Novel Violence: A Narratography of Victorian Fiction

Carolyn Lesjak navigates a meticulous reading of Victorian novels with verbal conflict at its heart

August 27, 2009

If Leah Price, writing in Victorian Studies, recently reminded us that "learning to read means, among other things, learning when not to", Garrett Stewart's Novel Violence: A Narratography of Victorian Fiction dramatises how much we lose, potentially, in reading this way. Committed to what he describes as an "intensive reading", Stewart coins the term "narratography" to describe a new critical method able to take the pulse of the smallest of grammatical units. As he defines narratography, it is "the apprehension of mediated narrative increments as traced out in prose or image by the analytic act of reading". In layman's terms, it is an attentiveness to things as seemingly innocuous as a semi-colon or a comma splice, literal slips of the tongue or of tones, all of which register and make audible both the surface of the text and its "linguistic unconscious". Narratography, Stewart argues, "moves beyond the taxonomies of stylistics ... to engage, in a more transactive sense, narrative writing itself; narrative writing itself out, phrase by phrase".

Like the sentences that Stewart analyses so meticulously, his own writing is at once precisely structured and poetically evocative. In readings of Little Dorrit, Edgar Allen Poe, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, The Mill on the Floss and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Stewart attends to the "phrasal rails of enunciation", emphasising the violence graphed by grammar. His titular violence is new in that it follows from the Romantic disillusionment identified by Georg Lukacs as the necessary state of the novel in its fall from epic fullness. Violence, in other words, is structural to the novel as a form.

Equally, violence is shown to be the content of these 19th-century novels, found in the cruelty with which The Mill on the Floss plots and we, as readers, participate in the closing off of all options for Maggie Tulliver, or with which Tess of the D'Urbervilles progressively "phases out" Tess' life - and encourages us to read Tess as reductively and schematically as Angel does. In this view, readers are not merely implied but actively implicated in these novels' violence.

Novel Violence is an enormously ambitious project inclined toward the grand gesture, the small writ large, as it were. It aims "to heal the marked and widening gap in novel studies between genre theory and narratology, between cultural formations and structural forms" and "to keep alive some refreshed paradigms of exchange between novelistic content and narrative form". Its method is a matter of scale: where narratology stays with a text's larger structures and issues of closure, narratography offers a "tighter scale" on the level of prose itself. If narratology stops at the wedding, as Stewart suggests, narratography reads on - a difference concretely and compellingly illustrated in his reading of the grammatical elisions at the end of Little Dorrit that mark the novel's erasure of Clennam's real mother and Amy's complicity in this erasure.

Genre theory, too, emphasises the structural at the expense of the local; it theorises the novel, Stewart notes, rather than a novel. These are not, however, ground-clearing moves on Stewart's part. Rather, he wants to position narratography as "less corrective than complementary" to these other methods of reading. Each chapter begins with an epigraph from Lukacs' The Theory of the Novel and, in the end, Stewart locates his work alongside Lukacs', as an attempt "to screen (Lukacs') dialectical abstractions less through the centuries-long evolution of the novel as genre than through the post-Romantic prose of that genre's fictional plotting in Victorian narrative".

Marjorie Levinson's 2007 PMLA essay, "What is New Formalism?", identifies two strands within current calls for a renewed attention to aesthetic form: a "new formalism that makes a continuum with new historicism and a backlash new formalism" that returns to the hermetic text. Novel Violence can usefully be placed on the more progressive end of this formalist spectrum. At the same time, its readings prompt one to ask what has happened to history? While Stewart claims to be furthering an argument about the historicity of forms, history for the most part drops out of the individual readings.

The imagined backstory of Little Dorrit is indicative: it constructs a hypothetical fiction for Arthur Clennam's mother rather than, say, looking to the possible sociocultural backstories that might drive Little Dorrit's narrative. The difficulty of keeping both form and history in play is most noticeable when Stewart recognises the "endemic violence of realism" in the fact that "Arthur's mother is driven away and mad, Helen brutalised, Maggie drowned, Tess hanged", but nowhere stops to ponder why all this violence is against women. Even as the practice of narratography helps us hear the Victorian novel in new ways, it also, like more entrenched versions of formalism, seems to leave the world to the side of narrative rather than in the thick of it.

Novel Violence: A Narratography of Victorian Fiction

By Garrett Stewart

University of Chicago Press 280pp, £31.00

ISBN 9780226774589

Published 2 June 2009

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