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Venetian (Still) Life

The Displacement of Ethical Response in the Travel Writing of W.D. Howells

Shaul Bassi and Barbara Del Mercato

There are some well-known tourist destinations that promise aesthetic experience while simultaneously confronting the traveller with the unpleasant sight of human misery. It could be even argued that the more a site is aestheticized, the more the ethical dilemmas that it potentially poses for travellers who wish to enjoy the place’s beauty without moral disquiet. A number of psychological and representational strategies are thus devised to allow unimpeded enjoyment, so that the visitor to the Taj Mahal or Angkor Wat can admire architectural wonders while observing that the Indian or Cambodian poor are nevertheless ‘decorous’ and ‘dignified’. This article analyzes the aesthetization of one particular site and the displacement of ethical dilemmas in a location which is less obviously exotic. We will try to demonstrate how certain moral issues presented themselves to a nineteenth-century American traveller in Venice, and how s/he expressed these dilemmas while simultaneously defusing their unsettling potential.