Jonathan Farina's new book is true to its title.
Brimming, even bursting, with everyday words,
his study aims to make visible what he calls the "inconspicuous locution" (xix)
and to connect it meaningfully to the study of character.
The delightful surprise here lies in the swerve Farina takes,
making the smallest of words--those unnoticed or innocuous--do the most
important work. Idiom has its moral and aesthetic effects, Farina claims. Thus,
the second half of Farina's title also rings true:
something in the "character of prose" illuminates the prose of character,
for Farina demonstrates how the idiomatic serves as a generic index of
characterization. The fungible, commutable valences of ordinary language use
make it a shared medium. We come to know one another by the way we readily,
sometimes tactically, rely on the language closest at hand.
Early on, Farina describes his approach as deep yet surficial,
close but distant--a formalism blended with historicism.
His method, while reliant at times upon computational data analysis,
is very much in keeping with the reading, writing,
and speaking practices of the Victorian age,
which he sees as a philological period in which language was considered "a
grammar of relations" (xiii) connecting personhood to the world.
I confess that I was not at first drawn to this book because its title struck
me as unremittingly prosaic, as too ordinary.
Only in learning from Farina himself have I become more sensitized to the
luminosity that inheres in the vernacular.
Indeed, if we follow Farina along his chosen, if surprising path,
we will enjoy the rewards of discovery--about character, the novel,
and realism, about written worlds and the social existences we all inhabit.
The opening chapter offers necessary context,
both historical and heuristic. Charles Darwin is Farina's primary guide as the
book identifies, and identifies with,
a certain kind of curiosity about ordinariness that informs a Darwinian method
of turning, or metabasis. Darwin's investment in the common,
both the generic and the type, leads to a way of understanding character as
something made or disclosed, not inherent--by means of both a turning to and
away from each other that allows for both relativism and sociality,
self and society, individuality and typicality.
For so long, ever since Gillian Beer's Darwin's Plots (1983),
Darwin has been helping us to read novels;
the mention of Darwin and the novelists invariably prompts Victorianists to
turn to George Levine, and, indeed, throughout this book Levine's influence is
particularly strong. Yet Levine does not stand alone.
Farina assiduously situates his study within the lively,
ongoing conversation that scholars have been conducting about character,
the novel, and realism in the nineteenth century.
His engagement with other scholars of realism is impressively
cross-generational: William Hazlitt, Dorothy van Ghent, Nicholas Dames,
Amanda Anderson, Jonathan Crary, Michael McKeon, Lennard Davis,
and Ian Watt all make their appearances.
There is no possibility of making this list complete;
I hope only to suggest the range and vigor of Farina's own scholarly practice
of metabasis. Everyday Words reads like a very good and useful course in realism(s).
I would recommend it to all scholars who are in need of a compendium on the
critical study of realism.
Though a reviewer should never aim merely to summarize the arguments of a
book, the taxonomic spirit of this one,
as well as its sifting and additive energies,
seem to necessitate an overview of its chapters.
Taken as a group, chapters 2 through 5 each examine a master novelist of realism:
Austen, Dickens, Eliot, and Trollope.
While each chapter scrutinizes the quirky locutions of a single work,
or a few selected works, each also marshals the results of data-mining to place
those works and their strange locutions within a larger web of words and texts
that, in effect, "normalizes" them as well.
Like the book as a whole, the chapters thus toggle between generality and particularity.
Furthermore--and this is crucial to Farina's overarching argument,
launched by Darwin himself--each chapter connects the language used within one
or more novels to the language being used, shall I say,
out there?--especially in the realm of scientific discourse but also in
legal writing, philosophy, art criticism, and economics.
For if the language of a novel is truly idiomatic, it must be shared;
it must be pervasive--all around us and essential to us,
like the air we breathe or the oxygen in our blood.
Moving his arguments across both texts and writers,
Farina aims to reveal not so much the interiority of the self but the
interiority of culture itself. According to Farina,
the ordinariness of everyday words is culturally charged because it is prevalent.
This is what he calls a "democratic philology,"
an "archeology of everyday language" (28, 27).
But out of all the ordinary words that constitute our language,
which to choose?
Jane Austen's turn to words for bodies as well as for emotions,
we are told, conjures a social, moral,
and aesthetic universe where cognitive mobility and open-mindedness matter.
