Contents Index

The Pattern: Frankenstein and Austen to Conrad

George Levine

From The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from "Frankenstein" to "Lady Chatterley" (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), 23-57

By God, I hope I shal you telle a thing
That shal by reson been at your liking;
For though myself be a ful vicious man,
A moral tale yit I you can telle.

Chaucer's Pardoner
Beginnings and endings, we have been hearing, are arbitrary, and chronology falsely presumes meaningful traditions and influences. This study borrows from the shape of chronology, primarily because I am more concerned with the way writers in the realist tradition imagined their relation to each other, to the form of the novel, and to their culture's imagination of knowledge, than I am with the antichronological implications of the fulfilled realist intention. Realism leads away from its originating structures, not to closure, but to indeterminacy, not to clarified relation between idea and thing, but to their exclusiveness. To provide a framework for the studies that follow, I offer here something of a narrative, a tale starting with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which provides both a pattern and a metaphor for the very different realist literature that followed, and taking as its chronological extremes Jane Austen and Joseph Conrad, figures representative of the polarities of the realist impulse. With the figure of some monster emergent from the most stable as from the most volatile realist texts, we find every writer before Conrad touching on the skeptical possibilities he dramatized, every one after Austen seeking the controlling form she imagined in the communal recognition of the ordinary. The critical narrative I imagine here is therefore presented as a fiction whose closure emphasizes the distance between it and the truth it seeks, metonymically, to shadow forth.


{24} This nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather good.

Mary Shelley

Frankenstein and his monster will turn up frequently in the chapters that follow because in their curious relationship they enact much that is central to the traditions of realistic narrative, but much that is not quite reducible to discursive prose. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar identify as a characteristic of women's literature the projection of "what seems to be the energy of their own despair into passionate, even melodrama tic characters who act out the subversive impulses every woman feels when she contemplates the "deep-rooted evils of patriarchy."1 Frankenstein, of course, provides a perfect model for this; but as I have tried to suggest elsewhere in an extensive analysis of the novel,2 it provides a model for the whole tradition of realism that I have been identifying. It is true that "even the most apparently conservative and decorous women writers" create such figures. But it is no accident that conservative male writers within the tradition of nineteenth-century realism do so as well. For realism embodies in its very texture the controlling force of the established order of society and history; it is thus a mode particularly available to women writers, sensitive to such force, as Gilbert and Gubar show them to be. It is also, however, a mode appropriate to any writers who share women's ambivalence about established authority -- needing the very structures that are felt to be oppressive and narrow. Such ambivalence is characteristic of almost every important Victorian writer.

Nineteenth-century realistic fiction tends to be concerned with the possibility of accommodation to established power, and yet, given its inevitable interest in character, it explores with at least equal intensity the possibility of resistance as well. The "madwoman in the attic," to use Gilbert and Gubar's phrase, has her male counterpart; the domesticated man -- Pip, Pendennis, or Edward Waverley -- has his dangerously rebellious double. Female resistance to the patriarch is echoed in a general Victorian resistance to the tyranny of society, of convention, of the majority.

Mary Shelley's characters, the monster and his creator, reflect the culture's ambivalence about itself, the realist's difficulty with the narrative conventions of realism. As creator, Frankenstein attempts to reach beyond the limits of human possibility, as the realists reached beyond the limits of human possibility, as the realists reached beyond words, into reality. Yet when he finds what his imagination has brought forth, he recoils from it as monstrous, and denies kinship. Thus denied, the monster in effect destroys all that belongs to a rec- {25} ognizably domestic world: the child, the caring friend, the affectionate servant, the all-providing father (whose death he only indirectly causes) and, most important, the bride on her wedding night. The consummation of community, the confirmation of a justly ordered world, the affirmation of consonance between word and action, the marriage turns out to be a murder. All the potential horrors of domestic realism, so carefully averted in the comic tradition, are anticipated here.

The attempt to repress and then destroy the monster leads Frankenstein and his book into a landscape beyond the limits of the domestic realism toward which they had turned for succor. Such landscapes provide the spaces, distant from the centers of realistic drama, in which illicit and uncivilized extremes are acted out. The assumption of most nineteenth-century literature, from Scott forward, is that civilization was indeed advancing. The Macaulayan reading of history implied that savagery had been banished from the centers of Western experience. But in Frankenstein, Alps and Arctic wastes are the norm. They are the landscape of isolation from community, Victor's first obsessive choice, and they are the icons of his refusal to bring the monster in from the cold to the communal warmth of the hearth. In the cold, monster and creator enact the futility of their desires in what is almost a ritual and self-destructive parody of the Keatsian quest for the elusive fair maiden. Only Captain Walton returns, and only because he surrenders his Frankensteinian ambition. In its place, he finds an ear for the narrative in his sister, the civilized Mrs. Saville.3 Telling the story is made possible by the refusal to live it, and is a means to rejoin the community. His position is rather like Mary Shelley's, for she surrenders fully to her imagination, but in the writing she keeps the distance that might save her from it and deny it.

The parabolic neatness of this way of telling the story (certainly a distortion of the novel's instability and ambiguities) suggests why, for the past one hundred sixty years, it has provided metaphors for writers. The monster becomes those sexual, revolutionary, deterministic, or psychic energies that novelists and intellectuals confront even as they try to avert them. It is both rational and irrational, victim and victimizer, innocent and evil. As in the culture at large, Frankenstein and his monster keep turning up in literature -- in the face of the uneducated mob in Mary Barton, in Magwitch's relation to Pip, his created gentle man, in the laboratories where Ursula Brangwen studies. The power of the myth of Frankenstein transcends the limit of the particular narrative because it is, in a way, an antimyth that has embodied in all its ambiguities the modern imagination of the potentialities and the limits of modern consciousness.

Although it takes the shape of traditional myths of the overreacher, {26} Frankenstein reverses them in ways that suggest its modernity and its kinship to the realistic impulse.4 In intruding secular science into a traditional gothic framework that normally depends on supernatural machinery, Mary Shelley changes the source of the horror and the mystery, and increases their credibility.5 They come not from evil spirits beyond the visible world, but through secular knowledge. The apparent ideal in Frankenstein is the recognizable domesticity that Victor Frankenstein betrays, but the novel lives far beyond the limits of this ideal. It becomes a psychomachia of the extremes of human consciousness aspiring to transcend the limits of thought and language by touching a new reality and to assert the compatibility of that reality with poetic, moral, and religious ideals.

Moreover, Frankenstein's preoccupation with "creation" -- though connected with literary myths and Mary Shelley's own concern with birth6 -- is more than accidentally related to the problems and responsibilities of writing itself. Mary Shelley obviously belongs in the Romantic tradition of concern about the nature of creativity, about the relation of mind to nature, of mind to itself, and about the possibility that language -- particularly poetic language -- might live actively in the real world. Belonging to a literature of extremes, Frankenstein is nevertheless an act of rebellion against those extremes. It dramatizes, whatever its intentions, the deadliness of Shelley, her husband's, idealizing and rebellion, the consequences of Godwin, her father's, personal tyranny and his antithetic radicalism, the perversion in myths of male creativity and female dependence. In this respect, it is analogous to realism's parodic reaction to romance and to fantasies of extreme power. Like the protagonists to be disenchanted in later novels Walton, Frankenstein, and the monster all find some radical disparity between what they read and what they experience. Each character must face the consequences of that disparity and come to terms with the limits of dream, yet the text itself is -- like much realism -- paradoxically Promethean. The realist novel rejects earlier fantasies of power for the limits of the probable, hoping to touch the real.

