Victorian Parables (New Directions in Religion and Literature)
Susan E. Colon
Bloomsbury Academic, 2012
176 pp., $35.95
Editor's note: Susan E. Colón, the author of the book under consideration here, died before this review could appear. I asked Timothy Larsen of Wheaton College to remember her. His remarks precede Richard Gibson's review.
Susan Colón's battle with cancer ended with her death on June 24, 2012. I did not know her well, but I will miss her. She taught Literature in the Honors College at Baylor University. I have recently written in Books & Culture about my frustrations with the work of some literary scholars. Susan, in complete contrast, was an inspiring, insightful scholar whom I learned much from. I had hoped to continue to learn from her for decades to come. I had even recommended that she be invited to speak at Wheaton College's literature conference this autumn.
Susan was enormously encouraging to fellow scholars. The last thing of hers I happened to read was a kind review of my most recent book which was published in the current issue of Fides et Historia. Exactly a year ago, I was on a family holiday in Scotland, finally making it all the way to Iona. I carried with me the manuscript of Susan's most recent book, Victorian Parables. It is a truly fine piece of scholarship. Not only would other literary scholars profit from reading it, but so would historians, theologians, and biblical scholars. Any pastor wondering how to preach Christ's parables would do well to read her discussion of what a parable is and how it achieves its affects.
Susan was also a model Christian intellectual and a wise presence in the ongoing and ever-shifting task of integrating faith and learning. It is no easy feat to get Athens and Jerusalem to work together as sister cities. Susan wrote a book at the highest standards of scholarship which was also edifying. I was delighted to be able to write an endorsement for it. I told her secular publisher that they were free to alter my words, and they cut the last sentence, I suspect because the Jerusalem accent was a bit too thick. It said: "Colón's judgments are so just and compelling that one is tempted to say that she has the spiritual gift of discernment."
When I learned of Susan's death I was trying to write something about the life and legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I went from reading about one life to the other and both times I read that they had died at the age of 39. A few months before his death, Bonhoeffer wrote these words: "It all depends on whether or not the fragment of our life reveals the plan and material of the whole. There are fragments … which can only be a divine work …. If our life, however, remotely, reflects such a fragment … we shall not have to bewail our fragmentary life, but, on the contrary, rejoice in it." Susan's life was a divine work.
Asked to name the "most touching story in all literature," Charles Dickens is reputed to have replied, "The story of the Prodigal Son." This anecdote exists in several variations (in another version Dickens identifies the parable as the "greatest short story") and is likely apocryphal. Yet its persistence may be attributed to more than just its usefulness to the preachers and Sunday school teachers who have been among its primary broadcasters since the late 1890s; the anecdote also succinctly captures a truth about the author, the admiration for the parables that his writings public and private manifestly convey. This was apparent to contemporary readers, including A. P. Stanley, Dean of Westminster Abbey, who took the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as his text for his celebrated funeral sermon for Dickens in 1870. The newest resident of Poets' Corner, the dean argued, was not only a venerator of the parables but a purveyor of them, his novels representing "modern human Parables" that transmitted the spirit of the biblical originals.
In Victorian Parables, Susan Colón reveals that the august dean was in one respect more right than he knew: Dickens was not alone among his Victorian authorial peers in dynamically interacting with the parables in his fictions. At the same time, Colón also demonstrates that a host of literary critics and biblical scholars, Dean Stanley included, have failed to appreciate how parables work in the first place and to what effect Victorian authors make use of them. The larger series of which this book is a part—Continuum's New Directions in Religion and Literature—bills itself as offering "a timely critical intervention to the interdisciplinary crossover between religion and literature." Colón's book exemplifies this ambition, proving equally adept in its recounting of and responding to the variety of approaches to the parables offered by biblical scholars such as Dan O. Via and John Dominic Crossan and literary critics such as Frank Kermode and J. Hillis Miller. Colón is particularly concerned to demonstrate how shabby and often nebulous definitions have pernicious consequences for studies of both synoptic and extrabiblical parables.
In her own account of the workings of the parabolic genre, Colón plants her flag firmly in the camp of Paul Ricoeur, whose theory posits that parables are metaphorical narratives that offer a new vision of reality. Particularly significant for Colón is that the new reality of Ricoeur's theory is created through the joining of the everyday and the extravagant:
The frisson that makes a parable lies in the juxtaposition of an ordinary situation, plot and set of characters [a son's rebellion, a traveler attacked, a landowner hiring workers] with an extraordinary, unpredictable turn of action, which forces a total reconception of the whole situation in light of the new reality imaged in that turn.
