Victorian Parables (New Directions in Religion and Literature)
Susan E. Colon
Bloomsbury Academic, 2012
176 pp., $35.95
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.