Improbability, Chance and the Nineteenth-Century Realist Novel by Adam Grener, Reviewed by Karin Kukkonen

Improbability, Chance and the Nineteenth-Century Realist Novel
By Adam Grener
(Ohio State, 2020) x + 198 pp.
Reviewed by Karin Kukkonen on 2021-02-10.

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The realist novel appears to have a probability problem. On the one hand, realism aims to represent the kind of world that lies within a certain parameter of the probable; that is, events and characters that readers can expect to find in the everyday. On the other hand, even a realist novel needs to create surprises and to include elements that go beyond statistical averages. Given this tension, Adam Grener argues that the realist novel in fact thrives on its resistance to principles of probability.

According to Grener, the nineteenth-century novel is doubly improbable: first, through the role of "improbability" and "chance" in critical discussions of what realism is; and second, through historical changes in the conceptualization of probability. Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Grener argues, mathematics, statistics, and philosophy changed the meaning of probability. Consequently, he writes, "probability becomes a problematic ideal for realist novels as it becomes tied to forms of abstraction and aggregation that are at odds with realism's commitment to historical and cultural particularity" (8).

Realistic, in short, does not mean average. While fictional realism seems to require the representation of what is statistically likely, Grener shows that the statistical regularities of probability lead away from the realist novel. Statistical regularities not only average out the unexpected, on which literary plots thrive, but also have trouble accommodating particularity, individual characters, and coincidence in the juxtaposition of multiple characters. To pursue its aesthetic ends, Grener contends, the realist novel must take its stand against probability.

For Grener, the novels of Jane Austen and Walter Scott exemplify problems of particularity, or "difference," as he calls it, and the novels of Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and Thomas Hardy instantiate problems of chance, coincidence, and "scale." The difference in scale between individual experience and statistical averages is the fulcrum on which Greener's argument turns. Since the nineteenth-century realist novel foregrounds the tension between the individual and the collective, it cannot simply adopt the statistically regular vision of reality that emerges in nineteenth-century discussions of probability. A "probable" narrative is no longer satisfactory for the novel because the notions of what probability is have changed.

In the eighteenth century, probability was not yet statistical. Drawing on accounts by Ian Hacking and Lorraine Daston, Grener explains that as applied to literature, probability denoted the regularities established by authority-- how events should fall out. In the nineteenth century, however, probability designates averages established by mathematical calculus. It becomes an objective measure that contrasts with subjective experience. In highlighting the latter, in opposing the probabilistic discourses of economic risk-taking, sociological aggregates, and evolutionary regularities, the nineteenth-century novel makes a separate space for the individual.

According to Grener, Victorian writers were edgier and more critical than eighteenth-century novelists, who strove to create narratives that were "probable" in the sense of authoritatively regular. Eighteenth-century critical theory, however, was anything but a dogmatic machine generating footnotes on Aristotle. Even though "probability" (or vraisemblance) was critically prized, novels would routinely disrupt it with alternative epistemic regimes, such as the "marvelous" in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones. The tensions between regularities and non-expected events run differently in the eighteenth century, not only because of its different philosophical and poetic preoccupations, but also because eighteenth-century probability is dynamically developing, especially in its literary incarnations. Since Grener's discussion of literary texts remains firmly within the boundaries of his chosen period, it is perhaps difficult to do justice to the literary investments in earlier (or later) centuries in probability or improbability.

As Grener presents them, Scott and Austen reflect nineteenth-century ideas about probability. Building on what Georg Lukács and Harry E. Shaw have written about Walter Scott, Grener's approach to the realist novel is resolutely historicist. In the first half of his book, Grener explains Scott's "difference": the cultural and historical differences that Scott narrates in his historical novels about the Scottish / Highland experience in a colonized Great Britain. Extending Shaw's analysis of Scott's novella "The Two Drovers" (in Narrating Reality: Austen, Scott, Eliot, 1999). Grener pits the historically "different" Highland perspective, steeped in dreams, prophecies and superstitions, against the rational, legal perspective of the colonizer. The effect of chance and coincidence in the narrative, we are told, reveals an ambiguous causality (94-95) As Tzvetan Todorov says of the fantastic mode in literature, this kind of causality provokes moments of indecision between the applicability of different epistemic regimes. The protagonists of Scott's novella, Grener writes, hesitate between two historicized perspectives--the superstitious and the rational--and Grener also finds this polarity in Redgauntlet and The Bride of Lammermoor.