The duality is in the book's drama: Victor, having failed in his quest, never surrenders the dream. He is one of the first in a long tradition of fictional overreachers, of characters who seem to act out the myth of Faust in modern dress, and who transport it from the world of mystery and miracle to the commonplace. He is destroyed not by metaphysical agency -- as God expelled Adam from Eden or Mephistopheles collected his share of the bargain (though echoes of these events are everywhere) -- but by his own nature and the consequences of living or rejecting human community. Frankenstein is the indirect father of lesser, more humanly recognizable figures, like Becky Sharp or Pip or {27} Lydgate, who reject the conventional limits imposed upon them by society and who are punished, more or less, for their troubles. Frankenstein embodies one of the central myths of realistic fiction in the nineteenth century, even in the contrast between its sensational style and its apparently explicit moral implications: a simultaneous awe and reverence toward greatness of ambition, and fear and distrust of those who act on it. Such ambivalence is almost always disguised in realistic fiction, where the manner itself seems to reject the possibility of greatness and the explicit subject is frequently the evil of aspiring to it; in gothic fiction the energies to be suppressed by the realist ideal, by the model of Flemish painting, by worldly-wise compromise with the possible, are released. Gothic fiction, as Lowry Nelson has observed, "by its insistence on singularity and exotic setting . . . seems to have freed the minds of readers from direct involvement of their superegos and allowed them to pursue daydreams and wish fulfillment in regions where inhibitions and guilt could be suspended."7 The mythology of virtue rewarded, central to English realism, is put to question in the gothic landscape where more powerful structures than social convention give shape to wish; and, as Nelson suggests, reader and writer alike were freed to pursue the possibilities of their own potential evil.

It is striking how difficult it is to locate in realistic fiction any positive and active evil. The central realist mythology is spelled out in characters like George Eliot's Tito Melema, whose wickedness is merely a gradual sliding into the consequences of a natural egoism. In gothic fiction, but more particularly in Frankenstein, as Christopher Small argues,8 evil is both positively present and largely inexplicable. Although ostensibly based on the ideas of Godwin's rationalist ethics which see evil as a consequence of maltreatment or injustice, Frankenstein's story provides no such comfortable explanation for his own evil. Where did his decision to create the monster come from? Mere chance. Evil is a deadly and fascinating mystery whose source is in men's minds, an inexplicable but inescapable aspect of human goodness.

The transposition of the creator from God to man, the secularizatior of the means of creation from miracle into science, entail a transposition of the standard of moral judgment from the external world which ought to be reflecting a divine order, to the mind which is somehow forced to establish its own terms. Those terms do not fit the form of discursive or narrative explanation. Frankenstein is full of abrupt discontinuities and short-circuiting. The monster comes to life although Victor finds an important excuse not to reveal the fairly simple secret of life that he discovers, and it acts in the gaps of Victor's consciousness, when he is away, or feverishly and helplessly ill, or searching in the wrong place. Frankenstein as a text exercises its appeal in part because it fails to {28} explain so much. The narrative has a plausibility of images, and the images themselves, not really reflective of a world divinely ordered and intelligible or susceptible to the mind, lend themselves to proliferating and unrestricted interpretations, and can be assimilated to aln powerful mythology -- especially the Freudian. But the horror of the narrative is that, like the monster, it is ultimately uncontrollable. The mind creates life, projects the landscape, but cannot control the imagined world. The landscape of the self and its texts is more frightening and dangerous than the landscape of Milton's Hell -- which implies a heaven.

Literally, of course, the narrative encompasses a large part of the Northern hemisphere, and even some of the Near East. But as it wanders across the Alps, to the northern islands of Scotland, to the frozen wastes of the Arctic, Frankenstein has something claustrophobic about it. The recurrence of images of ice and cold, the recurrence of patterns of family relations, the recurrence of the preoccupation with isolation and misunderstanding (Justine even admits to a crime she did not commit in order to regain a lost trust, and the gesture is, of course, suicidal): all of these give to the novel a circular and self-enclosed structure, confirmed both by the framing devices and by the ultimate reversal of pursuit. Far more, then, than a conventional realistic novel with thematic restatements, Frankenstein invites metaphorical reading by inviting us first to see the epic breadth as a metaphor for a narrower scope -- the landscape of a single mind. In Frankenstein, ironically, we can see obvious intimations of later writers' attempts to throw all the action "inside." Frankenstein's very creative gesture, a thrust into a world beyond the self, is in part a projection of self upon the world. The novel, in a sense, is about the inevitability of solipsism, the alienation of the self from the world, and the necessity and desperation of the quest to rejoin it.

Some of this novel's remarkable power resides in the way its exploration of the landscape of the mind becomes a rejection of more traditional, Miltonic, ways of writing the myth, and in its preoccupation with literature it threatens to become as antiliterary as realism itself: it finds no satisfying conventions of order, power, or meaning. The monster becomes the disruption that denies any meaning to the natural except what the mind futilely thrusts upon it in the hopeless attempt to make it acquiesce in its dreams of power. The horror of the monster is, of course, its capacity for violence that results from its estrangement from both nature and social reality. That horror is most forcefully and indirectly suggested by the fact that it has no name. Violence erupts where the language fails to control by making. The monster is merely a monster, "a warning," or a showing forth.

{29} The novel's elaborate clarity of structure, Walton's tale enfolding Frankenstein's, which in turn enfolds the monster's, does not reflect a firm moral ordering, but a continuing complicating diminishment of nonverbal reality as it recedes into the distance. The language keeps reinterpreting itself, reaching for that community of understanding that allows us to posit a truth. But satisfaction does not come for any of the three protagonists. Walton would seem the ultimate judge of the experience, as the outsider, yet he explicitly accepts Frankenstein's judgment of it, and largely exculpates him by sharing his ambivalences and by rejecting his injunction to destroy the monster. The monster's own defense and explanation, lodged in the center of the story, are, however, far more convincing. This madwoman in the attic, or monster in the Alps, makes his case very sanely. Frankenstein is forced to confess his failure of responsibility to the creature, and Walton is almost persuaded, deterred only by the nonverbal fact of the monster's hideousness. In the end, however, we are left not with a judgment but with Walton's strangely uncolored report of the monster's last speech and last action. If anyone, the nameless monster has the last word; and that word expresses a longing for self-immolation and the ultimate peace in extinction: an event not narrated. Metaphorically, the Promethean spirit is the ambition to imitate reality, to make an equivalent and yet a better one. In creating the monster, Frankenstein' tries to name nature and thus control it.