The gap between the expected and the unexpected—what should happen according to our familiar conceptual schemes of justice, fair play, hard work, etc., as opposed to what does happen—is the challenge that the parable poses to its reader. The genre endeavors to shock, to defy our sense of things, to disorient in order to reorient us toward the new reality, which Ricoeur identifies as the Kingdom of God, by which, Colón adds, he means "a shorthand for perfected human existence."
If this is indeed the referent of these metaphorical narratives, then we are saved from a number of worrying fates prevalent in modern readings of the parables. At one end of the spectrum, interpreters reduce the parables to simplistic moral messages, shortchanging the moral and spiritual stupefaction the genre seeks to engender. At the other end, the parables are found to have no clear referent at all, representing only "playful metafictions" that do not beckon beyond themselves. Colón suggests, instead, that the parables are meaningful—in fact, abundantly so—but that their "enduring power to overturn normative conceptual schemes" means that "reading the parables requires a continual openness to the new unseating the old." Hermeneutical humility should thus attend our reading: "Because they point to nothing less than perfection the parables will always be disruptive to any humanly conceivable theological or political program." Ricoeur's parabolic theory, she contends, "allows us to hold in tension the parables' iconoclasm and iconicity, their polyvalence with their referentiality, and their performativity with didacticism."
Her alignment with Ricoeur then allows Colón to approach the question taken up in implicitly in Dean Stanley's funeral sermon: if we believe that there is such a thing as a "modern" parable, what are its hallmarks? Colón reviews the efforts by literary critics and biblical scholars on this line and highlights how the genre is defined in terms that mirror the familiar interpretive strategies noted above: critics tend to reduce parables to fables or moral stories on the one hand or to epistemologically bewildering texts on the other. Colón amusingly notes, for example, that Kermode and Crossan so closely align the parable with the modernist experimental novel that it becomes difficult to identify the synoptic parables as members of the genre. Ricoeur had limited himself to only the synoptic parables, yet Colón argues that his focus on narrativity—specifically, on the parable's scandalous plot reversal—represents a new and more precise model for distinguishing extrabiblical parables. She proposes Victorian fiction as a testing ground for this theory, offering readings of novels by Charlotte Yonge, Margaret Oliphant, and Charles Dickens as parabolic fictions.
The choice of these three writers—or any Victorian writer for that matter—for a project on parables is, in fact, highly controversial, given the prevailing winds in literary studies. Colón spends her second chapter, "The Extraordinary and the Ordinary: Parable and Realism," acknowledging and responding to the likely complaints about her project from two camps. In the first camp are scholars concerned specifically with the parable genre: they have by turns denied the possibility that the realist novel could be a parable or implied that impossibility by neglecting realist fictions in their studies. In the second camp are Victorianists: their theories of realism are sharp, but their assumptions about religious belief are simplistic, preventing them from recognizing how parables have shaped realist texts. The first camp thus views realism as too ideologically and epistemologically conservative to accommodate the radical forces of the parable, while the second camp suggests the reverse: realism is, in fact, ideologically and epistemologically sophisticated, yet religious systems and literary genres are not.
Colón's response to the two sides should be required reading for anyone interested in religion and realism (in the 19th century and beyond). She replies to our first camp by drawing on the work of scholars of realist fiction—including Caroline Levine, Harry Shaw, Andrew Miller—who describe the "relationship realist novels create between text and reader as performative and transformative, epistemological and ethical." Realist fiction, in Colón's account, is not a form of artistic appeasement to a stolid, conservative audience; rather, it creates an epistemologically and ethically demanding reading experience:
The ethical import of [realist] fiction, on this understanding, is not reducible to crude didacticism …. Rather, fiction is ethical insofar as it challenges self-absorption with alterity and complicates the existential stakes of moral commonplaces. Moreover, the Victorian novel, at least in some salient instances, does not so much lull readers into comfortable fictions in which they are encouraged to suspend critical thought; rather it stiffens their consciousness of the limitations of conventional thinking and invites them to active interpretative practices in both cognitive and affective modes.
There is, then, no a priori reason—as detractors have suggested or implied—that a realist novel could not make excellent use of the synoptic parables, if not represent one itself. It is important to note here that Colón is not claiming that realist fictions are necessarily parabolic; rather, her point is to demonstrate that the best recent theories of realism do not preclude parabolic elements and even suggest reasons why we might anticipate alignment between parables and realist texts—in, for example, their shared concerns for otherness or aspirations to disrupt habitual ethical responses and cultural idolatries.