Attention--which Farina rightly calls the "most important interpersonal feeling
in Austen" (71)--also matters, and especially in the face of ontological
plenitude, what matters most of all is attention to both scales of
particularity and generality. According to Farina,
Austen's art is a "scientific method"
akin to Baconian induction and connected to nineteenth-century epistemology,
which aimed to cull generalization from concrete data.
By means of a brief side excursion on the picturesque,
Farina shows how Austen's fiction brings art, design, science,
and literature into generative proximity.
Farina also challenges the depth model of character privileged by modernism and
epitomized by E. M. Forster's well-worn polarization of "flat" and "round" characters.
Character, Farina argues, springs not just from depth but also from the
"meaningful superficiality" of "telling lines, surfaces, and marks" (23),
and he likens this surficial model of character to the taxonomic discipline of
This move typifies the book as a whole.
While writing of Austen, he not only traces a wide arc of literary texts from
Wordsworth to Meredith, from Regency and Romantic authors to early modernism.
He also explores what steadily occupies him elsewhere:
the shared language of science and literature.
Repeatedly applying the Darwinian heuristic established in his opening chapter,
he goes on to mine the language of such writers as Charles Lyell,
George Henry Lewes, Francis Bacon, and especially William Whewell,
the historian of science and champion of the inductive method.
From the interaction of science and literature in the linguistic universe
of Austen, Farina turns to the language of Victorian realism as embodied in the
fiction of Dickens. For who is a finer wordsmith than the virtuoso Dickens?
Who has a better ear? And given his signature reliance on taglines,
his peculiar linguistic energies, and his predilection for what has at times
been derided as caricature, Dickens seems the perfect author for Farina's purposes.
His fiction exemplifies the conjectural,
which Farina calls the "paradigmatic syntax of Victorian realism,"
with its dual interest in the regulative and the constitutive.
According to Farina, Dickens's characters favor the conditional "as if,"
for the conditional analogy allows Dickens to limn the distance and difference
between material perception and lived experience.
Dickens's use of "as if" also demonstrates how language facilitates and
expresses affective connection between humans and thus creates sympathy,
a topic of immense theoretical importance to Victorian studies in the last ten years.
The power of "as if"' to build sympathy is nowhere better demonstrated,
Farina shows, than in the language of Esther Summerson.
Unlike Austen's Emma or Eliot's Dorothea,
Esther is a character one never tires of thinking about.
Could it be the effect of her preference for "as if"s,"
as in "I was in a flutter for a little while;
and felt as if an old chord had been coarsely touched" (BH 115)?
Indeed, Esther's repeated reliance on "as if"
locutions generates the sympathy we feel for her.
Yet even within this shared intimacy, we must also accept an intractable,
but tenderly felt, distance from her as she--the secret self--remains strange
to us, just as we always remain strange to one another.
The epistemology of character, Farina argues,
resonates with the skepticism of Victorian empiricists whose strategy is to
invoke but also to back away, knowing that, in art as in life,
we can never see it all.
Cogent as Farina is on Dickens, however,
he is still more interesting on George Eliot,
in particular on the language of Mr. Brooke in Middlemarch.
There is something, Farina argues, in the way Brooke moves,
linguistically, affectively, characterologically.
While I have been persuaded by Gage McWeeny's counterintuitive claim in The
Comfort of Strangers (2016) that Middlemarch is about everyone but
Dorothea, Farina convinces me to take Brooke seriously,
to see him--by listening to him--as more than a tedious caricature to be
endured or a something to get through on the way to the novel's more
interesting matter. Indeed, Brooke unlocks the key to Eliot's realism.
His use of vague and generalizing terms, Farina writes,
especially his penchant for "something,"
evidences Eliot's "investment in a world in flux" (144).
"Something" speaks to the unexpressed,
a marker of a lack that activates readerly engagement.
Brooke also attunes the reader's ear to what is for many readers
Middlemarch's most important character, the narrator.
Like Brooke, the narrator often deploys the "something,"
which is imbued--as pronouns sometimes are--with a powerful vagueness.
This paradox is germane. "Something" carves out a space for fellow feeling,
a space liberated from the need to particularize,
thereby averting an intrusion into self and instead protecting the secret
subjectivity of personhood. Eliot's narrator,
the embodiment of tactful discretion,
underscores that realism is not mere mimesis;
its true aim is not so much to inform as to move a reader.