But he can neither name nor control. He fails to accept his creation, and this failure reflects perfectly the alienation entailed in committing himself to his imitation of nature. His first response to the monster on seeing its hideous but quite touching filial grin is to flee: "He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sound, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped, and rushed down stairs."9 The mind here retreats from consciousness of its own ineptitude, or from recognition of its anomalous position in nature. Like a text freed from the intentions of its author, the monster forces the author to take responsibility for him.

Composed as he is of dead bodies (and conventions), the monster is a parody of life and of forms of heroic narrative, but he is also, ironically, the embodiment of the ideal: monster and angel. His relation to the world is the reverse of (although it becomes the same as) that of his creator. In his obsession, Frankenstein has cut himself off from the family in which he began. In his reaction to that obsession, he cuts himself off from his creation. The monster begins without family or community and seeks what Frankenstein surrendered in creating him.

{30} Ironically, the quest for the ideal entails the loss of the saving compromises of the human condition. Implicitly, only God should undertake the responsibility of creation: "Oh! no mortal could support the horror of that countenance" (p. 58). Such is the traditional significance of the creation/rebellion myth. But the true sin (and the word becomes more difficult to use, the more we explore the novel) is not the Promethean theft of fire from Heaven, but the sin against self and community. It is the sin of attempting to realize the ideal; the ideal is the monstrous. This incarnate ideal dies seeking love, and his loving creator dies hating.

Nevertheless, aside from having these cosmic significances, the monster is also kin to the oppressed women and children of Victorian fiction: like Oliver Twist, Pip, Florence Dombey, and Little Nell, like Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe, like Daniel Deronda, Henry Esmond, and Jude Fawley, the monster is an orphan, rejected by his father, uncertain of who he is or where he belongs. Naive, well-intentioned, in danger of being led astray, he is Teufelsdröckh left in a basket, the Wordsworthian child. Where in Frankenstein's story there seems no rational explanation for the entrance of evil into the world, in the monster's the explanation is clear. The monster assumes that the world makes sense somewhere beyond the limits of his knowledge, so that education seems the one thing needful. His story implies the primacy of responsibility to family and community, and his arguments are keenly rational, Godwinian polemics, in almost every case superior to Frankenstein's, which are ruled by vague emotions. "Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me," cries the monster, "to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life?" (p. 99). Amid all the extraordinary reversals in this novel, perhaps the most startling is the way the monster becomes, in the dramatized action, the intellectual and moral superior of his creator. He is the aspiration for meaning in reality, thwarted the injustice experience teaches; he is thus kin to the dreamers of Victorian dreams who are doomed to disenchantment: he is another anomaly, the true image of their perceived deviance into impossible romantic dreams. The audacity of a murderer accusing his creator of "sporting with life"!

"Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous," he pleads (p. 100). The point is a political one, and much of the monster's experience is used as an exemplar of the Godwinian view that evil enters the spirit as a result of the injustice of others. Man is born naturally good, and there is every evidence that the monster's heart is in the right place (after all, it was put there by Frankenstein). The monster represents a kind of Dickensian reading (almost Carlylean, but that Carlyle could not believe {31} in man's natural goodness) of the French Revolution. Abused, abandoned, maltreated, deprived, he turns, unlike good Victorian children, in vengeance on his master and his master's world.

But none of the characters comfortable in domestic harmony can believe that the world is governed unjustly until the monster strikes. Such blindness makes it evident that domesticity is a deliberately built defense against the disruptive norm of disaster. This is true even for the monster, who enjoys domestic bliss only by peering in the De Laceys' window. When Elizabeth weeps for Justine before the hanging, she is comforted by Frankenstein's father, who says, "If she is, as you believe, innocent, rely on the justice of our law" (p. 81). But in realistic fiction, experience brings knowledge and disenchantment, and one of the novel's themes is an anti-Miltonic version of the danger of knowledge. Disenchantment, a recognition of one's own limits, of the injustice pervasive in society, and of the power of society over one's own ambitions, here is afforded no divine relief. While the characteristic realistic protagonist ends in some sort of compromise, usually caused by marriage to an attractive counterpart, Frankenstein, working in a different mode, does not allow secular wisdom and moderation. It deals with the motif of knowledge and innocence and disenchantment on a scale far larger than that of the conventional Bildungsroman. Frankenstein's quest for knowledge can be seen as a dramatic metaphor for the universal ambition that leads to lost innocence. It is not merely Frankenstein in this novel who becomes disenchanted: each major character learns something of the nature of his own illusions. As the reality of death (which is really the product of Frankenstein's knowledge) enters the almost idyllic household of Frankenstein's family, the romance of domestic harmony gives way to a deep gloom. What happens to Frankenstein in his pursuit of knowledge happens, inescapably, to everyone no matter how apparently safe or good.

Frankenstein points the Faustian moral to Walton: "Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow" (p. 53). But this moral -- particularly appropriate to the realistic novel -- is argued very ambivalently. Even the monster repeats the argument (as he must, being Frankenstein's alter ego): "Increase of knowledge only discovered to me more clearly what a wretched outcast I was" (p. 131). As his knowledge grows, he cries out: "Oh, that I had for ever remained in my native wood, nor known nor felt beyond the sensation of hunger, thirst, and heat!" (p. 120). Yet Mary Shelley knows, as the monster learned, that there is no returning to innocence; the rhetoric implies that the innocence is a lie, {32} and that the disaster that follows its loss is as inevitable as the loss itself. "Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock. I wished sometimes to shake off all thought and feeling; but I learned that there was but one means to overcome the sensation of pain, and that was death" (p. 120). The monster knows that only silence ends the disparity between word and life. Frankenstein, however, cannot give up the rest or insist unambiguously on the moral of his story. His last speech is a masterpiece of doubt: "Farewell, Walton," he says. "Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed" (pp. 217-18). Death is the only resolution, and yet it resolves nothing since knowledge and innocence are continuing aspects of human experience. The tension worked out in Frankenstein between ambition and natural harmony, as between creator and creature, mind and reality, is not resolved.

This tension is central to realism which, in its parodic and ironic modes, seems sometimes to lend its conventions to the making of an immense cautionary fable, but just as often dramatically belies the fable. Note Frankenstein's cool abstract language and logical balancing of sentences:

During these last days I have been occupied in examining my past conduct; nor do I find it blameable. In a fit of enthusiastic madness I created a rational creature, and was bound towards him, to as sure, as far as was in my power, his happiness and well-being. This was my duty; but there was another still paramount to that. My duties towards the beings of my own species had greater claims to my attention, because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery. [P. 217]
Frankenstein stands here at a kind of Olympian distance from his experience. He manages to achieve the hero's absolution from responsibility (at least for this moment) by accepting an intolerable dualism. The responsibility to the self's largest desires (its enthusiastic madness) is incompatible with the responsibility to family and society. Any moral calculus reveals an irrational world -- one incompatible with the self, and hence unjust and incoherent. Against this sort of dualism the realist novel builds its defenses through the structures of compromise: excess and ambition must be excluded; the prose must be less calculating and abstract, deferring to the flexibility and casualness and un-ideality of the quotidian. Realism thus becomes capable of opening new, more fluid, and unstable imaginations of experience, finding {33} more various -- if disguised -- articulations of desire, while at the same time establishing that distance between desire and experience, language and object, that allows narrative to serve equally as a retreat from experience.

