Reflection by Thomas Albrecht
Jesse Rosenthal’s Good Form locates the ethical dimension of Victorian novels in intuitive feelings of rightness that are elicited in readers by a given novel’s formal elements (say, its plot trajectory, character development, or narrative revelations), rather than in overt moral themes or authorial pronouncements. In a time when some administrators and scholars are questioning the relevance and uniqueness of literature and literary studies as a field of inquiry, Rosenthal’s argument about the inseparability of ethical truths and formal properties makes a compelling case for the specificity, and the specific value, of a critical approach that is distinctly literary.
Rosenthal’s book is clearly written, intelligent, intellectually ambitious, and impressively broad in its references. It draws from, and contributes substantively to, the critical traditions of narratology, historicism, and post-structuralism. Its subtitle notwithstanding, however, it seems to me less an inquiry that is itself intrinsically ethical, and more an extrinsic study of Victorian ethics.
The word ethics functions for Rosenthal as an umbrella term covering various intuitive feelings of rightness that are diachronically generated within a text, and within readers, by certain kinds of narrative outcomes: a revelation of a certain truth, a restoration of a general state of equilibrium, a certain formation of a protagonist’s character, a certain definition of community, a successful integration of an individual character into a community, a realignment of a character’s internal and external worlds, a definition of a character’s experience as somehow representative of a larger group, and so on. Rosenthal argues that the feelings of rightness generated in and by these outcomes are not inherently morally right (or wrong), but must foremost be understood as rhetorical effects of a given novel’s narrative trajectory and formal properties.
Insofar as it goes, this argument is both valid and intellectually, critically compelling. In defining his problematic, Rosenthal also specifies what he is not doing in the book: he says he does not want to engage with the empirical question of whether reading novels does or does not actually transform readers morally, nor does he want to engage with the topics of sympathy, empathy, alterity, and intersubjective relationships that have dominated recent scholarship about Victorian literature and ethics. This again is a perfectly valid delineation of his own distinct problematic, and in my comment below I am not faulting the book for not doing something it says it has no intention to do.
A question that Rosenthal raises for me, but also largely sidesteps, is what are the specific kinds of moral truths that become intelligible in feelings of rightness generated by Victorian plots and endings? And are these truths genuinely ethical or not, and by what ethical standards? Rosenthal maintains that these questions are for him “ultimately beside the point” (40), and might say that they fall outside the purview of his project, which is essentially formalist and genealogical.
But when Rosenthal reads the novels of Dickens or George Eliot merely as reiterations of ethical-rhetorical structures that he also finds, among other places, in Victorian autobiographies, crime fiction, and sensation novels, he effectively bypasses the important question of why today we continue to reread, teach, and celebrate those novels specifically. Literary criticism has of course given us many excellent answers to that question. But undoubtedly one foremost answer is the unusually complex, nuanced moral insights those novels give characters and readers into themselves, other persons, and the world. Rosenthal persuasively demonstrates how these moral insights are rhetorically generated by elements of narrative form. Shouldn’t his demonstration also be an invitation for us to interrogate and evaluate the moral (and social and political) qualities and values of those insights?