Reflection by Dani Green
By treating realism “as a formal dynamic” rather than “a stable set of texts or even a coherent genre,” Mary L. Mullen’s Novel Institutions dislodges realism from the geographical distinction that insists on its being a Western literary institution (5). In centering Irish novels whose temporal logics are influenced by their different relationship to colonial institutions, Mullen tells a story that brings Irish literature’s unique contributions to nineteenth-century narrative to the fore while revising an understanding of British realism more broadly. While bearing in mind that Ireland, despite its long colonial relationship with England, is part of a Western history and also party to British imperialism, Ireland’s proximity to England supplements Mullen’s methodology: adjacent forms can help to reveal shared logics as well as disjunctions that may be otherwise unnamable.
The chapter of most interest to me is that on George Moore, the Irish novelist whose explicit engagement with naturalist methods of narrative offers another way to revise our understanding of realism and how we discuss the Victorian novel. Naturalism has taken a backseat in studies of the nineteenth-century British novel—in a way it hasn’t in scholarship on American literature, for example—despite its prevalence in conversations about realism and genre in literary circles toward the end of the century, as well as the canonicity of a number of “naturalist” novels that tend to be subsumed under the label of “realist.” Mullen deftly maps her argument onto Georg Lukács’s classic rejection of naturalist description in favor of realist narration in his essay “Narrate or Describe?” which she shows associates realism with institutions and naturalism with an anti-institutionalism. This shrewd way of reading naturalism revives the genre not as genre (it is often cast as formally uninteresting, if generically stimulating), but as another “formal dynamic” whose “shifting temporal scales” make way for anti-institutional potential: “to be at odds with the historical moment,” Mullen writes, “is to be opposed to the present arrangement of power” (182–84). Naturalism not only emerges as a radical and progressive form worthy of renewed attention in a Victorian Studies currently invigorated by the relationship between politics and aesthetics, but Mullen demonstrates how “imagining otherwise” (6) can and should translate into our practices as critics whose work relies on and takes place within institutions.
In this way, Mullen joins and furthers conversations currently dominating the field of Victorian studies and which especially gather around Caroline Levine’s recent work, Forms (2015). Emphasizing the importance of plurality, Forms offered language to talk about the relationship between politics and aesthetics in formal terms. Mullen understands literary and institutional forms together in this same spirit, but offers a more self-conscious interrogation of literary studies’ participation in potentially limiting institutions that dominate in perpetuity because they work by “organiz[ing] time.” “Becom[ing] the horizon for future imagining,” institutions “allow multiple historical temporalities within the present to be brought onto a shared singular path” (2). This way of organizing time obfuscates historicity, initiating a cultural forgetting that upholds institutions’ present and future authority while suggesting that a “time before” did not exist. In identifying the possibilities of “anachronism” within the realist novel, Mullen argues that the very genre that dominates Victorian Studies insists that we “refuse institutional time in order to imagine a future that does not simply extend existing social arrangements” (211). Mullen thus imagines how “being out of sync” can be an important and radical counter to the institutional authority of Victorian and literary studies and the university system in which they exist.