restricted access Narcissis and the Novel (review)
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Reviewed by
Jeffry Berman. Narcissis and the Novel. New York: New York UP, 1990. 328 pp. $35.00.

Jeffry Berman, a student of psychology as well as literature, offers a new psychological analysis of the several English novels he has chosen to study. His aim is not to cancel earlier mainly Freudian readings but to supplement these with more recent insights into the human ego. Berman's mentors are two masters of current Narcissistic theory, Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut, and his focus is the earlier (pre-sexual) childhood experience of attempting to define the self, to see that self in the mirror held up to it by another person. The operative myth here is, of course, the ancient tale of Narcissus, Echo, and the reflective pool.

As Berman moves from novelist to novelist, he reports on the sad histories of characters for whom parents hold up a mirror that distorts the childish face that peers into it: Dr. Frankenstein's Creature, Pip in Great Expectations, Wilde's Dorian Gray, the hero of Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, Hardy's Jude, and finally Clarissa Dalloway, who echoes and sums up all the other troubled human stories that in Berman's study end in either self-glorification or in self-disgust.

In his analyses Berman frequently appeals to his authorities, Kernberg and Kohut, but often he stands on his own two feet, and there are many passages in which he treats a novelist's character as if he were a patient in his consulting office. Such passages complete a work of interpretation that the novelist, insightful as he may have been, did not complete—did not, perhaps, because he simply was not so fully informed as Berman is.

If this sort of study goes beyond the limits some critics observe, few readers of Narcissis and the Novel will object. For Berman's study is one that takes certain works of fiction very seriously. The discussions are reports on a reality that is present, a good many readers would agree. It is present to be discussed and probed because it is as real as the writer who holds the pen and the reader who opens the book. The novels treated in Berman's work of criticism are in some sense reports on what is there. Or was there in former times. The novel was not just fabricated to delight, to amuse, to be put aside without any response either moral or, as with Berman, "psychological."

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