- Falling into Matter: Problems of Embodiment in English Fiction from Defoe to Shelley by Elizabeth R. Napier
In recent years, the body has become a central focus for eighteenth-century scholars and historians of the English novel. In Falling into Matter, Elizabeth R. Napier narrows the parameters of this discussion by claiming that “problems of embodiment” preoccupy eighteenth-century authors and intrude upon “all levels of [their] highly distinctive works, from that of plot to those of character and narrative style” (xiii). As Napier sees it, questions about how meaning is embodied—and how corporality relates to and interferes with the expression of loftier ideas (aesthetic, spiritual, moral)—generate constant difficulties for authors of the period. Such problems may be articulated as “artistic predicaments” (as they are, she argues, for Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and Mary Shelley) or as “personal or spiritual ones” (as in the case of Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Elizabeth Inchbald) (xii). In all these cases, the body tends to interrupt moments of imaginative, spiritual, or aesthetic expression, and limits individual autonomy and the creation of art. It is the specificity of Napier’s argument that makes this book such an important contribution to scholarship on the early English novel.
Organized according to text and response—“Robinson Crusoe: Discord,” “Gulliver’s Travels: Shock,” “Clarissa: Grace,” “Tom Jones: Cohesion,” “A Simple Story: Dissipation,” “Frankenstein: Dissociation”—Napier’s six chapters demonstrate that the body posed a persistent problem to writers across the eighteenth century, while also opening up space for nuance and complexity. As Napier is careful to point out, writers do not necessarily approach this problem with increasing clarity as the novel evolves, but instead show a “pronounced ambivalence” (184) about the body and return again and again to the idea—originally set in motion by spiritual autobiographers like Defoe—“that the body has a disjunctive relationship to the realm of ideas” (xi). Thus, Napier argues that the body occupies a central but by no means uniform position in the development of the novel. Though she treats largely canonical texts (with the exception of Inchbald’s A Simple Story), Napier manages to compress into each chapter a wide range of related scholarship and, for the most part, to carve out space for her own unique approach.
Napier begins Falling Into Matter with the famous footprint scene in Robinson Crusoe, and from there delves into one of her most exciting chapters: “Robinson Crusoe: Discord.” Defoe and Swift are central to her study “because they establish (and by extension limit) certain parameters for the novel early in the period” (xii). Both of these authors also “seem to sense the deep implicatedness of the body in the rising genre of the novel” (xiii). While many critics have discussed the competing [End Page 312] claims of the spiritual and the material in Defoe’s work—as well as the tension between the particular and the allegorical, and the mimetic and ideological, which Napier also treats—Napier argues that the body poses a specific problem for Defoe because it refuses to register and accord with a higher spiritual order. In Crusoe, the body will not behave as it should: unable to embody spiritual enlightenment in any meaningful way, Crusoe must “serve the ends of a narrative that caters to the opposite of its spiritual claims” (5). This “schismatic model of self and body” reveals Defoe’s “profound reservations about the body’s expressive aptitude and about the empowering and liberating effects of the imagination” (4). For Napier, Defoe’s “fretful oscillation between the worlds of sense and spirit” inaugurates concerns that will haunt the novel across the coming century (33).
While in Robinson Crusoe the problem of embodiment is implicit, in Gulliver’s Travels concerns about the body dominate the narrative (xiii). For Swift, the material body limits our access to the realm of rational ideals, and in Gulliver’s Travels “the intellectual becomes invested in or is hunted down (as it inevitably is) by the material” (30). Instead of oscillating...