- Eighteenth-Century Fiction and the Reinvention of Wonder by Sarah Tindal Kareem
Sarah Tindal Kareem’s book is a genuinely original work that displays encyclopedic erudition and comprehensive scholarship encompassing many fields, including cognitive science and traditional history of philosophy. Kareem seems to have read just about everything; the thirty-page list of works cited is exhaustive, worth keeping as an invaluable bibliography. I should add, however, that she tends to over-annotate; even the simplest point comes with a barrage of footnotes and references, which interrupts the flow of her argument. Nonetheless, her close readings are intensely focused; the guiding thesis of the book builds carefully over the several chapters as she examines her texts with scrupulous attention. Overall, the intellectual and explanatory ambition, theoretical richness and subtlety of her book are substantial as well as often enough provocative. I am struck by the centrality of Hume’s work in her approach, and I think her focus on “the problem of induction” that he so notoriously isolated in the Treatise of Human Nature (1738-40) is the most revelatory and genuinely original move in her larger argument.
Kareem’s thesis grows out of what she admits at the outset is a truism: that British novels in the eighteenth century offer readers more or less realistic characters and events that become in the course of the narrative effectively extraordinary, unusual, or singular and to that extent are a source of what she labels “wonder” and thereby no longer strictly speaking “realistic.” As Kareem puts it in her opening paragraph, “Eighteenth-century fiction brims with moments … in which the prosaic rubs up against the marvelous, moments frequently framed as eliciting wonder” (1). Perhaps rather too grandly, she claims that she is revising our view of the new realism that Ian Watt saw in the eighteenth-century British novel by redefining it “with the inception of the fictional [End Page 752] marvelous, but a marvelous defined not by its opposition to, but by its integration with realism” (2). However, her book is not very strong on specific examples in the end, since she discusses just a few novels in detail and refers only briefly to a handful of others. Her thesis, as she develops it, expands upon her initial observation about “wonder” to make the larger claim that Enlightened, secular modernity as it emerges in the eighteenth century depends, at least in narrative fiction, upon striking or perhaps in maintaining just this particular balance between the prosaic and the wonderful or the marvellous, that eighteenth-century fiction “cultivates wonder at the real in a manner consistent with Hume’s critique of induction” (4). As she puts it later in her introductory chapter, her aim is to show how “both eighteenth-century fiction and the Humean critique of induction have the effect of reframing the real as an object of wonder” (14). To accomplish this, Kareem, methodical to a fault, provides in the “chapter outline” that is a part of her introductory chapter a list of the “defamiliarization techniques used to produce wonder … delayed decoding; suspenseful plot; estranging language; and switching between different narrative points of view” (30). To be sure, although she does not make this entirely clear, such features of narrative prose do not necessarily lead to the production of wonder, which is a slippery and even vague term. The title page of Robinson Crusoe, for example, promises “strange” and “surprizing” events in his life. Often enough, especially in intensely romantic fiction like Eliza Haywood’s (who is never mentioned) or the socio-psychological courtship novels such as Samuel Richardson’s or Frances Burney’s (both unmentioned) or in Defoe’s and Smollett’s picaresque novels (never mentioned), wonder, in Kareem’s rather too broadly-defined sense, is simply not an issue.
In the chapter that follows, “Wonder in the Age of Enlightenment,” still introductory but also an important part of her buildup to her analyses of fiction, Kareem surveys late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century notions of wonder as a...