The realist author, with her characters and their particular yet representative
ways of speaking, strives to make emotional contact:
"Eliot's idiom of things," Farina writes,
"iterates faith in the bond between people and things" (159).
One is reminded of Farina's essential point about the complex moral potency of
common language. Here also we realize that while the book was initially
conceived as a study rooted in thing theory and focused on things in the world,
it evolved into a study of writing about things.
,p> The book perfectly concludes with a chapter on Trollope,
whose art of characterization, which Farina construes as an art of
"adversatives," relies on words like "but," "then,"
and "yet" that append and then diverge (as in this very sentence's final phrase).
In Trollope's prose style of rebuttal,
we have language scaled to the general and the specific,
language that is attentive and also mobile,
mobilized by the conditional and the conjectural.
Often dismissed for the mere "everydayness" of his style,
Trollope is Farina's best case study.
His realism of surface entails tact--"tact"
surely in the sense of deft approach, strategic delicacy,
or cautious inclination but also in the sense of the tactile closeness that
comes with touch.
Farina ingeniously links Trollope
to Eve Sedgwick's notion of reparative reading.
Trollope, he argues, expresses tact through language that aims to feel,
to be quick and not to be idle. Here the four chapters on four different
novelists converge. Whether through Austen's attentive turns or the
conditionality of the Dickensian "as if" or the tactful "somethings"
that color Eliot's wide canvas, we are struck by the opacity of everydayness.
Something is required of us in a space we are asked to enter and to wonder
about--the space of character, and the space of the real.
This final chapter is also methodologically important.
As Farina explains with simple clarity,
"Trollope is characteristic of his culture insofar as he has no special
characteristic" (207). Farina thus invites a set of methodological questions
that had persisted throughout for me.
How did he choose which novelists to study,
and if they all use idiomatic language,
how can the language of any one author be distinctive?
In effect, isn't there a fundamental tension between the general and the
particular that Farina's argument cannot resolve?
It turns out, however, that computational methods of reading provide at least a
partial answer, for according to Farina,
the very common word "but" appears 30% more often in Trollope's novels than in
other novels of the era. In such moments,
Everyday Words overcomes my skepticism toward the value of computational reading.
I will admit that reading this book, with its vertiginous amplitude,
was at times exhausting. It teems with quotations--sentences often end in
one--and with lists (such as the four lists in the last paragraph on page 93).
Farina also tests a reader's patience with his paratactic syntax,
his preference for apposition. Yet the celerity with which he analyzes texts,
and his own verbal brio, are undeniably impressive.
Both are essential to his arguments,
for he must surely prove his own attentiveness to language.
Given his focus on idiom that is both idiosyncratic and representative,
he must offer overwhelming proof of a pattern in order to reveal the recurrence of the latter.
Everyday Words, then, surfs a current of words to demonstrate the power
of specific linguistic currency. And yet a point of concern remains.
The granular level of evidence that computational technologies yield presents
certain writing challenges: how best to show all the data,
and how best to explain them with eloquence and grace when graphs might display them better?
In my opinion, the chapter on Eliot stands out from the others because its
prose is quieter, more restrained, and less additive.
Undoubtedly, this book shows Farina's exuberance for language and proves
him eminently suited for the task he undertakes.
Pace Franco Moretti, Farina aims to make language the hero of his book.
The Afterword, without extensive sermonizing,
gestures toward the political and moral stakes of a philological reading.
In a world beholden to facts and abstractions, Farina asserts,
the need to consider both the language we share and the complexity of the common
is ever more vital. Together with the ordinariness of our language,
its capacity to build reciprocal relations between self and other can humanize our world.
Fittingly, Farina ends his Afterword with a decidedly colloquial
acknowledgement that this study has exposed only the tip of an iceberg,
and he generously encourages more conversation to follow.
As a reader who has been invited to be his interlocutor,
I have learned quite a lot from Farina about the complexity of the common and
about the unexceptional that proves uncommon by leading us closer not only to
character but also to realism and Victorian conceptions of the real.
Everyday Words has sharpened my awareness of how we use language with
one another, even in my own everyday life.
For, as Farina explains with striking but ordinary eloquence,
language is a way of being in the world.
Barbara Black is Professor of English at Skidmore College.