Caroline Levine and Mario Ortiz-Robles, ed. Narrative Middles: Navigating the Nineteenth-Century Narrative. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 2011. ISBN: 0814211739. Price: $US54.95[Notice]

  • Jesse Rosenthal

…plus d’informations

  • Jesse Rosenthal
    The Johns Hopkins University

Victorian novels are long. It follows then, that most of the time spent reading Victorian novels will be time spent in the middle—somewhere after the beginning, somewhere before the end. But, as Caroline Levine and Mario Ortiz-Robles ask in their introduction to Narrative Middles, “what exactly is the middle of the sprawling nineteenth-century novel for? How does it work?” (18). Since it is the seemingly endless middle that was the target of the Jamesian accusation of formlessness in the nineteenth-century novel, this question can be understood as a formal one. We are used to reading the middle of novels as “poor in form ... but exceptionally rich in content” (7). The wager of this collection—and it is a successful one—is that these middles have their own formal structure, and their own important roles to play in the experience of the novel. Given the theoretical ground to cover here, and the fact that this is a collection of essays, it should not be a surprise to find that the operating definition of “middle” is a broadly inclusive one. The introduction lists a “rich and various range of meanings, including continuity, development, center, hub, digression, transition, deviation, disjunction, rupture, crisis, turning point, crossing, intersection, node, meantime, error, wandering, and interruption” (3). The danger here, as is often the case when a work champions the value of a new term in the discipline, is that it can be difficult to figure out what is not a middle. The essays in the volume do offer a bit more clarity about what the term means. Thematically, the essays are divided into three sets of three. Part I is about novelistic “centers”: those characters or concerns around which a novel distributes its focus. Part II is concerned with the theme of “repetition” in novels: something which seems to work against the diachronic teleologies of narrative and personal development. Finally, Part III considers formal “suspensions”: the means by which a conclusion is both promised and delayed. Judging by these categories, to write about the middle would be to interrogate the space between the characters, descriptions, and affective readerly reactions which usually provide the content of summaries. This account might sound similar to structuralist and post-structuralist traditions of relational meaning and absent centers of meaning. Indeed, of the three parts, Part I shows the clearest influence of this line of thought, as each essay in its way points to an implied center that is actually the result of a set of structural relationships that surround it. So Alex Woloch’s essay on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility offers the relative descriptions of Elinor and Marianne as emblematic of a socio-economic world—a middle-class world—in which a person’s status can only be understood in relation to the people around them. Hilary Schor’s essay on George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda investigates the epistemological disorientation produced by the novel’s two narratives, a reading experience that is itself representative of the novel’s central moral lesson: that “we think we are at the center, but we are wrong” (73). Kent Puckett suggests that these concerns align with Henry James’s own concerns about the form of novel and point-of-view, suggesting that an absent middle that is everywhere referred to is, in The Princess Casamassima, the center of both character and novel. Appropriately enough, it is the middle Part—on repetition—that has the most to offer to literary critics looking for new avenues into familiar subjects. In different ways, all three essays here—Amanda Claybaugh on Anne Brontë, Amanpal Garcha on William Makepeace Thackeray’s Pendennis, and Suzanne Daly on Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son—investigate …

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