David Coombs responds to Anna Henchman

The two provocative questions that conclude Anna Henchman’s reflection (about the linearity of the bildungsroman and why scholars might be probing its narrative instabilities now) really resonated with me. One way to answer those questions might be to read The Physics of Possibility together with Jesse Rosenthal’s argument in Good Form. The standard take is that the bildungsroman narrates the formation of an individual, which is completed when the protagonist realizes that they have somehow already been formed by their social environment all along. In this view, meaning—the new valuation for their life events that such a recognition entails—“is the reparation for the foreclosure of possibility,” the limit placed on individual potential by social constraints. But Rosenthal shows how that retrospective meaning derives from the protagonist’s having made free choices in the past that were themselves already rooted in communal values; the form thus affords its protagonists a paradoxical recognition of having made the community that has made them.

The Physics of Possibility suggests that this neat finessing of the torsion between freedom and necessity either relied more strongly on unrealized possibilities to begin with or was coming under new strain as the nineteenth-century wore on. In either case, it’s relevant here that Good Form elevates the bildungsroman’s formal logic into an account of Victorian literary studies as a field; we, too, produce the tradition that produces us, collectively defining ourselves around an object—the Victorian novel—that the interpretive work making up the field itself defines. If work like The Physics of Possibility is pushing us to think about unrealized possibilities in the Victorian novel, at some level we might see that thinking as part of a new interest in the unrealized possibilities of Victorian Studies at a moment when a field defined in such literary-historical terms has come to seem less stably rooted in necessity than we perhaps took for granted.

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