The middle—as Caroline Levine and Mario Ortiz-Robles acknowledge in their introduction to this volume—is a concept that resists stable definition. We can define it negatively, by differentiating it from beginnings and endings, but the boundary between the middle and its structural bookends will always be somewhat porous. The middle of a narrative is “notoriously impossible to sustain,” a state that cannot be elided and cannot last, and “also precisely what we cannot escape” (2). The middle of a novel, in particular, engages both form and content, the material “bulk of its narrative space” and “the problem of middlingness—the middle class, the unheroic, the ordinary” (3). For these reasons, among others, beginnings and endings have attracted more attention than middles in narrative theory. And yet, as the editors point out, “it is not that theorists have overlooked the middle: it is that they have too often cast the middle in functionalist terms, as on the way to an ending that will bestow it, retrospectively, with meaning” (6). Against the conventional readings of narrative theory, then—including those of Roland Barthes, Peter Brooks, and D. A. Miller—the essays in this volume propose to theorize the middle via the novels of those nineteenth-century authors who, “dwelling lengthily and lovingly on the middle, were absorbed in the experience of middlingness per se” (7).
Structurally, Narrative Middles is itself divided into three sections: the chapters in the first address “the question of the novel’s center” (9), in the second, the question of repetition in narrative, and in the third, the effect of “pauses and delays, moments where the novel suspends its action” (15). Alex Woloch, who opens the first section with “Character Insecurity in Sense and Sensibility,” examines the way in which, throughout the narrative middle of Austen’s novel, Marianne and Elinor Dashwood alternately inhabit that “arena of privilege,” the narrative center (25). Formally, the two sisters are contingently defined, each one at risk of being displaced from the characterological center by the other. This fundamental formal instability is echoed by the contingency of their social class, the “middle” class; by the uncertainty of that “middle” temporal period between a woman’s coming of age and marriage; and by the sibling rivalry that underlies their relationship. “If Austen’s mixture of sympathy and irony, or her development of the technique of free indirect discourse, demonstrates [the] ‘middle’ ground between the exterior and the interior,” Woloch argues, “the underlying organization of this novel’s character-system (simultaneously substantializing and displacing intentional agency) does too” (43).
In “The Make-Believe of a Middle,” Hilary Schor, too, takes on a novel in which two characters, with two distinct plots, compete for the narrative center. The question of the middle in Daniel Deronda, Schor argues, is also a “problem of knowledge,” a question of “whose middle” it is (51). George Eliot’s novel “trades in ambiguity and confusions of knowledge, keeping readers and characters alike uncertain of what is happening” (50); in doing so, it destabilizes the argument in narrative theory, most convincingly made by Peter Brooks, that a retrospective viewpoint always clarifies the narrative middle (48). For Gwendolen Harleth, Schor suggests, the retrospect made possible by “closure” is replaced by a liberating kind of non-ending; the failure of the marriage plot opens the way instead for a “continuing middle” (70).
Kent Puckett’s “Before and Afterwardness in Henry James,” the last chapter in the section organized around centers, is explicitly concerned with both formal, material centers and with the political implications of these central points. The material center of The Princess Casamassima, in Puckett’s reading, is the gap between the first and second volumes of the New York edition of the novel, and it is in this gap that the presumed central event of the novel—Hyacinth Robinson’s vow to commit revolutionary violence—takes place. When Hyacinth instead takes his own life, choosing “not to act because of his ‘loathing of the idea of a repetition’ [i.e. his proletarian mother’s murder of his aristocratic father]” (95), he also seeks a way out of the “bad political repetition” (96) that violent political revolutions might perpetuate. “In wrenching the novel’s middle away from its place in between the beginning and the end,” Hyacinth, Puckett argues, “casts doubt on the notion that an end invented as the necessary effect of a merely asserted middle can justify any and all means” (100).
