idea of being able to learn excellence or virtue from other people presuppose that we have some innate sense of good and bad that is reliable? What this faculty then needs, I suppose, is a supply of examples of excellence (and maybe some of vice, too) to fuel our own imagination for how we can be better and do better in our own lives.

I’ve been reflecting, as you know, on how we learn from Bible characters – and the need to be more critical than traditional Sunday-school exhortations to emulate the assumed “good” guys. And so I suppose that with our colleagues, too, we need to spend enough time to appreciate the stories in which they are living in order for us to make sense of their behaviours, and to work out how best to learn from the complicated ways in which they may demonstrate virtue, sometimes mingled with vice.

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