Likewise, Grener observes, , Jane Austen's fiction turns on contrasts between two different perspectives. The didactic effect of her novels is said to be sometimes destabilized by "very minor characters" such as Anna Weston, born to Emma's former governess at the end of the novel. How, Grener asks, would Emma's former governess raise her own daughter? Would this daughter learn to be different from Emma, who is "handsome, clever and rich" but can also be tactless and "badly" meddlesome (Emma [Penguin, 2006] 5, 394)? Would another outcome to the narrative of Emma be just as probable as the one the novel ends on? The possibility that similar constellations may beget different outcomes is also suggested at the end of Mansfield Park, when Susan Price comes to replace Fanny with Lady Bertram, and at the end of Sense and Sensibility, which prompts us to wonder what will become of Margaret, the youngest of the Dashwood sisters. As "very minor characters," Grener argues, Anna and Margaret destabilize the didactic effect of the novels they inhabit. Since either one of these characters could have led their respective novels in a different direction, their presence suggests that the outcome of each narrative is more beholden to chance and coincidence than it might seem at first.

In the second part of the book, Grener applies these deliberations on difference, perspectives, and contingency to the large-scale networks of characters created by Dickens, Trollope, and Hardy. Foregrounding coincidence and chance encounters in Dickens's metropolis, Grener shows that by means of these narrative events, marked as "coincidental" by Dickens himself, he aimed to depict both selfishness and neighbourliness in a market economy. "[T]he improbable aesthetic of the novel," Grener writes, "provides a mode for discovering and cognizing that structure of relations" (122). Selfishness also informs the Phineas Finn novels of Trollope, where--according to Grener-- the model of the bildungsroman takes a gambler's turn. Portraying his young, ambitious man as a risk-taker and gambler in his social rise (and fall), Trollope explicitly refers to "odds" when assessing the probability of certain narrative outcomes. Since agency ends with the throw of a die (132), chance undermines both probability and the course of the bildungsroman, which also means that one's actions cannot determine one's own development.

Turning to Hardy, Grener reads The Return of the Native--and particularly the character of Diggory Venn-- through the lens of Charles Venn's The Logic of Chance (1876), which considers probabilistic regularities against the backdrop of longer, imperceptible changes in evolutionary time. Grener also shows how Hardy's way of representing his characters accentuates their separation from the larger social context. In particular, free indirect discourse seems to make subjective experience accessible even while keeping it rigorously separate from the knowledge of other characters.

Tracking a historically specific notion of "probability" through its different discursive guises of markets, gambling, and evolution, Grener shows how it permeates the narratives and formal concerns of the nineteenth-century realist novel. He links his investigation to two contemporary topics --global climate change and digital humanities--that in turn relate to his analysis of scale in the novels of Hardy, Dickens. and Trollope.

In his introduction, Grener notes that Amitov Gosh finds the realist novel incapable of representing climate change. While science fiction and fantasy often manage to engage with such large-scale or even apocalyptic events, Gosh argues that fictions of climate change remain beyond the reach of the realist novel. But in discussing Hardy's treatment of evolution and improbability, Grener begins to make a counterargument. And in the conclusion, he considers how digital technology has changed the scale of literary studies, as literary history massively expands its text-base from the canon of well-read texts into "the great unread."

Grener persuasively argues that nineteenth-century realist novels, especially those of Hardy, can speak not only to current ecological concerns but also to the impact of digital technology on the scope of literary study. Like earlier, Marxist treatments of the large-scale realist novel such as Alex Woloch's The One and the Many (2009), Grener analytically traces the permutation between history and form. But rather than basing his argument on anything like Woloch's "labour theory of the minor character," he richly demonstrates how historicized discourses of (im)probability redefined the realism of the nineteenth-century novel.

Karin Kukkonen is Professor in Comparative Literature at the University of Oslo, Norway.

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