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  • Coincidence as Realist Technique: Improbable Encounters and the Representation of Selfishness in Martin Chuzzlewit
  • Adam Grener (bio)

In recent years, coincidence has become an important object of investigation in the field of narrative theory. Coincidental encounters between characters—those uncanny collisions where there is “a zero level of character knowledge regarding the forthcoming meeting because the characters are brought together through unforeseen circumstances”—provide a fertile ground for theoretical examination because they raise important questions about plotting, causality, and realism in narrative fiction (Dannenberg 99). It is this final category of realism that will be the focus of this essay, because even though recent work by Hilary Dannenberg and Marie-Laure Ryan has significantly furthered our historical and theoretical understanding of coincidence, they have left unquestioned the implicit assumption that coincidence is by its very nature at odds with realist representation.1 In Coincidence and Counterfacuality: Plotting Time and Space in Narrative Fiction (2008), for instance, Dannenberg recuperates coincidence by arguing that the cognitive effects of recognition generated by coincidental encounters encourage the reader’s immersion in the narrative world. Yet while she chides “the literary analyst who treats coincidence as a hackneyed device,” she also suggests that coincidence threatens realism since “mismanaged realism”—the failure to naturalize coincidence—expels the reader from the narrative world (93, 23). According to Dannenberg, even though realism has found ways of accommodating coincidence, it ultimately remains realism’s other.2 Ryan takes a different approach in her article “Cheap Plot Tricks, Plot Holes, and Narrative Design” (2009). In outlining an Aristotelian, prescriptive account of narrative, she categorizes coincidence [End Page 322] as a “cheap plot trick,” which she defines as “an event that is poorly prepared, that looks forced, that seems to be borrowed ready-made from a bag of tricks and whose function for the plot as a whole is too obvious” (57). Although Ryan’s category of the “cheap plot trick” allows us to describe the clumsy means that authors occasionally use to resolve problems that confront them as they construct plots, it also creates a categorical opposition between coincidence and realism: “The more realistic a genre, i.e., the closer its world to our model of everyday reality, the less tolerant readers will be to the use of plot twists that stretch their willingness to suspend disbelief” (71). Thus, while these treatments have sharpened our critical and conceptual tools for understanding the role of coincidence in narrative fiction, they have also reinforced its fundamental opposition to realism.

This essay challenges the idea that coincidence is inherently at odds with realism by using Charles Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44) to demonstrate that coincidence can in fact be an important and productive tool for realist representation. It comes as no surprise that Dickens would delight in such events that capture the fancy and imagination precisely through their defiance of the everyday, and interpretations of Dickens’s use of coincidence have also maintained its fundamental opposition to realist representation. Neil Forsyth, for example, has argued that Dickens’s delight in coincidence became increasingly tempered by his focus on the larger design of his plots as his career progressed. Similarly, George Levine has suggested that “even where [Dickens] persists in the contrivances of coincidence, their discontinuity with the worlds he is creating is disturbing. . . . In most cases, while there are no naturalistic laws by which to account for the ‘chances’ in Dickens’s novels, coincidence feels too often like a matter of the conventions of narrative” (142). These views are supported by the common belief that Martin Chuzzlewit shows Dickens transitioning between the episodic form of his early works and the more deliberate and planned design that began to emerge with Dombey and Son (1846–48). Critical assessment of the novel has generally echoed Dickens’s friend and biographer John Forster, who judged the novel “defective” in “construction and conduct,” with “character and description constituting the chief part of its strength” (335). In a similar vein, George Gissing remarked that “no great work of fiction is so ill put together as Martin Chuzzlewit” (72). From this perspective, the staggering number of coincidences in the novel—at least twenty-one by my count3...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-974X
Print ISSN
1063-3685
Pages
pp. 322-342
Launched on MUSE
2012-09-20
Open Access
No
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