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  • The Secularization of Poetic Justice in the Long Eighteenth Century
  • Roger Maioli

Poetic justice no longer holds much of a place in studies of eighteenth-century British literature. With rare exceptions, discussions of the topic in Anglo-American scholarship belong to the past. To some extent this may be due to the discredit that generally surrounds poetic justice in the age of Hollywood's happy endings. Punishing villains and rewarding heroines strikes us as an aesthetic mistake, and we involuntarily carry this judgment into our encounters with the past. Consider, for example, how difficult it is today to appreciate Nahum Tate's rewriting of King Lear (1681), in which Lear survives and Edgar marries Cordelia. That Tate's Lear held the stage for so long is taken to testify against eighteenth-century sensibilities. But just as the worldview motivating William Shakespeare's decisions was partly alien to the Restoration, the one motivating Tate's is partly alien to us. The factors that made poetic justice such a serious issue at the time—especially the perceived relationship between the stage and the ways of God—have lost their urgency. Even as modern critics recognize that poetic justice functioned as a literary correlate of Providence, it is difficult to reexperience, in first person, the living set of concerns this theory catalyzed for Tate and his contemporaries. And this, again, may account for why poetic justice has received decreasing attention of late. Whereas other eighteenth-century doctrines like realism retain a living presence in modern debates about literature, poetic justice feels like a case closed, a fossil whose modern descendants command little critical interest.

In recent years, scholars invested in what is now called post-secularism have contended that there is a loss of perspective here, one due to the nature of our critical methods. Alison Conway and Corrinne Harol, for example, claim that "the secular tools we bring to eighteenth-century texts blind us to important dimensions of the literary objects before us," echoing Simon During's analogous observation that "our methods of analysis and critique falter when it comes to religion, mainly because they were developed in the enlightened critique of supernaturalism."1 Conway and Harol accordingly call for a [End Page 83] postsecular eighteenth century to counteract the ways in which critics have "accepted and shored up the general contours of the secularization thesis."2 It is debatable whether modern criticism is indeed as secular as these accounts suggest; but I want to take seriously the contention that, given the historical distance, literary principles inflected by religion may have lost their complexity in hindsight. Poetic justice is a case in point, and I hope to show that the doctrine was more dynamic and long-lasting than extant accounts have suggested. To view it as a static correlate of Providence is to miss the ways in which it adapted itself to the challenges of secularization. But the argument that follows responds only in part to the postsecular call. I will be arguing that what got lost in studies of poetic justice is precisely the ambivalent nature of the doctrine's entanglement with secularism. As will be seen, over the course of the eighteenth century, and in keeping with broader changes in nonliterary discourses, formulations of poetic justice came to dispense with the providential framework almost all critics associate with it, to be cast instead in secular terms.

The story I tell has to do with genres. In the long run, discussions of poetic justice slowly migrated from drama to the novel, the key texts no longer being Shakespeare or Joseph Addison, but Clarissa, Tom Jones, and a vast inventory of subsequent prose fiction. At the same time, defenses of the doctrine adopted a psychological vocabulary that rendered appeals to Providence obsolete. My argument is that these two developments—the debate's shift into prose fiction and the secularization of poetic justice—are connected. In particular, I argue that poetic justice changed its goals and idiom in response to an empiricist theory of reading, which in itself gained prominence due to the popularity of the novel. In its complex critical fortunes, poetic justice thus reveals the extent to which eighteenth-century literary...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 83-106
Launched on MUSE
2021-03-09
Open Access
No
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