Turning to Victorianists, Colón tackles the widespread presumption that the realist novel is profoundly, if not inherently secular. Her primary antagonist is George Levine, one of the senior statesmen of Victorian Studies, who has made the most important recent argument that, in his words, "the realist novel is predominantly a secular form, in which the implicit order of the world … can only be achieved in worldly terms." Levine realizes, of course, that many novelists in the Victorian period were religious (remember that even Cardinal Newman wrote fiction); his claim is that the form itself is "intrinsically," "fundamentally," and "fully secular." In a bravura passage, Colón takes Levine to the task for his definition of the religious, revealing that Levine "assumes that only the purely spiritual can be religious":
This move requires Levine implicitly to posit as "religion" an impossibly pure and rarefied realm of spiritual being, and thus to give over to "the secular" (an ever-expanding term for Levine, and one he declines to define) everything short of the supernatural, that is, everything material. So, for example, he claims that the form of the novel "largely through its fascination with material particularities, in effect blocks access to the transcendence it can nevertheless attempt to intimate." And elsewhere, "The focus on money, in fact, is the firmest mark that realist fiction is fundamentally secular." Notice the categorical exclusions: Material particularities, because they are material, block access to transcendence. Talk about money is categorically not religious talk.
Balderdash! Colón rightly points out that the Christian faith rests on "narratives of historical particularity" and was founded by one who "made money one of his chief subjects." Levine's understanding of Christianity is fundamentally flawed, in fact, heretical: he has treated Christianity "under the rubric of Gnosticism." Echoing the Victorian Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Colón observes, "The orthodox doctrine of the incarnation, by contrast, insists that the earth is charged with the grandeur of God." Material particularity is, far from an impediment to transcendence, often a vehicle for it in the Christian imagination.
Colón does not argue that the Victorian novel is intrinsically religious; rather, she concludes that a "genre that privileges probability and materiality does not … necessarily exclude or compromise a Christian frame of reference." She grants that Levine is correct in suggesting that a realist novel "cannot directly portray the fullness of … the Kingdom of God." Yet it can show us things in a manner that Jesus' parables do:
It can show one or more people responding to an ordinary situation in an extraordinary way, a way that is fully on the plane of human action but which challenges ordinary ideas about, for example how many times one can forgive another, or about whether people can change for the better.
This strikes me as one of the great breakthroughs of Colón's book: to show that realism is not necessarily a sign of the retreat of God from literature but is rather a strategy that has long existed within the Christian tradition, one that powerfully serves particular narrative and ethical ends. Recent years have seen other important publications challenging the allegedly inherent secularity of the Victorian novel—including, for example, Russell Perkin's Theology and the Victorian Novel (McGill-Queen's, 2009)—yet Colón's book stands out for the robustness of the theological thinking that underpins its claim that realism not only accommodated but actively facilitated the religious projects of 19th-century novelists.
If Colón criticizes Levine and others for their flat depictions of Victorian religiosity, she explores through her readings of Yonge, Oliphant, and Dickens how the parables resonate through the multiple dimensions of the period's religious scene. In A People of One Book (Oxford, 2011), Timothy Larsen demonstrated how the Bible functioned as a means of registering an array of emotional and spiritual experiences across the varied terrain of Victorian religious and irreligious cohorts. Colón's book proceeds in a similar fashion, moving from Yonge, sometimes regarded as the Oxford Movement's best novelist, to Oliphant, whose rich theological wrestling Colón unearths, to the theologically liberal Dickens. Colón explores the intertextuality of Yonge's The Heir of Redclyffe, Oliphant's The Perpetual Curate, and Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, showing how a parable or group of parables—the Pharisee and the publican for Yonge, the Prodigal Son for Oliphant, and the stewardship parables (such as the wise steward of Luke 12) for Dickens—is mapped in complicated, and often richly ironic, ways onto the characters and action.
But Colón's most important claim is that these novels become parables themselves, particularly through the extravagant reversals of their conclusions. These chapters are made even more effective through their rehearsals of critical complaints about the endings of each novel—in light of which Colón's explanations of the parabolic structure of the books become that much more satisfying. So, for example, Colón notes the frequent objections modern and Victorian to the ending of Yonge's Heir—in which Philip, the self-righteous malefactor, is forgiven—on the grounds that the ending is not probable and that the forgiven man does not deserve it. Colón brilliantly observes that these readings not only fail to grasp the parabolic structure of the book but also that the complaint about Philip reveals that the reader is behaving in exactly that Pharisaical manner that the novel has consistently disparaged. In other words, our response to the novel's extravagant reversal—the unexpected, unmerited forgiveness of Philip—measures us in the same fashion as the synoptic parables on which Yonge draws. Colón's readings of Oliphant and Dickens are similarly enlightening, showing how appreciating the nature and purpose of parabolic reversals elucidates endings that have frequently puzzled and disappointed modern critics. These chapters serve, moreover, as reminders of how generic theories developed by later generations can obscure our appreciation of artists whose projects fail to measure up. That is to say, these books have suffered because they have been evaluated against an inadequate dogma of realist fiction, which, thankfully, Colón's theory of what we might call "parabolic realism" has helped to amend.
Richard Gibson is assistant professor of English at Wheaton College.
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