Reflection by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner
Jesse Rosenthal refers multiple times to the “fraught pleasures of reading” (xi, 193)—pleasures that have seemed particularly fraught in the wake of the election and the rising imperative to call out oppressive, misogynist rhetoric. As my classroom became increasingly fraught as well, I looked to Rosenthal’s insightful new study for teaching advice. My seminar on “Secret Lives in Victorian Literature” this semester—populated by 18 curious, engaged students at a small liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest—has frequently turned from formal, historical, and ideological explorations of our shared reading (pairs of bildungsromane and sensation novels) to referenda on the novels’ morality, driven—as best I can discern—by my students’ recollection of their own traumas. If Jane Eyre is a victim of Rochester’s abuse (emotional manipulation, violence to Bertha, that “severe tweak of the ear”), students ask, then can we see her choice to marry him as a freely empowered decision? (Let’s bracket for a moment the notion of a fictional character’s freedom, which Rosenthal discusses perceptively.) Can we really applaud women in Great Expectations for gaining empathy if they only acquire it by being abused: brained (Mrs. Joe), burned (Miss Havisham), or brainwashed and beaten (Estella)? These are important questions, but for some students, they foreclose discussion. Jane and Estella are abuse victims (and Bertha and Pip, too); hence narratives that don’t fully articulate this are reprehensible—full stop. Once you’ve named a repellent feature of a fictional world, is there anything more to say? How do we, as teachers, affirm students’ experiences without shutting down literary analysis?
Rosenthal’s project gains force where my classroom often stalls: in shifting between formal and moral categories. Building on the work of Nicholas Dames, Caroline Levine and Andrew Miller, his central argument—that the Victorians’ concept of moral intuition shaped the criteria by which they judged that the form of a fictional narrative “feels right” (6), and, in turn, informed the critical categories we now use to analyze narrative—moves so nimbly between ethical and narrative discourses that they start to transmute through an almost anagrammatic alchemy: rearrange the letters, add an “f,” and moral becomes formal. Good Form, I hoped, could be the book to steer my pedagogy in the #metoo moment.
Rosenthal, however, eschews easy leaps between Victorian and contemporary problems. Or rather, he complicates the process by which we project ourselves onto the past. In his chapter on the bildungsroman, to which I turned for guidance in teaching Great Expectations, he nicely revises Franco Moretti’s argument that a protagonist’s freedom must be subsumed into social necessity, proposing instead that in novels like Dickens’s, “The sense of ‘rightness’ in a developmental narrative arises from the form’s suggestion that a character’s choices are always, already, founded in a communal context” which characters can recognize when they “identify with their past selves” (132, 126). Rosenthal demonstrates the narrative’s negotiation between moments when Pip appears to struggle with a choice and retrospective analysis that grounds those moments in prior determination, and in a clever chiastic corollary, he makes his insight metacritical, suggesting that “those works that show people recognizing themselves in the past will be those works from the past in which we recognize ourselves” (131). That is, the canonization of the bildungsroman as the paradigmatic Victorian genre stems from its easy readability, the familiarity that allows us to assimilate its form into our worldview. And yet Rosenthal worries that “students are only too eager to find themselves in [Victorian novels]”; they have an unwitting “need for historical or formal mediation because the novels do not seem like they need it” (127). This might seem like a patronizing stance toward naïve readers, but Rosenthal chastens critics, too: “When we talk about the Victorian novel, we are talking less about the multiple possibilities of the books themselves and more about the criteria by which we label things familiar, intuitive, and like us” (195). His reading of the bildungsroman also offers a developmental narrative of Victorian studies, in which “we don’t freely choose which works make up the field” (192); like Pip, we find ourselves choosing texts that have already arisen out of our scholarly sensus communis. If my students are quick to spot their constrained selves in Great Expectations, so, Rosenthal reminds us, are their teachers.