Two of the chapters in the book’s section on repetition, Amanda Claybaugh’s “Everyday Life in Anne Brontë” and Amanpal Garcha’s “Pendennis’s Stasis and Journalism’s Work,” focus on the way the novels in question attempt to represent (or fail to represent) the repetitive nature of labor. “In the middles of Anne Brontë’s novels,” Claybaugh argues, “we see what happens when there is not enough difference, when the work of teaching, or the state of married life, seems like more and more of the same” (125); her middles also “suggest … that plots need to be understood as recognizable forms, ones that can be emptied of their substantive content and replaced with content of quite a different kind” (125). In Agnes Grey, the repetitive work of the governess is noted via ellipsis or synecdoche, so as not to entirely stall the plot (115); in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the novel moves forward through the repetitions of married life by starting a new narrative entirely, the temperance plot. These strategies of representation differ markedly from William Thackeray’s narrative digressiveness in The History of Pendennis. In this novel, Garcha notes, the very business of the “news” is depicted as static, repetitive hackwork. There is a “close, direct relationship” between “the quick, whiplike judgments” of the journalistic hack—judgments typical of Thackeray’s own journalistic production—and “Pendennis’s meditative, discursive passages”: both disrupt the “continuous reading” associated with plot (147). The pleasure that a nineteenth-century audience nevertheless took in a novel such as Pendennis stems, in this reading, from “the large amount of plotless text” that “allowed readers to indulge in a much more potent and immediate fantasy of escaping…alienating labor altogether and sharing the Thackerayan narrator’s position beyond work, experience, and desire” (156).
Suzanne Daly’s “The Clerk’s Tale,” which takes Dickens’s Dombey and Son as its object, is more concerned with the conceptual doubling of the clerk than with the repetition involved in his work. Carker the Manager and Walter Gay, both clerks in the titular firm, are possessed by antithetical desires: to destroy the firm and the family that runs it, and to save and perpetuate it. As clerks, however, Daly argues, both characters arouse anxiety about class mobility, the fear that the clerk—a “flashy, degraded copy of the original” (133)—might try to take the place of his social and economic superiors. The only acceptable way for Walter Gay to rise high enough to marry Dombey’s daughter, Florence, and take the helm of the firm, is for his ascent to “tak[e] place in a geographic and narrative elsewhere” (139). In this way, “the narrative middle, and specifically Walter Gay’s absence from the middle, speaks to the way Dickens conceives and characterizes the middle class” (128).
The three chapters in the last section explore different ways in which a novelistic middle can be suspended or create suspense. Amy King’s “Dilatory Description and the Pleasures of Accumulation,” as its title suggests, links the long descriptive passages in the middles of many secular Victorian novels to the “ethics of close observation” that undergirds eighteenth-century natural theology and, despite Darwin, pervades scientific discourse for most of the nineteenth century. King tracks the devotional attention to detail characteristic of this theological approach through Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selbourne and Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village, arguing that “the ethical justification for and practice of description in the nineteenth-century British novel […] derives at least in part from the importance placed on quotidian observation by natural theological discourses” (187). Like Garcha, King suggests that nineteenth-century readers found a pleasure in these passages that was independent from the drive for closure, a “pleasure of pause over plot” (188).
Caroline Levine’s contribution, “An Anatomy of Suspense,” turns us back to the traditional plot-driven novel, but not to the traditional reading of these narratives. Critical suspicion of readerly pleasure—especially the pleasure of suspense—has, Levine argues, led to the widespread assumption that “suspense plots encourage a passive readership” (196). In her reading of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Levine counters this strain of criticism and claims that suspenseful middles may promote “active, engaged, critical thinking” rather than “helpless, thoughtless submission” (196). As a genre, the suspense novel foregrounds a condition that has already been noted in other chapters in relation to the nineteenth-century novel more generally: that their plottedness relies on the knowledge gaps between author and reader, reader and characters, narrator and characters, etc. Like nineteenth-century scientific discourses, suspense novels value the “suspense” of belief in one’s own knowledge and encourage the production of hypotheses. In the sense that “care for others […] requires a willingness to consider the ways that events will play out in the future” (208), these novels are ethical; in the sense that “the slow unfolding of a mystery” (210) is an analogue for physical seduction, they are also erotic.
