- Worlds Enough: The Invention of Realism in the Victorian Novel by Elaine Freedgood
The 19th-century realist novel, it seems, has ragged edges that open up onto a multitude of alternate universes. Or so Elaine Freedgood argues in her provocative and important new book on Victorian fiction. These alternate universes – "worlds enough," as the title of her book calls them – are not exactly the stuff of science fiction. Rather, they are the result of ruptures in the supposedly coherent and stable narrative surface that many readers and critics have for at least the past half century taken for granted as the normative and dominant form of the 19th-century English novel.
"Realism," Freedgood contends, is a critical construct, invented by late 20th-century critics in order to sustain a literary history that views the novels of George Eliot and her contemporaries as "the point of representational plenitude to which early novels aspire and the point of representational exhaustion from which modernist and postmodernist novels flee" (xii). In constructing this history, its proponents have overlooked the many ways in which Victorian novels interrupt and subvert central conventions of "realistic" representation: denotation, omniscience, diegetic consistency, and ontological unity. The Victorian novel, she maintains, is always already metafictional.
In her influential earlier study, The Ideas in Things (2006), Freedgood struck out in this direction, but without overtly challenging the assumptions of "classical realism." In The Ideas in Things, she adopted a "literalist" approach ("strong metonymy," she also called it) in order to explore the material history of "things" like mahogany furniture and calico curtains, before bringing those histories and their accumulated meanings back into the Victorian novels where such things figure. In Worlds Enough, she tackles Realism head on. Her key trope here is metalepsis, which she defines (following Genette) as the intrusion of one diegetic or ontological level into another. Where other critics ignore or fail to notice these intrusions, or treat them as flaws and inconsistencies in a novel's diegesis, Freedgood finds them everywhere and delights in the instabilities they produce.
She locates these ruptures and intrusions at points where the boundary between what is "inside" and what is "outside" a text begins to blur. They emerge in literary allusions; in epigraphs, footnotes, and other paratexts; in the presence of actual historical persons inside works of fiction; in authorial intrusions; in slippages between third- and first-person narration; and in the simultaneous presence of incompatible geographies. She notes the prevalence of ghosts in supposedly realistic stories and asks, did Victorians [End Page 198] "believe"? do we? These and other destabilizing formal elements cause the purportedly coherent story world of Victorian fiction to splinter, she says, into "a seemingly infinite number of worlds" (xiii).
Despite the ultimate seriousness of the arguments it makes, Worlds Enough often adopts a playful, teasing tone toward its subject and toward the critics with whom it disagrees, including some major figures (J. Hillis Miller, Fredric Jameson, and Franco Moretti, for example) who might be surprised to find themselves positioned as they are. Readily acknowledging that her account is incomplete and provisional, Freedgood nevertheless aims to help critics "unthink novel history and restore the full oddness of the nineteenth-century novel, putting aside 'classical realism' in favor of a novel full of self-reflexivity and formal hijinks" (x).
Worlds Enough consists of a preface that summarizes Freedgood's argument, a short historical and theoretical introduction, and five "case studies" that demonstrate the workings of metalepsis in selected Victorian novels by, among others, Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell. It concludes with a chapter entitled "Decolonizing the Novel," in which she expands her argument to include ways in which some critics have, she believes, imposed an "imperial" model on the relationship between the Victorian novel and works of non-Western fiction.
The five case studies deal, respectively, with questions of denotation; with omniscience and its discontents; with the uncertain status of paratexts; with what Freedgood self-mockingly calls "hetero-ontologicality"; and with the vagaries of reference in several Victorian...