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Reviewed by:
George Goodin. The Poetics of Protest: Literary Form and Political Implication in the Victim-of-Society Novel. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1985. 219 pp. $19.95.

In his study The Poetics of Protest, George Goodin focuses on the victim-of-society novel (those fictions with "a broad common purpose—protesting social injustice—and [End Page 844] a common action—the protagonists suffer unjustly because of antagonists who can command the power of institutions"), and he argues persuasively that such fictions form a subgenre of the novel itself.

Victim-of-society novels are usually highly schematic, especially in terms of plot and characterization; appropriately for his study, Goodin uses a book-length schema according to the various kinds of victim-of-society protagonists. First he offers "The Innocent Victim," such as Oliver Twist, "whose suffering is not appreciably motivated by any character trait." Next comes "The Virtuous Victim"—Billy Budd, Jean Valjean, et al.—who "suffers not only in spite of goodness but precisely because of it." The third type, "The Flawed Victim," is more complex because the protagonist is trapped in "the false consciousness which a culture strongly influenced by unjust institutions can promote": Clyde Griffiths in Dreiser's An American Tragedy is a prime example. "The Pseudo Victim," the fourth group, including the protagonists of Catch-22 and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, are less worthy than the other type because, unlike them, they do not "undergo the pathos characteristic of the tragic hero" and we do not "perceive the injustice against them in the disproportion between how much they suffer and how little they deserve to." As expected from a critic using schematic categories, Goodin adds a final, catch-all: "Permutations and Combinations." Bleak House, Grapes of Wrath, Fontamara, and The Fratricides receive his main attention here.

Goodin searches all of Western literature for victim-of-society novels. Too often when he finds one, rather than deftly analyze it he surrounds and batters it with a variety of critics from Aristotle to Frank Kermode. And for all of his thoroughness in research and critical technique, he omits any mention of a surprising number of significant victim-of-society fictions, including probably the most important American one, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. The study also contains only brief comments on the work of Sinclair's fellow victim-of-society novelists, Frank Norris and Jack London, and nothing about the fiction in this subgenre of turn-of-the-century British writers such as H. G. Wells and George Gissing. No reason is given for these omissions, and no rationale is offered for the critic's many selections other than the fact that they fit into his categories—but so do the omissions. When the critic's approach works, however, he is able to offer striking insights into a variety of novels, works as apparently disparate as Richard Wright's Native Son and Stendhal's The Red and the Black.

In the end, the book succeeds not because of its ponderous critical superstructure (much of which seems in competition with and a concession to the overly self-conscious critical stances of the 1980s) but because of its old-fashioned insistence on the interaction between the text and society. At a time when literary criticism seems increasingly fragmented (or deconstructed) and turned away from the world and in upon itself, George Goodin invokes and reminds us of the oldest literary truths, those of Aristotle. It is not coincidental that Goodin names his book The Poetics of Protest. [End Page 845]

Murray Sperber
Indiana University
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