Frankenstein enacts an impasse: the horror of going aheaa to Grandcourt? The irrational and rebellious are latent in every important English realist novel, and within every hero or heroine there is a Frankenstein -- or his monster -- waiting to get out. The hero carries the narrative's burden of creation.


The delight derived from her pictures arises from our sympathy with ordinary characters, our relish of humour, and our intellectual pleasure in art for art's sake.

But when it is admitted that she never stirs the deeper emotions, that she never fills the soul with a noble aspiration, or brightens it with a fine idea, but, . . . at the utmost, only teaches us charity for the ordinary failings of ordinary people, and sympathy with their goodness, we have admitted an objection which lowers her claims to rank among the great benefactors of the race.

G. H. Lewes, "The Novels of Jane Austen"

Realism got its second full start in the English novel (after Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding) in the work of Jane Austen, and in the historical context of Romantic transformations of experience that reveal the world in a grain of sand. Wordsworth's "little, nameless, unremembered acts" lead eventually to Dorothea Brooke's "unhistoric acts," and to the renewed memories of those who lie in "unvisited tombs." Austen, of course, resisted romantic extravagances of feeling, and did not sentimentalize her miniatures with Carlylean infinitudes; such feelings would have been both disruptive and seductively falsifying in a world dependent on clarity of moral vision. But she assumed the value of her two inches of ivory and her small country villages without Wordsworthian fuss and with an appropriate understanding of the limits of her experience.

In place of the celebration of self in nature, of nature in self, Austen sought primarily to make words conformable to reality, and particularly to the reality of social action. "What is difficult of definition," for Austen's characters and narrative, says Stuart Tave, "is, characteristically, {36} painful."13 Her art tests Romantic energies against the pragmatic and ordering values of finely civilized community. These values are undermined by later novelists (while they are only threatened by Austen), but the evaluative force of realism, its critical exploratory definitions of the order in reality are constant in its history. In defining the qualities of Austen's art, early critics were defining the realism whose fate this study is concerned to unravel.

Richard Whately's 1821 essay on Austen (which, along with Scott's on Emma, is perhaps the only serious consideration of her until mid century) serves as a particularly useful definition. It lays out with great clarity the characteristics of what appeared to him to be, and what he calls, following Scott, "a new style of novel." Speaking with the established voice of the Quarterly Review, Whately is meticulously un-Romantic, judging literature in Aristotelian terms, assuming certain neoclassical values of generality and moral utility appropriate for the archbishop of Dublin. His criticism implies the tension between order and typicality on the one hand and disorder and particularity (of thing and feeling) on the other that marks the drama of Austen's novels. If his terms now seem inadequate, his essay remains an invaluable guide to historical understanding of what, to the sensible contemporary, Austen seemed to be doing, and in what consisted her newness.

Whately intimates from the start a connection between the realistic method and parody. To establish the credentials of the new style, he is required to distinguish it from earlier ones. "Men of taste and sense" can, says Whately, "acknowledge the delights of fiction," for there is a truth in fictions now that was missing in the old. The new fiction grows out of "the exhaustion of the mines from which materials for entertainment had been hitherto extracted"; earlier fictions drew a "false picture of what they profess to imitate."14 The texture of Jane Austen's novels can be seen as a rebuttal of those false pictures.

As Scott had said in his earlier review, Austen's fiction demonstrated "the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life."15 Whately introduces the analogy, so important in the later realists, with "Flemish painting," a respectable precedent for such copying of the common walks of life." But there is a Wordsworthian echo here. Although Whately is primarily concerned with truth of representation, he attributes to common life an almost Romantic primacy of value. The argument, not surprisingly, takes Aristotelian shape, but it brings to focus for the first time the relation between particularity and typicality that is so important in the history of realism. Fiction becomes more true than history, but only if it be "perfect in respect of the probability of [the] story," as Austen's novels are.16

Whately goes on to distinguish between two disturbing elements, {37} the improbable and the unnatural, both of which must be excluded from the new fiction. The "unnatural" occurs when characters act contrarily to their own natures as well as when supernatural agents are introduced. But the unnatural, says Whately, is less dangerous to a naive audience than the improbable because it is so far from the norm of human experience that nobody could take it as a guide. The improbable occurs when "there is no reason to be assigned why things should not take place as represented, except that the overbalance of chances is against it."17 Even Fielding fails to meet the test of probability. Whately's literalness can be instructive, however, for in attempting to be systematic, he is assuming the centrality of the value of probability in all serious texts. He cannot conceive the possibility that Tom Jones is not aspiring to the form of the "new novel" and that, as Robert Alter has argued, Fielding was writing a "self-conscious novel" tied more directly to the problem of writing a novel than to the nature of reality.18 Nor does Whately consider a more available reading -- that Tom Jones, like the forms it frequently mocks, is informed by the wish-fulfilling energies of romance. But Whately's focus is directly on the writer's obligation to describe life in accordance with "the existing laws of human affairs."19

Whately also evokes the tradition of the realist's preoccupation with audience, which is, like his, a consistently moral preoccupation. The danger of improbability in fiction is not, in his analysis, a literary problem, except in that skill is required to make narratives appear prob able. Rather, the danger is that the audience might take the improbable as a guide to life:

the reader is insensibly led to calculate upon some of those lucky incidents and opportune coincidences of which he has been so much accustomed to read, and which, it is undeniable, may take place in real life; and to feel a sort of confidence, that however romantic his conduct may be, and in whatever difficulties it may involve him, all will be sure to come right at last, as is invariably the case with the hero of the novel.20
The assumed audience here lacks the intelligence and experience of "men of sense and taste." Consequently, a special responsibility, of a sort we hear in the voices of all the great Victorians, devolves on the novelist of common life. The question is not whether the novelist should instruct, taking the novel as a "guide to life," but how. Although Austen does far less direct talking to her audience than later writers were to do, Whately finds in her art the right sort of speech and concern. She entertains, yet instructs by example as well.

The moral and evaluative commitment is always apart of the realist's {38} contradictory program, and always potentially disruptive. Assuming the possibility of mimesis, Whately himself reveals the massive confidence loan Williams attributes to the novelists. But he can do so because the full impact of empiricism and secularity had not touched him. His own method is rationalist, and he assumes an ultimately rational world. "Virtue," he says, "must be represented as producing, at the run, happiness; and vice, misery; and the accidental events, that in real life interrupt this tendency, are anomalies, which though, true individually, are false generally as the accidental deformit sanely replaced the horrific fantasies of the gothic. Anne Elliot in Persuasion is almost the reverse of Catherine, for Anne is too mature and disciplined to be deluded by the literature of excess. Persuasion has little concern with the nature of Anne's reading. She is misled, rather, by the very kind of prudent guidance Catherine needed but never received; maturity and wisdom seem, for a moment at least, to fail, and what is missing is the imaginative power that Catherine so badly misapplies. One could (and should) demonstrate that there are important continuities between the books. Northanger Abbey, after all, validates Catherine's genuinely instinctive feeling. But the point is that by Persuasion the balance has shifted; prudential reality seems to become a more important danger to the fullest possibilities of life than imagination. As Barbara Hardy puts it, "Up to Persuasion [Austen] has been concerned with the dangers of imagination, but Persuasion shows us the perceptual and common difficulty of being human."26 It would not be excessive to suggest that here the initial parodic impulse has turned back on itself.

