NARRATIVE BONDS: MULTIPLE NARRATORS IN THE VICTORIAN NOVEL by Alexandra Valint, Reviewed by Tobias Wilson-Bates
 


NARRATIVE BONDS: MULTIPLE NARRATORS IN THE VICTORIAN NOVEL
By Alexandra Valint
(Ohio State, 2021), vii + 208 pp.
Reviewed by Tobias Wilson-Bates on 2022-09-12.

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This book enters a rich conversation about the emergence and social significance of multiple narration. Engaging Wayne Booth, Thomas Richards, and James Phelan among others, Alexandra Valint defines narration as a fundamentally relational tool--one that demands an accounting for credibility, audience, and interdependence. While the scholarship of the above three overlaps with some of these terms, Narrative Bonds explains how and why the Victorian multinarrator novel is an especially fruitful subject of study on the topic. The book offers such a comprehensive and precise catalogue of narratological approaches to the idea of the narrator that even researchers with no interest in the Victorian novel would benefit from Valint's detailed negotiation of narrators, narration, and form.

For Valint, narrative form is inseparable from its historical context. Throughout the book she maps how authors, publishers, and readers fashioned cultural textual norms over time aided by publishing practices, influences, and partnerships. While historicizing narrative form, she also reveals the narrativity of history. At times, this produces unresolvable loose ends and open questions, but as an alternative to an overly schematic story of perfect causality, Valint's approach is the only intellectually responsible one.

This is also a book with theoretical ambitions. While it looks at first glance like a study of Victorian fiction, it aims in many ways to revise some of the foundational concepts of narrative theory. In his Afterward to Narrative Discourse (1980), Gerard Genette predicts that his analytical methods will eventually "seem positively rustic, and will go on to join other packaging, the detritus of Poetics." Furthermore, he adds, applying external critical categories (such as narrator, narration, and story) rather than investigating the text through "concepts arising from the work," would make his work "offensive" to Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu. (Genette 263). Since structuralism no longer holds pride of place in literary criticism, Genette's prediction has proven partially correct. But rather than discarding his theory of narrative altogether, Valint modifies it.. While Genette conceives narrator, narrative, and story as distinct, objective categories, Valint shows them to be permeable, negotiable, and accessible only through careful close readings and interpretive recovery.

For example, though Dracula is most conspicuously treated in the epilogue, it is also examined in both Chapter 1 ("Epistles to Narratives to Monologues") and Chapter 5 ("The Permeable Frame: Gothic Collaboration in Wuthering Heights"). Likewise, theorizing disability and difference in narratological terms is vital to Chapter 3 ("The Quick Switch: The Child's Resistance to Adulthood in Treasure Island") and Chapter 4 ("Disability Aesthetics and Multi Narration in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, The Moonstone, and The Legacy of Cain"). In Chapter 2, Valint notes that most readers associate multiple narration with Bleak House. But she also shows how her concepts of collaborative form build across multiple areas of study. Noting that W.J. Harvey and James Phelan have formulated a theory of cooperation in the story, she combines this theory with the work of Jane R. Cohen and Michael Steig, who have discussed collaboration across the narrative and its paratextual illustrations.

By means of contextualized close readings, Valint shows that novels have something to say about the particular nature of their own form. While her close readings demonstrate the enduring vitality of this practice, she also shows that close reading must be buttressed by historical context. By explaining how multiple narrators cooperate to form communities or partnerships in the world of the book, Valint challenges those who tend to see narrators as competitors or opponents locked in power struggles.

In one of her most striking readings, she shows how the two frame narratives of Mr. Lockwood and Nelly Dean in Wuthering Heights (1847) interpenetrate. The Gothic intermingling of histories and bodies that haunts the novel as a whole, she argues, is reproduced in the structure of its telling as narrative switches happen "within chapters, sometimes within sentences, and in one striking occurrence, within parentheses" (146). In Dracula likewise, Valint calculates, Bram Stoker switches narrators a stunning 92 times. But besides tabulating these switches, Valint painstakingly recovers the historical, literary, biographical, and textual reasons for them.

Nevertheless, the chronological scope of Valint's project is not always clear. Besides Victorian novels, she also treats works of British and American Modernism, and even glances in the Epilogue at Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (2014). Why, one wonders, has she selected this somewhat heterogeneous collection of novels? She offers a partial answer at the end of Chapter 1, when she writes that while "[t]he traditional narrative of literary history...presents modernism as a radical break with the conventional Victorian period . . .the multiperspectival structure as a through line links rather than divides these novels" (44-45). But this point is insufficiently pursued. Her provocative applications of Genette, Wayne Booth, Mikhail Bakhtin, and D. A. Miller, among other theorists, make it clear that she is more than capable of refiguring the somewhat arbitrary forms of nationalism reified by curricular boundaries, but she does not aim to do so.

The fullest development of Valint's ideas about mutualism and social structures internal and external to the book is found in Chapter 4, "Disability Aesthetics and Multinarration in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White, The Moonstone, and The Legacy of Cain." Here Valint aims to "introduce and model a disability narratology that not only centers disability in literary analysis but also pays close attention to the formal and stylistic characteristics of narrations penned by disabled narrators" (101). In Victorian Hands (2020), Pamela Gilbert likewise applies concepts of bodily autonomy and capability to the study of hands and the Will in The Woman in White. Together, these two studies illuminate the interdependence, penetrability, and fragility of the characters they study. By contraposing an extremely able villain against protagonists who are both disabled and interdependent, novels such as The Woman in White subvert the notion that disability must signify corruption and cruelty--as it does, for instance, in Shakespeare's Richard III.

In his initial forays into narratology Gerard Genette feared that isolating the narrative components of a novel might confuse its possible meanings and mislead the critical reader.. To use E. B. White's colorful aphorism, "explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process." But far from reducing a work to mechanical components, Valint demonstrates that even structurally definable decisions can be imbued with vitality, and that lines of narration branch outwards towards culture, tradition, experimentation, and the ornate work of making meaning across the stylistic and expressive valences of multi-narrated texts.

Tobias Wilson-Bates is Assistant Professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College.


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