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Criticism 44.4 (2002) 413-419
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Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law by Hal Gladfelder. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Pp. xiii + 281. $49.95 cloth.
Hal Gladfelder's Criminality and Narrative makes the case for an eighteenth-century reader whose taste for narrative subtlety stems from a familiarity with criminal trial pamphlets, news reports, and criminal biographies. Changes in the "physical format and representational strategies of trial reports, in the mid-1670s through the 1720s," Gladfelder explains, placed readers in the position to both judge and identify with the accused. "By incorporating the contested and doubt-charged process of judgment into the structure of narrative itself, trial reports anticipated the openness to discordant meanings and discrepant points of view which I see characteristic of the fictions of Defoe and Fielding" (12). Though Gladfelder does not provide what archival scholars might perceive as evidence of readers' marginalia about their thoughts on crime texts—or for that matter how many eighteenth-century libraries actually contained crime reports—his argument about the ideological connections between crime writing and the novel is powerful and likely to hold sway for critics interested in the ongoing discussions about the rise of the novel and the debate about the social contexts of realism.
Gladfelder's main focus is on the ideological construction of a bourgeois reader whose sense of freedom is constructed, ironically, through a complicated identification with the outlaw hero. "Lingering over scenes of rupture, alternately celebrating and condemning the violent self-assertion that defines the outlaw, criminal narratives play on a shared anxiety that we become ourselves at the moment of transgression" (6). Gladfelder's thesis that "crime narratives and the novels derived from them tend to legitimate, to project as desirable, the very disruptive potentialities they set out to contain" is indebted to Foucault's "reversal of the political axis of individualization." In this theory the modern notion of individuality is predicated on an unconscious identification with outsider status, where, in Foucault's words, "the child is more individualized than the adult, the patient more than the healthy man, the [End Page 413] madman and the delinquent more than the normal and the non-delinquent" (7). Gladfelder maintains that the novel's concentration on the experiences of "socially disruptive figures familiar from the network of criminal narrative(s)," like "climbing servants (as in Pamela), illegitimate and outcast children (as in Tom Jones), runaway and fortune-hunting adventurers (as in Robinson Crusoe)" complicates the traditional connection made by Ian Watts forty years ago that a hegemonic conception of individualism is the political thrust of the novel.
As Gladfelder explains, the novels of this period overtly express a wish to discipline deviant experiences like self-preservation at any cost, over-reaching for status, property, sex, money and revenge—"desires fostered by the newly dominant ideology of individualism"—but do so in a way that ultimately allows for an unchecked exploration of these drives as liberating impulses. "In the open-endedness of their plots, their violence, multiplicity of voices, obsession with detail, underpinnings of social conflict, and concentration on moral and psychological disturbance," these fictions allow the reader to deliberate on transgressive experiences and ponder their liberating possibilities. Though the novels begin with a "belligerent disavowal of criminal intent," many end up affirming the illicit practices they attempted to police. "Once readers are drawn into imaginative complicity with deviance, they may not recoil when called on. For not only does the criminal protagonist embody and act on the impulses encouraged by bourgeois individualism itself—that is, by the very ideology underlying the system of property and social relations the law exists to secure—but the audience for criminal writing might share, at least in part, the outlaw's alienation from the centers of economic and ideological power" (9).
Before turning to Defoe and Fielding, Gladfelder examines in the first half of his book the different genres of crime writing of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Criminal anatomies like the New Canting Dictionary (1725), indebted to Richard Head...