The particular texts and the large curve of Austen's career make realism's commitment to the "common" seem not quite innocent. The "pleasure" that Whately correctly perceives as a dominant objective of the new style as of the novel in general was only one objective. the particularities and details of the narrative require a continuing reordering and qualifying of moral perspectives, so that if Whately is partly right that the narratives must show virtue and vice properly rewarded, he is also partly wrong in that what constitutes virtue and vice is not easily described or understood. Part of the education of realism is the {41} recognition not of what good and evil are, but of the rigor required to make the discriminations. This is implied in the reversal of perspective between Austen's first novel and her last.

Such reversals are common in realist fiction. The quest for reality is constantly varied, not only as the nature of reality itself changes, but as the frustrated desire to locate it intensifies. As we read a novel like Emma, with its marvelously prudential form and its more marvelously mimetic freedom and vividness of detail, it is difficult to resist the heroine whom, Austen feared, none but herself would much like. The comic ending, consistent with early realism's projection of a cultural ideal into the real, is a consequence of realism's small-scale catastrophes. Emma's exuberance turns into cruelty to Miss Bates, and that violation of social responsibility illustrates to her the danger of her power. Yet the texture of the novel almost makes it a celebration and validation of Emma's not quite lawless energies. Indeed, Emma's disenchantment discovers to her the same energy of desire for control she had always exhibited. Unlike later realist protagonists, she does not have to moderate her desires so as to recognize where they have all the time been tending. Joining with Knightley provides her, in all relations except that with Knightley, more power than she would have had as the unmarried Miss Woodhouse. The invariable realist's compromise comes as a realized desire; for a moment, desire and comunity are one. Yet we enjoy the indiscipline of the blind and witty Emma, and the compromise that reconciles her to society and self through Knightley provides only a short-lived accommodation of realism to the conventions of the comic mode, "the perfect happiness of the union."

Emma, Austen feared, would seem "very inferior in good sense" to Mansfield Park.27 The quiet acquiescence in propriety of Fanny Price has always seemed problematic among the energies of Austen's incipiently rebellious heroines. But Fanny is a figure who tests the implications of a narrative like Emma, for Emma has to learn many of the lessons Fanny seems to know from the beginning. Fanny is more "common" than Emma, and is less interesting as a character; her narrative submits less directly to the energy of her desires, and Austen's fiction loses some of its characteristic shapeliness in its reaction against the "confident ironies" of the earlier fiction.28 But it does more than reassert blandly the moral tradition Austen's heroines had at least partly attempted to escape. In Mansfield Park, reality gets a bit more uncertain, and some clarity of definition at least temporarily deserts Austen as her prose develops what Kingsley Amis calls a new "flexibility and awareness."29

Fanny Price can suggest two ways that Emma is potentially disruptive. The realist's fidelity to the common walks of life entailed a repression of the extraordinary, as is well known. Yet Emma, that genteel and {42} provincial young woman, has dreams of her own power that do in fact distinguish her radically from her context, that make her very much a heroine -- if a flawed one -- unlike Catherine Morland. Realism's containment of large ambitions is threatened by so marvelously imagined a character. In addition, Emma threatens what we might call a Whatelyan sense of the compatibility between reality and order. Her disruptions into power threaten also disruptions of the community and of the formal closure of her fiction.

If we move abruptly from Austen to Conrad, we can watch the implications of the reversals within Austen's oeuvre, and within particular texts. Emma's latent disruptions become potent. The repression by things of the dangerous energy of Emma-like desire to control becomes a displacement of desire onto things. Things become animate, as in Dickens, or they leap, as in Conrad, into a chaos of conflicting passions. The implicit contention between the disorder of reality and the order of comedy becomes explicit. Desire and disorder contend and flow together. The vivid imitation of the common walks of life becomes a nightmare or a game.


O Aristotle! if you had had the advantage of being "the freshest modern" instead of the greatest ancient, would you not have mingled your praise of metaphorical speech, as a sign of high intelligence, with a lamentation that intelligence so rarely shows itself in speech without metaphor, -- that we can so seldom declare what a thing is, except by saying it is something else?

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

The struggle to sustain meaning and pattern within the limits of Whatelyan realistic style, subject, and structure became elaborate, occasionally devious and elusive, potentially tragic. The monstrous was revealing itself not only in the relentlessly formless surfaces described, the energies repressed, the controls asserted, but in the insistent and averted recognitions that reality was stepping aside from the verbal devices used to fix it and that the strategies of narrative were inadequate to cope with the external world, or perhaps to touch it at all. Thackeray's case is perhaps the most interesting of all as he creates his novels against the irresistible consciousness of reality's side-stepping. But in domestic novel after domestic novel, excess reasserts itself against the realistic style imagined to deny it.

Realism was in paject is the scientific enterprise of at tempting to "bind the smallest things with the greatest." Victorian organicism, or the quest for it, is here: "There is nothing petty to the mind that has a large vision of relations, and to which every single object suggests a vast sum of conditions."32 The whole passage provides the most extensive theoretic/moral justification we have of the English realist's enterprise, and it comes in a novel preoccupied with a desire for release from constriction, for some kind of passionate explosion of vital energy: "A vigorous superstition, that lashes its gods or lashes its own back, seems to be more congruous with the mystery of the human lot, than the mental condition of these emmet-like Dodsons and Tullivers" (p. 238). The past, with its barbarities, begins to seem somehow more human than the present with its grotesquely dehumanized traditions of order and respectability. Indeed, The Mill on the Floss points forward to the novels in which George Eliot is forced to surrender the continuity between the ideal of community, that saves language and meaning in Adam Bede, and the fact of society, whose epitome becomes the monstrous Grandcourt.

