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Reviewed by:
Carol de Dobay Rifelj. Reading the Other: Novels and the Problems of Other Minds. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1992. xiv + 247 pp. $37.50.

It will be easy for most readers to get interested in this book, for Rifelj's starting point is skepticism, or more precisely, what philosophers refer to as "the problem of other minds." The premise for the marriage between philosophy and literature Rifelj brokers is not some kind of fashionable interdisciplinarity, but rather the observation that not only philosophers, but novelists, too, are obsessed with the idea of whether we can truly know another person's thoughts and feelings. Like Cavell, whom she obviously admires, Rifelj seems motivated to explore why novelists probe this question so insistently rather than to stake out her own position with the intention of proclaiming it correct.

Gently inviting in the non-specialist, Rifelj's first chapter offers a lucid, gracefully written introduction to the philosophical issues that serve as a backdrop for later chapters' readings of specific novels. Her reference points logically begin with Montaigne and Descartes, proceeding to Wittgenstein, Wisdom, Austin and Cavell. While she outlines the philosophical argument from analogy and behaviorist accounts, the approach of ordinary language philosophers receives the greatest attention. Their implicit refutations of the skeptical view are relevant to the study of novels "both because they are rooted in human experience and because they are based on an analysis of the way we use language."

Though one misses some self-reflection on her choice of texts, the variety of novels Rifelj discusses in the remaining six chapters will both comfort and challenge most readers. Wisely beginning on familiar terrain, Rifelj shows how detective fiction "presents particularly insistent demands to fathom the motives and intentions of others." Chapter two's analysis of Sherlock Holmes's world view, where "there is a complete correspondence between outward expression and inner feelings as well as between signs and physical reality," is productively followed by a discussion of Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. Though both famous detectives seem to read suspects with a facility we rarely experience in fathoming the other ourselves, their own inscrutability proves the "rule of our isolation from each other." Rifelj's fourth chapter examines Villiers de l'Isle Adam's science fiction novel, L'Eve future (1886, translated as Tomorrow's Eve). Her discussion holds interest [End Page 453] even for readers unfamiliar with the work, in part because of Villiers' own intriguing choice of using Thomas Edison to hold the radical solipsistic view that "it is we who speak through the other"—especially the female other. Having foregrounded the issue of gender in her exploration of the relationship between Spade and Brigid, Rifelj follows the thread in this chapter, as well as in her subsequent discussions of Mérimée's Carmen (alerting us to significant departures in the opera version), Proust's volume of La Recherche du temps perdu, La Prisonnière (The Captive), and Anthony Powell's twelve-volume novel, A Dance to the Music of Time. In Mérimée and Proust we get the most dramatic illustrations of men's limited access to the female Other's mind which fuels desire for control over what they can never have. As convincing as Rifelj's argument about inherent differences in men's and women's approaches to the problem of other minds is, it would have been more compelling if she had provided at least one (presumably counter-) example of a work written or narrated by a woman in which accessing the mind of the other is more successful or motivated by something other than desire for control.

Rifelj's engaging literary analyses provide persuasive evidence that novelists are indeed in the position of philosophers: "once the threat of skepticism has been posed, there seems to be no way out of it." Unfortunately, the book leaves at least two knotty—necessarily connected—problems unexamined. There is, first of all, the problem of thought itself: Do we think in words? Can we know something that is not expressed through language? Secondly, there is the persistent question of the relationship between literature and life...


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