An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact: Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun.
The passage above, taken from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–72), takes the image of a mirror (‘pier-glass’) to expose how her own fictional style, realism, may give the impression of reflecting reality, but this is itself a fiction.
By the time that Eliot was writing, the task of literature had shifted from pre-Romantic notions of acting as a mirror that reflected reality, to acting as a lamp that illuminated the world (Abrams, 1953). Fiction acts as the candle does, to unify a disjointed, imperfect reality. Genuine reflection therefore occurs in the mind of the writer, thus privileging the second meaning of reflection as a process of critical engagement.
A curious feature of reflection, evident in the quotation above, is that it is a metaphor. It is, therefore, particularly susceptible to literary wordplay, presenting a creative array of pedagogical opportunities, albeit with potential literacy pitfalls owing to its slippery definitions.
Nevertheless, because reflection is a skill central to virtue literacy, it is a lucrative concept as it becomes both a virtue of scrutiny and the process by which it is scrutinised. In short, reflection isn’t simply a distinct topic within virtue literacy to be studied independently but is, rather, part of its core operation.
In the educational context, critical, self-reflection can develop character in young people, and most successfully so when guided. Both the Knightly Virtues and Narnian Virtues projects cite reflection as a core element in virtue literacy teaching, adopting the approach that fictional characters can act as the springboards for critical reflection in relation to readers’ own lives (Bohlin 2005).
The different types of reflection that engagement with fictional texts can entail range from specifying virtues evident in the text to seeing parallels between readers’ and characters’ lives. Hart et al. (2020) advocate a three-stage pedagogy – from abstraction, to textual example, to their own lived experience – each involving reflection.
As a consequence, the classroom itself can become a place in which the virtue of reflection (as is the case with other intellectual virtues) is not only studied but practised.
The role that literature can play in reflection divided our philosophical forebears. Whereas Plato sees poetry as incapable of being reflective in the way that philosophy is, Aristotle defends it and its capacity for truth: “for Aristotle, appropriate responses are intrinsically valuable parts of good character and can, like good intellectual responses, help to constitute the refined ‘perception’ which is the best sort of human judgment” (Nussbaum, 2001).
Key to this is an understanding of katharsis: Katharsis, or ‘clarification’, is a moral and intellectual tool in that it that can lead to self-reflection. As Clouse (2017) argues, “Katharsis is the natural human reaction to mimesis that is able to serve as a bridge between the vulgar experience of receiving the poesis of another and self-reflection”; and, furthermore, it is a self-reflection that can serve as “the foundation to pursue moral education”.
Entailed in this conceptualisation of katharsis is empathy. As readers we affectively (i.e., literally) reflect the states of character, and cognitively (i.e., metaphorically) reflect on their actions. Affective empathy (the recognition via the body language and words of another) leads one to correspond their own emotional state with that of another through self-reflection (Reniers et al., 2011). The result of combining affective and cognitive faculties is reflection (Vetlesen, 1994).
The literary value of reflection is that it provides a crucial yardstick by which to look at how character and action interact. Thus, literary treatments of reflection are often at pivotal plot moments in which characters are faced with a particular (often moral) dilemma and thereby signpost those passages in which to reflect on a character’s actions and motivation.
As such, reflection often attracts coalition of virtues; passages are a commentary on those virtues and strategies in their exploration. These passages become spaces in which, and reflection the tool by which competing virtues are arbitrated. Austen, for example, offers a host of characters who reflect extensively and who personify the affective and cognitive types of reflection, both sense and sensibility. In this way, not only do reflective passages invoke reflection on the part of the reader but literary characters themselves also model reflection.
When we look at the frequency of reflection in general language corpora we see the following distribution across text types:
Reflection is attested most in academic writing. This is perhaps unsurprising given its categorisation as an intellectual virtue. Its high frequency in fiction indicates the literary corpus is a useful resource for its exploration. Notable is the low usage of reflection in conversation, yet its intellectual virtue classification may also be implicit here, in that the practice of reflection is often through writing, whether that be academic or creative. Indeed, virtue literacy interventions emphasise written pedagogical approaches to reflection, such as journal writing.
Over time, the picture is a little more mixed. Whereas fiction has traditionally been a discourse predisposed to virtue terms, more recently, the use of reflection has been overtaken by general language usage.
What the recent increase in general usage indicates is an increased fluency with reflection which offers teachers a broader suite of texts by which to benchmark and calibrate these uses, with potential lucrative discussions around its use in fiction versus non-fiction contexts as well as across time.
The classroom, with a teacher as guide, offers an environment for both the development and real-life practice of reflection. In addition, the A-level English literature corpus, rich with virtue language and passages that inspire reflection, combined with syllabi that emphasise verbal and critical reasoning, provide a suitable foundation for reflection exploration and reflective practice.