The narrative leads to a situation in which satisfactory resolution is unattainable in the terms her adopted realistic mode would allow. Satisfaction must be delayed into "the onward tendency of human things," while the bearers of that tendency cannot endure the facts that are the condition of realistic surfaces and life of St. Ogg's, so clogged with pills and linens and machinery. The progress of Maggie's disenchantment echoes the conventional progress of the disenchanted protagonists of realistic fiction: an excessively romantic and egoistic heroine must learn the relation of desire to possibility, of self to society. But Maggie Tulliver is not allowed to accept the terms available to Catherine Morland or Emma Woodhouse, and marry into society and submit to its restrictions. The resolution George Eliot finds almost authenticates the fantasies of desire (and its perversion, martyrdom) that have been treated consistently with irony, if compassionate irony. The accommodation of protagonist to reality has the shape of another sort of fiction, dominated by the desire that realism's form traditionally represses. The limits Maggie accepts are not, finally, social; they are absolute. If she cannot be absorbed with all her desire into society, she will match herself against nature itself, and against the dream of {46} "moistness" that controlled the narrative from its inception for George Eliot. The death of Maggie is her triumph, a psychological triumph in which, at last, she dominates her brother, and in Which the repressed energies of love and anger are manifested in the equivalent of murder, and in the shape of a catastrophe inimical to the realist's enterprise. George Eliot must invoke a natural catastrophe to act out her heroine's need for love and control. What seems not to have been endurable for George Eliot, in the imagined world of the narrative, was the possibility of Maggie's life's dwindling unclimactically out in the realist's tragedy, as Thackeray called it, of "what you have daily to bear."33 In the intensity of her exploration of the "real," George Eliot finds herself having to choose between two kinds of monstrousness: the unendurable ordinary, that can be redeemed only by projecting satisfaction into the future; the irrational energies of desire, long repressed by the demands of the ordinary. By the time of Daniel Deronda, George Eliot had in effect renounced the limits of realism by renouncing the possibility of satisfactory life within society, the sanction of meaning conferred by a community organically coherent. The ultimate realistic project in George Eliot becomes the projection of community into fictions from which her realist's integrity has banished it. Daniel is sent off, in fact, to create a community, outside the reaches of the society and of the novel whose language can no longer evoke one. The language of realism becomes fit only for that experience of loss and absence that is Gwendolen Harleth's at the end. Meaningful truth must be projected into the distance.

At the risk of some oversimplification, we can say that the later developments in George Eliot's art indicate if not the collapse of a faith in the meaningfulness of the real world, at least a collapse of faith in the dominant reality of the empirically verifiable. Either loss dooms the convention of English realism. But George Eliot never formally stopped being a realist; the nature of her explorations of reality changed, as the elusive figure of reality kept retreating before her rigorous investigation. A developing Victorian science continued to allow her a positive faith in the ultimate accessibility of the real, through an epistemology beyond empiricism. Such an epistemology, however, breaks down conventions of realism, for what cannot be directly experienced or observed cannot be embodied in realistic forms. The disappearance of the happy ending, and the transfer of marriage from the conclusion to beginning, implies an un-Whatelyan world, where justice is not embodied in reality. Maggie's death in the arms of her brother means that the technique of realism has moved let us say, into very turbulent waters.


{47} Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality.

The Professor, in Under Western Eyes

As reality becomes a kind of destructive and formless flood, we arrive at an art that focuses on individual consciousness, the only remaining source of meaning and order. The culminating crisis in George Eliot's novel becomes the initiating fact of Conrad's: Marlow's voyage to the Congo, Jim's leap, the intrusion in Razumov's rooms. Beginning with the assumption of disaster and creating his drama from the attempt to redeem it, Conrad undermines English fiction's primary traditions; but the attempt at redemption is also an attempt to reassert those traditions. He brings to bear on realism's conventions of moral order and moderation a profoundly skeptical continental intelligence. In those initiating moments in which his protagonists' imaginations of self are belied by reality, he assumes a fuller separation of language from reality than George Eliot's work could intimate.

What feels new in Conrad's skepticism is the stylistically and narratively dramatized distrust of language qua language, the developed intuition that mere misuse of language was not the essential cause of the difficulty. Dickens's pleasure in language, for example, was never merely distrust, although his own language, from its polysyllabic Pickwickian comedy to the late bitter detachment, implies a pervasive awareness of the way language obscures the truth.34 What we have noted in Sketches by Boz is intensified in the mystery of Bleak House, Little Dorrit, or Great Expectations. The mystery depends upon closely observed, but opaque, surfaces of ordinary things, which then transform, by metaphor, reiteration, or variation, into something else. Like Conrad, Dickens consistently juxtaposed verbal people, whose language thwarts genuine feeling and disguises moral reality, with inarticulate people, whose gestures or simplicity of statement penetrates the obscurity of surfaces. Magwitch's click in the throat, heard in the first pages of Great Expectations, holds the secret of the novel, legible to us but not to Pip.

Such unambivalent significance, however, rarely emerges in any of Conrad's novels, and the "moral disorder"35 implied in Dickens's chaotic and surfeited worlds is replaced in Conrad by sheer refusal of significance -- the vast white emptiness of Under Western Eyes. As David Thorburn argues, Conrad was temperamentally hostile to "an expansive conception of fiction that might sanction, even encourage, allegory or fable,"36 and this hostility is characteristic of the exploratory realistic impulse.

{48} Again, Conrad's self-consciousness about his materials, intensified by the fact that he wrote in his third language, was actually continuous with the self-consciousness we have seen as a mark of nineteenth-century realism. But it seems a long way from any of the manifestos we have already looked at. In Conrad, we can find the same moral urgency as we hear in George Eliot's commitment, in Adam Bede, to record the reflection in the mirror of her mind as precisely "as if I were in the witness-box . . . narating my experience on oath" (p. 178). The desire to make you "see" is similar for both writers. Even the concern for audience, filtered through Conrad's alternative narrators, is present. But while George Eliot writes as though it were possible to get beyond the limits of the mirror, Conrad begins by assuming the unlikelihood of success.

In the preface to a volume of short stories, Conrad speaks with the intonations of a realist, yet a realist troubled in a new way:

That [romantic] origin of my literary work was far from giving a larger scope to my imagination. On the contrary, the mere fact of dealing with matters outside the general run of everyday experience laid me under the obligation of a more scrupulous fidelity to the truth of my own sensation. The problem was to make unfamiliar things credible.37
The reminder of Coleridge's task in The Lyrical Ballads is to the point. George Eliot is to Wordsworth as Conrad is to Coleridge; beginning at the periphery of experience Conrad cannot quite find the common language of the Wordsworthian and realist enterprise (it hardly matters for our purposes that, as Coleridge was to argue, Wordsworth never found it either). Conrad speaks without the confidence we have heard in the passage from Adam Bede, where the narrator knows she is talking to somebody, that she and her readers form a community and are talking about a community. If George Eliot had been dispossessed of her natural community by her elopement with Lewes, Conrad, the Polish eximetic developments in the twentieth {51} century, it is intricately rooted in the romantic mimetic art of the nineteenth. The assertion echoes Ruskin's extraordinary declaration that "the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way."43 The difference is that Ruskin believes it possible to tell, to find the language, and, although he learns different lessons only to reject them once more, he believes that the visible world will answer to Whately's sort of dream of order. The visible world "meant" something to Ruskin, and the meaning was requisite to his continuing his work. The alienation from experience implicit in the overwhelming value attributed to seeing anti-description was not complete so long as the language struggled to overcome it: the Wordsworthian marriage between mind and nature seemed yet attainable.

For Ruskin, art is the only morality because in making us see, it makes us know God's world. For Pater, whose relation to Conrad is more direct thank Ruskin's, art becomes morality because it allows us the fullest intensity of the transitory moment, the richest possible life through the realization of the evanescent impressions that are all that make up our lives. In a letter to R. B. Cunninghame Graham that echoes Pater and anticipates much of his own fiction, even in its self consciousness about language, Conrad moves into the stark pessimism that Pater's materialist and genteel solipsism entailed:

Life knows us not and we do not know life; we don't even know our own thoughts. Half the words we use have no meaning whatever and of the other half each man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit. Faith is a myth and beliefs shift like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die; and the memo of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow -- only the string of my platitudes seems to have no end.44
Not even the transitory moment is more than dream; yet out of this stern extension of Pater's ideas, Conrad pushes back to the Ruskinian and Wordsworthian ideals of community, and of a morality of art built on bleakness of vision.

