Reflection by Katherine Voyles
Jesse Rosenthal shows how pulling a reader through a narrative and then wrapping it up in satisfying ways were fundamentally moral, ethical and philosophical issues for Victorians; the shape of narrative is moral, morality shapes narrative. In elaborating this moral conception of narrative, Rosenthal asks: “What do we mean when we say that the progress of a narrative ‘feels right’? How did feeling, form and the sense of right and wrong get mixed up in the nineteenth-century, in the experience of reading a novel?” To answer he points us not to the dramatization of quandaries, the representation of virtue or vice, or addresses to the reader, but to the “experience of . . . . [the nineteenth-century novel’s] narrative form” (23). A desire for transformation drives that form. Change occurs through the temporal unfolding of a novel as the fates of characters shift. Rosenthal sees an evolution as the novel moves from one realm of being to another, from “what is to what ought to be” (2). This evolution aligns the world of the realist novel with the reader’s own internal sense of what should happen to a character.
The reader of Good Form is capably shuttled through the book itself. Rosenthal charts how narratives arrive at a desirable end across a range of novels including familiar categories like the social problem novel, Newgate novels, and novels of maturation; Dickens gets a lot of airtime here as Rosenthal elucidates how his characters are folded into their communities. In his final move Rosenthal introduces a new category of novel: the large novel, exemplified by Daniel Deronda. The large novel breaks with what came before because its ending “‘feels wrong’” (153). Gwendolen is not surrounded at novel’s end, which pushes resolution into a future unrealized in even Eliot’s lengthy narrative. The switch from Dickens to Deronda does not alter the capacities of narrative Rosenthal describes; rather, the Deronda chapter underscores how narrative’s particular power to usher in states of being for characters and social relations among them always depended on a breach between is and ought, even as some stories close it and others defer that narrowing.
Good Form will have us talking about its considerable merits in their own right, and promises to invigorate our ongoing conversations about the form of narrative in general and Victorian realist narrative in particular. Rosenthal names the large novel, but even capacious novels are curtailed and contained. I devote my own research to elucidating how scale gives form and shape to narrative realism by focusing on the interplay between the large and the small, the distant and the intimate, and the global and the local. The contractions and expansions that make realism impact how quickly a novel pulls its reader through the story. Middlemarch anchors its wide-ranging, panoramic sweep in a single, confined location, and this interplay between elongation and condensation is expressed in the novel’s temporal pacing. To start the last chapter of the final book Eliot muses on the arc of narrative, of what it means to close a story, especially a long story: “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending. Who can quit young lives after being long in company with them, and not desire to know what befell them in their after-years?” (832). Eliot lays out the difficulty of clearly distinguishing between beginnings and endings, between opening a story and shutting it down, by suggesting that realist narratives, long and lifelike as they are, intensify difficulties common to all story-telling. Middlemarch elongates storylines and curbs them so that travelling from its beginning to its conclusion is at one and the same time an exercise in speed and one in slowness.
“Being long in company” with characters and then following them into “after-years,” is a moral, ethical, philosophical exercise in arriving at an ending that “feels right” even if the journey is perilously long and tediously short. Victorian narratives do this, and Rosenthal himself also bends, curbs and extends time: his finale shows that fiction born in the nineteenth century is our own invention.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Edited by Rosemary Ashton. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Voyles, Katherine. “George Eliot’s Compact Panorama.” George Eliot-George Henry Lewes Studies. Vol 69, no. 2, 2017, 127-144.