Shuffling off

John Sutherland

  • Death Sentences: Styles of Dying in British Fiction by Garrett Stewart
    Harvard, 403 pp, £19.80, December 1984, ISBN 0 674 19428 4
  • Forms of Feeling in Victorian Fiction by Barbara Hardy
    Owen, 215 pp, £12.50, January 1985, ISBN 0 7206 0611 X
  • Language and Class in Victorian England by K.C. Phillipps
    Basil Blackwell in association with Deutsch, 190 pp, £19.50, November 1984, ISBN 0 631 13689 4

The Victorian novelists are commonly supposed to have been soft on the subject of death: ‘one would need a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell’ is the best-known of literary criticisms. In fact, succeeding generations, while following Wilde’s sneering direction, have generally misread or skipped the protracted death-scenes that multiply in Victorian fiction. If they do not amuse or embarrass, Colonel Newcome’s weepy ‘Adsum,’ the Tullivers’ ‘In death they were not divided,’ Jo’s creaking cart, or Father Time’s ‘Done because we are too menny’ are decently ignored as forgivable lapses.

This condescension has recently been challenged, particularly by contemporary Dickensians. Dickens’s morbidity was the main item on the agenda of the 1981 Santa Cruz conference, where a number of speakers (Garrett Stewart among them) paid respectful attention to death and resurrection in the novelist’s work. Coincidentally, in 1982, Andrew Sanders’s Charles Dickens: Resurrectionist was published. Dickens was the subject of Garrett Stewart’s previous book, and is the main author discussed in Death Sentences. But his line is different from Sanders’s, who locates the Dickensian ambivalence about death in Dickens the man. Stewart’s critical method is more ambitious and fashionably trusts the text rather than the tale or the teller. His main proposition runs thus: as a form, the novel is dedicated to knowledge, to talking, to communication; when it confronts that whereof it cannot know – namely, death – fiction is forced into a peculiar paroxysmic condition. Stewart particularly values these passages (‘death sentences’, as he calls them) because during them the novel inescapably confronts a contradiction in its literary condition. The nature of the contradiction is described in a typical sub-Derridean paradox from the opening section: ‘Death stands as a pivotal moment for language on the edge of silence, for evocation on the verge of the invisible, for narratability on the brink of closure.’ Stewart goes on to argue that death drives the novel into a state of ultra, or pure, fictionality: ‘Death in fiction is the fullest instance of form indexing content, is indeed the moment when content, comprising the imponderables of negation and vacancy, can be found dissolving to pure style. Death in narrative yields, by yielding to, sheer style.’ Stewart believes that the novel when confronted with the crisis of a death scene, resorts to various self-revealing tricks, tropes and devices. It sidesteps, elides or ‘transposes’ in order to cross the gap between garrulity and silence.

Drowning is the form of death which most fascinates Stewart. This is the moment when, as folklore has it, the whole of life narrates itself instantaneously before the drowner’s eyes, ‘a last flash of self’, as Stewart calls it. In the pure fictionality of death scenes, the drowning death is the purest end, a ‘psychological epitome’ or ‘agnostic epiphany’. Following this line, he goes on to analyse Quilp’s watery death and argues it to be more important for an understanding of Dickens’s art than Nell’s euthanasia. Stewart meets the main challenge of The Tale of Two Cities head-on with a long and exceptionally close commentary designed to redeem Carton’s ‘It is a far, far better thing ...’ from its melodramatic stereotype. The scene, in Stewart’s words, ‘is not just an exercise in but an exploration of the style of dying as a narrative act, the clefts of its alert and crafted prose activated across narrative time to suggest the evanescent momentum of traversed intervals’.

Death Sentences has three main critical aspects. On the level of theory, we have Stewart’s contention that death scenes are ‘not a separable element but a model for the entire fictional enterprise’. This is upheld by a series of readings which extend theory into practical criticism. Thirdly, the book has a literary-historical dimension. Before the Romantics, according to Stewart, there was death as a brute fact but no literary engagement with mortality. Before the 19th century, characters in British fiction exited without ‘style’. As the incorporator of romanticism into the British novel, Dickens is thus the logical (and for Stewart the Dickensian a very convenient) starting-point: ‘fictional identity from Dickens forward is in multiple ways founded on death, or figured by its extremity.’ Moving forward, the book covers the later Victorian rhetoric of death scenery, through Modernist modulations in Conrad, Forster, Lawrence (a romantic throwback) and Woolf, to a conclusion in the Post-Modernist and supra-national fictions of Beckett, Pynchon and Nabokov.

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