Somehow, by making us see he may be able to provide us with what the Preface calls that "glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask" (p. xiv). By nourishing, with Paterian intensity, a "passing phase of life," snatched "from the remorseless rush of time," we begin a task that Pater thought was ended in the act of snatching itself. The artist who, in perfect integrity, gives us a "convincing moment" is the one that "may perchance attain to such clearness of sincerity that at last the {52} presented vision of regret or pity, of terror or mirth, shall awaken in the hearts of the beholders that feeling of unavoidable solidarity; of the solidarity in mysterious origin, in toil, in joy, in hope, in uncertain fate, which binds men to each other and all mankind to the visible world" (p. xiv). Here is the realistic and Romantic program, Conrad transforming the faithless vision offered him by his contemporaries into a struggle toward the community at the heart of the rejected realist's dreams.

There is, of course, an uncharacteristic upbeat inflation in the rhetoric of the Preface. It is akin to the whistling-in-the-dark heroism of Bertrand Russell's "A Free Man's Worship," a product of a similar world view. Somehow, Conrad expects language, that foe of reality, to "compel men entranced by the sight of distant goals to glance for a moment at the surrounding vision of form and colour, of sunshine and shadows" (p. xvi). Yet this is not, I think, either the obfuscation it has sometimes been taken to be, or merely disingenuous. Conradian solidarity inheres in the impenetrability of phenomena, in the simultaneous recognition of mutual helplessness, and in the mysterious pleasures of words them selves. Marlow is a performer, who Buddha-like spins out his mysteries and, like Coleridge's ancient mariner, compels attention. His virtuosity constantly makes his ostensible subject -- Jim, Kurtz, the Congo, himself -- more obscure than it was, constantly reminds us of the arduousness of finding a language that can touch reality, and thus makes us believe in the reality beyond words that his words displace. As a recent critic has put it, "The artist must be engaged in making shapes to prove that shapes cannot be made."45

By Conrad'ts time, then, reality no longer held still for the language realism required. Irrational and mythifying energies intrude everywhere, and become almost the primary validation of the integrity of the realist's enterprise. They are the evidence that it has recognized its own invalidity. Richard Feverel cannot be shaped or systematized, nor can Louisa, Gradgrind, or Pip, by his "creator," Magwitch. Hardy's Henchard makes himself most completely only in his death, while survival in his world -- the world of the limits of realism -- depends upon surrender to phenomena themselves, whose nature is inimical to the human. Before Conrad can surrender meaning, Hardy must invert it.

The emphasis on the mystery of creation justifies Conrad's "unrealistic" subjects. He did not think of the material as separate from the normal human condition. "Subjects," he told Edward Garnett, "never appear revelatory to me."46 Everything depends on how they are handled. Of course, this has become a cliché of modern criticism, but it was important for Conrad in freeing him from the domestic subjects of traditional realistic fiction. Like Victor Frankenstein, who out of an {53} exemplary and placid bourgeois home in Geneva goes to create his monster, Conrad, in the midst of the literati of London, produced his monsters. An obscure faith in science became the grounds for Mary Shelley's creation; the tradition of psychological and naturalist realism, running parallel to the new science, became the grounds for Conrad's assault on normality. Lydgate's primitive tissue becomes mindless matter.47 The discovery, instead of leading to a progressive revelation of connections and an ultimate coherence, leads to a capricious, unstable reality in which necessary sequence is transformed into unimaginable indeterminacy. The explorer of reality finds at last that Keats's fair maiden is a monster, better left untouched. Knowledge has learned its incompatibility with its origins.

In Conrad, finally, the realist exploration of reality becomes a necessary and self-destructive act. To attain knowledge is to achieve integrity and stature at the expense of finding oneself the butt of the great cosmic joke:48 knowledge becomes self-immolation. Frankenstein and his monster cancel each other out. The dilemma is much like George Eliot's, having to choose between the tragedy of what we have daily to bear and th Thackeray's densely particular narratives roam with astonishing looseness outside of chronology, become self-conscious in the tradition of Cervantes and Sterne, and comic in their willingness not to impose serious and climactic resolutions on the aimlessness of experience. This kind of self-conscious freedom with literary structures follows logically from realism's rejection of literature. The refusal to take itself seriously would seem to be the consequence of an art that begins in the mockery of forms that take themselves seriously. Indeed, Thackeray's relation to past and contemporary literature is in many ways similar to {56} the relation of modern experimental novelists to the tradition of realism itself. It is not Thackeray's sort of realism that points to the formal purity and coherence of much early modern fiction. His fiction often reads like a critical commentary, not only on the excesses of the fictions he parodies, but on the restrictions of the criticism and literature that followed him.

Long before Conrad, that is, there was a principle of disorder in realism, a principle that was an occasion not for pain but for freedom and celebration. The bric-a-brac density of Victorian fiction, though it is normally enclosed in imposed forms of order and resolution, frequently threatens to run away with the form. While it can be seen as a mode of repressing the violence of desire, it can also be seen as a sort of Victorian erotics, threatened by the discipline of form. Thackeray's details Of how to live on nothing a year, with all the moral/formal restrictions imposed by the text upon them, constitute one of the great performances of Victorian art. Maggie Tulliver is destroyed by the formal resolution George Eliot had wisely delayed because she had dwelled so lovingly on the details of the childhood she was reconstructing into a detailed nostalgia.

Traditionally, realism is associated with determinism. The antiromance is the denial of the imagination's power to control circumstance. And thus the characteristic subject of realistic fiction is the contest between dream and reality; the characteristic progress, disenchantment. The single character is implicated in a world of the contingent and must make peace with society and nature or be destroyed. Theoretically, in such a world freedom is entirely restricted by context. Yet -- as we pursue one more time the involutions of realism -- the failure of the imagination is dramatized in an entirely imagined world. The contingent world is imagined with a vividness of particularity that belies the determinist conception of the powerlessness of the imagination. In Thackeray, what ought to be oppressive frequently becomes a pleasure, and the protagonists of novels like Pendennis and Philip make their peace with a world obsessed by things, not tragically, with a sense of loss, but pleasantly smoking their cigars and sipping the best wines. Reading Thackeray's fiction can suggest that the determinism we expect from realism emerges formally in the text not by virtue of the cumulative powers of the overwhelming real, but through the formal constrictions of plot, the manifestation in realistic fictions of the most conventional aspects of narrative. The only real determiner is time.

What is unconventional and most exciting about the tradition of realism is its pleasure in abundance, in energy, and the vivid engagement, through language, with the reality just beyond the reach of language. From Emma Woodhouse, concerned about her father's porridge, {57} and shopping in town with her protegee Harriet, to Becky Sharp tossing Johnson's Dictionary from the carriage, to Molly Gibson (in Wives and Daughters) attending quietly to domestic duties, realistic novels contain more than they formally need. The antiliterary thrust of realism can be taken either as an assertion of the power of the real over the imagined, and hence of a determined world, or as an assertion of variety and energy against the enclosing and determining forms of art.

