restricted access Standard Deviations: Chance and the Modern British Novel (review)
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Reviewed by
Leland Monk. Standard Deviations: Chance and the Modern British Novel. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1993. 199 pp. $32.50.

Leland Monk's study of chance in the modern British novel is a solid, timely, and significant contribution to modern narrative theory and analysis. It meticulously discloses that which has never been fully revealed: the prominent role of chance in the fiction of major British novelists from Eliot's Middlemarch (1872) to Joyce's Ulysses (1922). At the same time, it offers a sustained theoretical account of the intriguing relationship between chance and its represenatation in narrative.

This study is both ambitious and comprehensive. The book begins with an impressive survey of the history of chance in philosophy, science, and the novel—though one wishes the section on chance and the novel were somewhat more extensive: the interesting discusion of chance in Robinson Crusoe would be nicely complemented by some mention of the role of happenstance in Roderick Random or some engagenent with the existing critical discourse on coincidence in Tom Jones.

In the second chapter, on Middlemarch, Monk finds "the advent of a qualitatively new understanding of chance in the English novel." His next chapter, on Conrad's Chance, "examines the most rigorous and extended meditation on chance and narrative in British fiction." Finally, the chapter on Ulysses "articulates the limits and formal consequences of the modern novel's interest in chance." The three textual studies involve still larger issues as well; Monk points out they correspond roughly to the distinctions "chance versus Providence (a generally theological debate), chance versus necessity (the latter being for the most part scientific—that is causal—-necessity), and chance versus fate (an opposition having generally to do with narrative)."

These three chapters are particularly compelling. Monk's delineation of the play of chance in Middlemarch is utterly convincing, and his investigation of the roles and eventual fate of the aptly named Raffles is highly illuminating: "John Raffles is stigmatized and ejected from the novel not just because he is a nasty and self indulgent scapegrace (though he is certainly that) but also because he is a scapegoat for the disconcerting aspects of chance that threaten to disrupt the moral economy of George Eliot's fiction." One suspects this chapter will be essential reading for any substantive future criticism of the novel.

Monk reads the conclusion of Middlemarch as a repudiation of the providential order implicit in the endings of earlier English novelists (particularly Dickens); similarly, he reads Conrad's Chance as a sustained critique of the determinism of the naturalist novel. Flora de Bernai, "like most protagonists of naturalist works," seems "doomed from the start" by inexorable [End Page 397] natural laws and impersonal, implacable social forces: "But then chance intervenes. The swerves of chance in Conrad's novel of that name break with the bonds of fate and redirect the itinerary of what seems like the most grimly deterministic of stories, sending Flora and the novel off in another direction entirely." Conrad thus repudiates an entire narrative form based on presumed laws of universal causal necessity. Though it has been largely neglected even by Conrad specialists, Monk succeeds in making Chance readable again.

The chapter on Ulysses is rather different. If there is one work that, at the level of composition, leaves nothing to chance, it is this text. Monk constructs an elaborate argument, based on the various "throwaways" of the book, to provide an alternative view of the dynamics of chance. Not all readers will agree with this chapter's trajectory or conclusions, but all should come away with a keener sense of Joyce's interest in chance. In an appendix, Monk goes on to provide a superb account of chance in the works of Thomas Hardy and Henry James, and thereby gives the book the historical sweep announced in its subtitle.

What remains to be considered is Monk's central, daring thesis that "chance is that which cannot be represented in narrative; as such, it marks and defines a fundamental limit to the workings of any narrative." In the examples he discusses at length, Monk ingeniously discloses how chance, once evoked, is quickly disavowed, expelled, or rewritten as...