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  • Comedy Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry
  • Jordan Alexander Stein (bio)
Harm's Way: Tragic Responsibility and the Novel Form by Sandra Macpherson . Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. Pp. 237. $55.00 cloth.

Harm's Way takes issue with the one thing everybody knows about the novel; namely, that it is a vehicle—indeed, the vehicle—for the rise of bourgeois individualism. Famously outlined in the 1950s by Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (1957) and enriched since the 1980s by Marxists, feminists, and Foucaultians, this dominant story aligns the English novel with the development of psychology, the rise of companionate marriage, and the actualization of modern personhood—in short, with what Harm's Way designates succinctly as the "interiority thesis" (16). But the only thing more succinct than Harm's Way's designations is its dispatch. In five short chapters, the book makes an impressively bold and impeccably graceful case against the idea that the realist novel can and should be considered the vehicle for which it has so long been taken.

Instead, Harm's Way argues that "[t]he realist novel is a project of blame not exculpation" (13). Unfolding from this claim is an intervention into the ways that critics of the novel have been oriented to the idea of action. Harm's Way contends that the widely accepted view that characters drive plots through their actions (a view that grants agency to human figures and so complies with the interiority thesis) is ultimately a "comic" orientation, exemplified in the sentimental novel that terminates in marriage. The book accordingly [End Page 137] shows comedy to be a narrative form of limited liability, such that the responsibility a character assumes (and should assume) for her or his actions is tempered by subjective issues, including things like intention, moral disposition, or states of affection and desire. In comedy, good intentions cancel bad actions (and thus comedy, the book notes in a typically and wryly stylish moment, "means never having to say you're sorry" [15]). Alternatively, Harm's Way posits a "tragic" orientation to action in the novel, in which character is "an effect of the action" (8, emphasis retained) rather than the other way around; or again, in which "character happens to and does not usher from persons" (174). This formal point manifests in narratives of strict (as opposed to limited) liability—narratives which assume that "interior" issues such as intention or the goodness of a person (or character) are irrelevant to the formal condition of harm that persons (or characters) may produce. Far from recognizing persons for their interior depths, Harm's Way shows that strict liability recognizes persons as "causes rather than agents," "matter in motion," (165, 23, emphasis retained). But, ultimately an argument about responsibility, the book assures its reader that "if this is quite literally dehumanizing, it is not, therefore, inhumane" (23).

While Harm's Way grants out of hand that strict liability is not evident in all eighteenth-century British novels—that it is, in fact, "a liberal countertradition" (4)—the book's wager that accounts of strict liability are present in texts as foundational to the study of the English novel as Moll Flanders, Roxanna, and Clarissa leaves one wondering how "counter" this tradition can ultimately be. And that, surely, is the point, as Harm's Way proceeds by handling the most apposite case studies (e.g., Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding) in the most strikingly counterintuitive ways. To be sure, the book opens up new readings of familiar texts by Defoe and Richardson, but the standout example is the third chapter on Fielding, whose Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones conform so well to the book's understanding of the comic version of the realist novel, and contrast so strikingly with Richardson especially, that they are used to demonstrate the book's claims in reverse. The unusualness of this move makes it worth pausing over, for nearly a fifth of Harm's Way's narrative is devoted to the rigorous discussion and ultimate assimilation of texts that, avowedly, do not themselves prove its point. If few arguments would attempt such a daring turn, many fewer could sustain...


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pp. 137-140
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