But that is another story. As I proceed in the following chapters to examine diverse aspects of realism as they manifest themselves in the art of nineteenth-century novelists, and to fill in some of the outlines suggested in this chapter, it may be that the diversity of possibility will finally unravel the idea of realism altogether. But realism is inescapable, and I hope to suggest that latent in realism is a variety, a self consciousness, and a complex awareness of the conventions of narrative that anticipate the best of modernism; the realistic impulse to affirm the referentiality of language is a reflection of irrepressible continuing energy for the art and the life that reward us while they threaten at any moment to turn monstrous.


1. The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven, 1979), p. 77. This study bears an obvious relationship to theirs, which appeared after my manuscript was completed. Like them, I begin with Austen and Mary Shelley. Like them, I imagine the ubiquity of the "monster," which might well be called, in my study as well, the madwoman in the attic. Yet my argument that the "monstrous" is an aspect of all realistic literature, that the repression of it is part of the strategy of realism, not exclusively or even primarily of women's literature. Interestingly, Bersani, calling the monster "desire," detects the same pattern. I use Frankenstein as a metaphor for the strategies of realism, while Gilbert and Gubar take it as a paradigm of the woman's imagination of her position as writer and victim in a patriarchal system. It is important to see, however, that the Victorian cultural condition made it possible, even necessary, for men to imagine their monstrous doubles and to feel themselves in enclosed spaces that they had to accept even to the crippling of their desire and self.

2. "Frankenstein and the Traditions of Realism," Novel (Fall 1973): 14-30.

3. U. C. Knoepflmacher notes this pun in his "Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters," in Knoepflmacher and George Levine, eds., The Endurance of Frankenstein (Berkeley, 1979), pp. 88-119.

4. Most criticism of Frankenstein has focused on its mythic or psychological implications. Although I am not concerned here to explore the psychobiological implications of the book, they are obviously of importance for a full under standing of it.

5. See Scott's own comment: "The author's principal object . . . is less to pro duce an effect by means of the marvels of the narrations, than to open new trains and channels of thought, by placing men in supposed situations of an extraordinary and preternatural character, and then describing the mode of feeling and conduct which they are most likely to adopt" ("Remarks on Frankenstein," Periodical Criticism of Sir Walter Scott, Bart., [Edinburgh, 1835], vol. 2, p. 252).

6. See Ellen Moers, Literary Women (New York, 1976), pp. 91-100, and Knoepflmacher, "Thoughts on the Aggression of Daughters." Relevant, too, is Sandra Gilbert's work in feminist poetics, particularly, "Patriarchal Poetry and Women Readers: Reflections on Milton's Bogey," PMLA 93 (May 1978): 368-82.

7. "Night Thoughts on the Gothic Novel," Yale Review 52 (1962): 238.

8. Ariel like a Harpy: Shelley, Mary and "Frankenstein" (Letchworth, England, 1972), pp. 101 ff.

9. Frankenstein, ed. M. K. Joseph (London, 1971), p. 58.

10. The Hero of the Waverley Novels, rev. ed. (New York, 1968), p. 27.

11. Ibid., p. 36.

12. Ibid., p. 17.

13. Some Words of Jane Austen (Chicago, 1973), p. 18.

14. Richard Whately, Review of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, rept. in Brian Southam, ed., Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage (New York, 1968), pp. 87-88.

15. Walter Scott, Review of Emma, rept. in Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, p. 63; and Whately, Review, p. 88.

16. Whately, Review, p. 88.

17. Ibid., p. 90.

18. Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre (Berkeley, 1975). The thesis of Alter's book, that self-consciousness is characteristic of the novel form, and that Victorian realism is an aberration from that self-consciousness, is of direct relevance to my arguments, but badly underestimates the Victorians' awareness of the limitations of the novel as direct representation of reality.

19. Whately, Review, p. 91.

20. Ibid., p. 89.

21. Ibid., p. 94.

22. Ibid., p. 91.

23. Ibid., p. 95.

24. Ibid., p. 96.

25. Ibid., p. 98.

26. A Reading of Jane Austen (New York, 1976), p. 192.

27. Jane Austen's Letters, ed. R. W. Chapman (London, 1969), p. 443.

28. A. Walton Litz, Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development (New York, 1965), p. 115.

29. "What Became of Jane Austen?" rept. in Ian Watt, ed., Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1963), p. 141.

30. Walter Scott, "Essay on Romance," Miscellaneous Prose Works (Edinburgh, 1834), vol. 6, p. 127.

31. George Eliot, Adam Bede (New York, 1948), ch. 17, p. 178.

32. George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, ed. Gordon S. Haight (Boston, 1961), p. 239.

33. W. M. Thackeray, The Newcomes, (Boston, 1884), II, ch. 2, p. 19.

34. See Alexander Welsh, The City of Dickens (Oxford, 1971), p. 10.

35. Ibid., p. 11.

36. Conrad's Romanticism (New Haven, 1974), p. 57.

37. Author's Note, Within the Tides (New York, 1924), p. viii.

38. For a discussion of this concept and of its relation to the tradition of English fiction, see Raymond Williams, The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (New York, 1970).

39. Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes (New York, 1924), p. 3.

40. The Nigger of the "Narcissus" (New York, 1924), pp. xiv-xv.

41. See Gillian Beer, "Beyond Determinism: George Eliot and Virginia Woolf," in Ma Jacobus, ed., Women Writing and Writing about Women (New York, 1979).

42. Letters from Joseph Conrad, 1895-1924 (Indianapolis, 1956), p. 46.

43. Modern Painters, III (London, 1860), pt. 9, ch. 12.

44. Joseph Conrad's Letters to R. B. Cunninghame Graham, ed. C. T. Watts (Cambridge, 1969), p. 65.

45. C. B. Cox, Joseph Conrad: The Modern Imagination (London, 1974), p. 11.

46. Letters from Joseph Conrad, p. 292.

47. For Conrad's attitude toward "matter" see his letter on seeing an X-ray machine, ibid., p. 143. Royal Roussel, The Metaphysics of Darkness (Baltimore, 1971), p. 27. For the general late-century attitude, see Alexander Welsh, "Realism as a Practical an Cosmic Joke," Novel (Fall 1975), pp. 239.

48. Welsh's essay "Realism as a Practical and Cosmic Joke" explores this situation. See also Roussel, Metaphysics of Darkness: "Consciousness must always turn outside itself to find the source of its existence in some ground which does not share its own nature" (p. 10).

49. "Leaves from a Notebook," in The Essays of George Eliot, ed. Thomas Pinney (New York, 1963), pp. 4551.

50. "Joseph Conrad: Alienation and Commitment," in Hugh Sykes Davies and George Watson, eds., The English Mind (Cambridge, 1964), pp. 257-78.

51. See Eigner, Metaphysical Novel, for a general discussion of this characteristic of writers in the realistic tradition.