Finally, Mario Ortiz-Robles’s “The Latent Middle in Morris’s News from Nowhere” looks at the kind of middle that is suspended to the point of dropping out of the novel altogether, even as it weighs the narrative down: late-Victorian utopian fictions have “no middle” (216) in that “the middle of the narrative is suspended between a fully realized future (utopia proper) and a doomed or unpromising present” (215), and “nothing but middle” in that they are characterized by “long expository passages that describe the functioning of the new or evolved society and provide, in retrospect, a historical account of how it came to pass” (216). Informed by the discourses of Marxism and Darwinism, these fictions can imagine a utopic future in non-teleological terms, as the “unreachable ideal” of scientific socialism (224) or as the result of a kind of “purposeless” and “open-ended” evolution (227). With Fredric Jameson, Ortiz-Robles suggests that utopic fiction is a kind of “calm before the storm,” a genre that tends to emerge at the “moment of the suspension of the political” (qtd. in 243), a moment much like Europe in the decades before the Great War. Late-Victorian utopian fiction occupies a similar middle in literary historical terms, arriving as it does after the height of the realist novel and before the radical experimentation of modernism (244).
As various as the emphases of these chapters are, they share a commitment to a recent wave of formalism that “aims to show how literary forms matter in the social world” (3). Unlike Marxists, who generally posit form “as a strategy for containing political instabilities” (4), or those critics who “understand literary forms as more straightforward indexes—manifestations or enactments—of sociocultural realities” (4), the contributors to this volume stress the ways in which writers “deliberately deplo[y] literary forms to engage in self-conscious political and social projects” (5). Together, they suggest that “narrative middles are an ideal site for the convergence of formalist and historicist methods,” and that readings of them may “bridge the gap between intrinsic and extrinsic criticism” by “address[ing] relations between the operations of the narrative middle, on the one hand, and sociocultural events and processes, on the other” (7). The volume’s focus on the nineteenth-century British novel, the editors explain, takes advantage of the importance of social middles in Victorian England (the middle class, centrist political reform, and London itself as the “hub of empire” (7)) as well as the form of the Victorian novel itself, “an aesthetic compromise between imaginative vision and historical discourse” (7-8).
If the nineteenth-century British novel makes sense as a starting place for explorations of the narrative middle, one can easily imagine the application of similar socially conscious formalisms to other periods and other genres: to that nineteenth-century American master of suspense, Edgar Allan Poe, or to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, a novel with a middle lengthy and digressive enough to rival any of Eliot’s or Thackeray’s. More interesting, perhaps, would be to theorize the middle of novels in which the relationship between story and discourse is less straightforward: Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, say, or Pynchon’s middle-heavy Gravity’s Rainbow. If the middle—as many of the contributors to this volume suggest—is a material and conceptual site that pushes the boundaries of formal and social convention in the novel, then the middles of narratives that stretch novelistic form to its limit should be especially ripe for analysis. (For that matter, there is no reason that I can see to restrict the theorization of middles to the novel as a genre. Narrative, dramatic, and lyric poems have middles, too, and critical attention to these texts has also tended to theorize the drive for closure at the expense of the open possibilities of the middle.) In order to advance the work of Narrative Middles, such potential projects might also attend more closely to the structural and conceptual definitions of the middle and the way that a narrative middle’s meanings are produced. Many of the chapters in this book explicitly take issue with Peter Brooks’s theory of plot, but I am not convinced that any of them find a clear way out of the problem of the retrospective position, whether achieved or projected, that allows us to inhabit the middle in the first place.
Narrative Middles: Navigating the Nineteenth-Century British Novel. Eds. Caroline Levine and Mario Ortiz-Robles. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2011.
Last modified 11 July 2012