restricted access Fictional Discourse and Historical Space: Defoe and Theroux, Austen and Forster, Conrad and Greene, and: Knowledge and Experimental Realism in Conrad, Lawrence, and Woolf, and: Conrad's Mythology (review)
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Reviewed by
Andrew Wright. Fictional Discourse and Historical Space: Defoe and Theroux, Austen and Forster, Conrad and Greene. New York: St. Martin's, 1987. 116 pp. $27.50.
Patrick J. Whiteley. Knowledge and Experimental Realism in Conrad, Lawrence, and Woolf. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1987. 235 pp. $25.00.
Robert Wilson. Conrad's Mythology. Troy: Whitston, 1987. 158 pp. $22.50.

Two of these books are thoughtful, complicated works of literary criticism, intelligent approaches to both fiction and current academic discourse. Andrew Wright, in Fictional Discourse and Historical Space, examines possible boundaries between the reading of fiction and the study of literary history, as well as the various audiences for fiction, the varieties of relation between fiction and the reader's fictions of self. In trying to isolate coherent voices in diverse fiction through changing times and audiences, Wright concentrates on three pairs of novels: Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast; Austen's Emma and Forster's Howards End; Conrad's The Secret Agent and Greene's The Human Factor. More rigorous philosophically, although less imaginative about the complexities of readers and times, Patrick Whiteley traces theories of epistemology back to Cartesian dualism in order to locate a change in the applications of knowledge to the constant novelistic question of the identity of the self that indicates modernism in the fiction of Conrad, Lawrence, and Woolf. Although neither critical work is completely convincing, both suggest thoughtful historical speculation and provide sensitive and illuminating readings of particular works.

Andrew Wright is acute in using historical knowledge and insight to formulate authors' individual perspectives, as in his account of how Defoe deliberately reduced the complexities of experience to a regressive dream of appealing childishness. The dream is both contrasted to the less naive, more social vision in Swift's Gulliver's Travels and made parallel to a similarly regressive but historically different dream in Theroux. Wright is excellent on the complexities and frustrations of the class-and gender-bound voice in Austen, which can be connected to various class and culture voices in Howards End, alike in their deliberate "refusal to be great," their "irritating" or fascinating lack of pretense. He also makes shrewd connections between the ways in which metaphor suggests only partially knowable political and religious points of view in both Conrad and Greene, although the novelists' politics and metaphysics differ.

Always sensitive to the fact that readers relate to characters in fiction partially or randomly, seldom requiring conclusive identification, Wright uses history to [End Page 270] underline the differences between examples of roughly similar emotions and perceptions. His recognition of incomplete identification leaves his readers free to respond or not to the differences his pairs illustrate, depending on their own perceptions of literary history. In this way, I find myself stretched and convinced by his account of the differences between Conrad's and Greene's treatments of anarchism and the implications for social and political control; Greene's use of Trollope to suggest both a kind of historical alienation and a lost order is explained particularly well. I have also learned from Wright's discussion of the adaptations and rejection of Crusoe myths in Theroux's fiction. Although I admire the subtlety of his treatment of similar voices in Austen and Forster, his account of the differences is too simplistic. Unlike Austen, Forster may never have dedicated a novel to a member of the Royal Family, but his historical development of what the Schlegels represent is not unconnected to the conscious and politically futile attempt by Victoria, Albert, and especially their eldest daughter to liberalize and civilize the ruling Prussian aristocracy. Forster's connections to and ambivalences about a social establishment may have been more buried and complicated than those of Austen (as the establishments themselves were more complicated and threatened by events in the century between), but the two authors share a multiplicity of voices and questions about the stances of self that can never ignore or transpose into "utter unthinkability" an ambivalent and possibly ironic commitment to a symbolic establishment.

Wright's method and assumptions about historical reading leave room for the shadings of disagreement like the one above...