Levine, Caroline and Mario Ortiz-Robles, eds. Narrative Middles: Navigating the Nineteenth-Century British Novel.
In Narrative Middles, editors Caroline Levine and Mario Ortiz-Robles assemble nine chapter-length studies of canonical nineteenth-century novels in an attempt to promote "neoformalism," a blend of historical and narratological approaches to the novel as a genre. They argue that by studying the "middle" (broadly defined) of these novels, postmillennial critics can find new insights lacking in previous studies, which they claim have been heavily invested in beginnings and endings. Those older approaches, they argue, have "played themselves out" (2). Their book, instead, responds to several recent theoretical efforts in narratology, most specifically Narrative Beginnings: Theories and Practice (2008), Narrative Dynamics (2002), and Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (1992).
At first glance, a book devoted to the middle of novels seems to be weak scaffolding for such weighty concerns, but the introduction itself is so clear and well organized that the premise generally works. The book offers interesting and insightful studies of novels by Jane Austen (twice), George Eliot, Henry James, Anne Bronte, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, and William Morris. The essays are grouped into three sections ("centers"; "repetitions"; and "suspensions") that explore different aspects of the "middle." Levine and Ortiz-Robles identify three kinds of cultural and social "middles" to match their formalistic concerns: the middle class; nineteenth-century Britain's "centrist reform program" (7); and Britain as "the hub of empire" (7).
In their introduction, the editors (who also contribute one chapter each to the book) situate their exploration of "middles" in the body of Western thought, literature, and theory, setting forth to blend formalist readings with "sociopolitical history" (3). They proclaim two key objectives in this book: "to contribute to a long-standing gap in narrative theory" (5) and to show that "narrative middles are an ideal site for the convergence of formalist and historicist methods" (7). It would be difficult to say that all the nine essays in this book accomplish all objectives, but they do identify an unusual topic, define it variously, and apply that definition to well-known Victorian texts.
For example, Hilary M. Schor in "The Make-Believe of a Middle: On (Not) Knowing Where You Are in Daniel Deronda" proclaims that in the middle of George Eliot's novel she sees "a kind of warfare" between men and women: "Middles are not only confusing, arbitrary, and seemingly up for grabs--they are particularly and pointedly gendered" (51). The point of her assertion is to offer a feminist reading that helps to make sense of a formalist concern, the two separate plots of Daniel Deronda: "we are in the middle because we do not (yet) know enough. Or rather, we are in the middle because we think we are at the center, hut we are wrong; we are not even the coachman, but are straggling behind, trying to catch up to the main plot. And I have been arguing that women's knowledge, at least in the Victorian novel, is necessarily going to lag behind men's" (72). Looking at the middle of Eliot's novel helps Schor see a new understanding of time that links the two plots together.
In "An Anatomy of Suspense: The Pleasurable, Critical, Ethical, Erotic Middle of The Woman in White," Caroline Levine also furthers the book's purpose by examining a specific formal problem in the Wilkie Collins novel (suspense) through the lens of a nineteenth-century sociohistorical development (scientific epistemology). She argues that by examining the middle of The Woman in White, we can see "that we cannot simply take appearances, authorities, virtuous hopes, or even generic conventions on faith; the withholdings that generate suspense compel us to recognize that we do not know, that we can only guess, and so must subject even our deepest and most longstanding beliefs to the rigorous test of skepticism" (198). The virtue that she finds in suspense refutes positions held by Adorno, Horkheimer, and the Frankfurt School that suspense "encourage[s] a passive readership" (196). She also refutes formalist critic Tzvetan Tordorov who argues that readers lose their discriminating abilities in suspense, becoming just another character in the novel. Levine claims, in opposition, that "the suspense of the middle" invites "an active, engaged critical thinking" and not "a helpless, thoughtless submission" (196).
These are bold, interesting, and unusual readings that belong on the bookshelf of any serious narratologist or critic of nineteenth-century Victorian fiction.
RUSSELL GREER, Texas Woman's University
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|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2013|
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