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Victorian Parables (New Directions in Religion and Literature)

Susan E. Colón
Published by Continuum in 2012

Reviewed by Bernadette Waterman Ward, Literature, University of Dallas

Susan Colón’s concise, clear book argues that Victorian realism is particularly fertile ground for parables and thus undercuts many common presumptions in literary studies. Her opening chapters are theoretical, dealing first with creating a working definition of parables and secondly with dismantling some illusions about the relationship between realism and religion in Victorian fiction. Three chapters of practical criticism follow. Two deal with relatively little-known novels by Victorian women. The final chapter first provides an overview of her theoretical position, and then presents a solid reading of the religious undercurrents in Our Mutual Friend, making the chapter suitable for assigning separately to an upper-level student of Dickens. Colón’s concepts are presented clearly enough for advanced undergraduates.

Colón defines a parable as a fiction wherein “analogy between the story and the life of the hearer is brought home with an unexpected reversal that brings self-recognition” (5). The surprise of course depends upon the expectations of the audience; Colón shows that Victorian writers had reason to expect certain stereotyped religious and moral reactions among their readers. Among these were normative readings of the parables of the Gospels; and these normative readings could themselves become the comfortable expectations that writers could use to lull the unsuspecting before a reversal that revealed the reader’s own moral complacency. Adept and sensible narratology establishes the likelihood that a parable’s confrontation with the reader in fact thrives within the flexibility, complexity and immediacy of realist fiction.

Colón first discusses parables as such, setting the Gospel parables in the context of the Hebrew parabolic tradition. A learned but brisk discussion of the patristic and mediaeval allegorical styles of interpretation precedes more extensive examination of parable studies since the nineteenth century. Nineteenth-century criticism ranges from generalized moralism to a constricting sitz-in-leben approach, which limits the meaning of any parable to concepts available to its first audience. The early twentieth century saw more nuanced versions of historicism. Later, post-structuralist obsession with verbal play devalued both audience and content. For instance, Frank Kermode, dismissive of religious and moral interpretations, contends that parables are open-ended texts characterized only by pervasive subversion. John Dominic Crossan, a slighter opponent, reduces Christ’s parables to absurdist reiterations of language mocking itself. Graciously arguing for less impoverished criticism, Colón avails herself of history, play, polysemy and the basic analogical structure of allegory as she delineates a clear and workable account of the essential feature of the genre. Following Paul Ricouer, she calls this a “limit experience,” a surprising reversal stemming from an act of generosity or justice which reveals a re-envisioning of the limits of human possibility. Thus parable is rescued from its reputation for shallow moralism; a parable does not call for a single transparent reading because it directly challenges each reader. As she puts it, the parable “reads” its audience.

Her more polemical second chapter exposes the narrowness of insistently secular critics who discount the living tradition of parable within the realist novel. She does not allude to the disasters incurred by cultural elites failing to recognize religion among the motives for human action, but she does expose the entrenchment of that illusion in academia. Colón’s well-informed understanding of Victorian realism and of Victorian religion sweeps away the prejudice that religious discourse is necessarily fantasy.

Nineteenth-century novelists did not automatically reduce religion to political oppression, sentiment, economics, social status, sex, or self-delusion. This would hardly seem to be news, except that major scholars like Kermode, J. Hilles Miller and George Levine so treat religion in literature, and often give accounts of Christian theology unrecognizable from within the Christian tradition. Patiently she dismantles the prejudice that realism is anti-religious, stopping along the way to quash some post-structuralist absurdities. She shows that realism is not a hegemonic domination of readers through fictions imposed upon them; she also provides evidence against the notion that realism is a naive attempt to create a transparent reproduction of the world outside discourse. Having established that Victorian realists, at least, expected an audience with a mind of its own, a capacity to observe a world outside discourse, and a healthy acknowledgement of religion among other normal human preoccupations, she can proceed to show parables at work in their novels.

Navigating past many vague uses of “parable” by critics, Colón discovers both parabolists and critics are aware that to “read” the reader, a parable must present a familiar world, or else the story lacks the necessary moral and intellectual vertigo at the reversal. Twentieth-century critics most often found parables in modernist or post-modernist fantasists like Franz Kafka or Jorge Luis Borges; then again, these fantasies presented the critics’ own culture, however weirdly mirrored. Among twentieth-century Victorianists, the notion that the power of parable rests in fantasy sometimes joins forces with pervasive misconstruction of Christian theology. Colón shows how critics confuse both parable and religious discourse with fantasy, a mode they approach with some distaste, and therefore deny parable a place in serious Victorian fiction. Colón vindicates the form in its seriousness and complexity. Using the familiar cultural material of the parables of Jesus, Colón shows how Victorian writers ironize them in the service of Christian morality.

Colón first examines Charlotte Yonge’s The Heir of Redclyffe, whose ending dismayed its first audience. The hot-tempered hero Guy, like the publican in Christ‘s parable, humbly admits his sin and overcomes his resentment of a harsh moral Pharisee, his cousin Philip. Guy succumbs to a fatal fever, disinherits Guy’s baby daughter, and displaces his self- denying wife. When Philip discovers Guy’s secret charities, he repents. Readers reacted with hostility to Philip’s repentance, which dominates the last third of the book, as if self-righteousness were the unforgivable sin. (It is not unknown these days to hear renditions of Luke 5:32 saying that Jesus “came not to save the self-righteous, but sinners.”) Through the author’s letters, Colón proves that Yonge designed the story to arouse cynicism about Philip’s repentance. She expected – and found – that only a choice minority of readers would experience a humbling shock of self-recognition after their own condemnations of Philip’s judgmentalism.

Colón finds similar “double reversal” in Margaret Oliphant, who undercuts literary conventions about prodigal sons. Colón first provides autobiographical material of Oliphant’s to correct biographical criticism that had discredited Oliphant’s Christian fidelity. Certainly, like Oliphant’s own sons, prodigals in her stories rarely repent when they presume upon the forgiveness of their relatives. However, Oliphant’s disappointment issued not in irreligion but in moral shrewdness. She confronts religious self-congratulation as sharply as the Gospel parables themselves. In The Perpetual Curate self-righteous aunts exult in their charity to a dissolute nephew while thwarting the altruistic hero Frank, who works hard as a clergyman tending the poor of his district. His only offense is a higher liturgical taste than theirs. As Frank ironically prepares a sermon commiserating with the resentful elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, his bad brother gleefully makes fools of the aunts. Oliphant stings readers with realism about shallow, sentimental charity that blinds one to the hard work of real reform among the needy. Nevertheless, Colón shows, she just as self-consciously “mocks” the solemnities of realism; merry coincidences give the hero the woman he loves and make him pastor of her parish.

Colón’s discussion of Our Mutual Friend discusses how the social critic, the mythmaker, and the parabolist are not inconsistent in Dickens, who sees the ordinary corruption of his society but preserves a hope in the possibility of startling virtue. The darkly complex Dickensian text resists interpretation through a single parable; Colón finds rather a symphony on the parables of stewardship, with the most powerful themes emerging from the parables of the talents and of the foolish steward’s “skepticism about the master’s return” (118). Virtuous heroes think of property in terms of some form of stewardship rather than ownership; the villains abuse stewardship and covet the property they supervise. Dickens challenges his readers to reassess their concept of human possibility by presenting the surprise of the “limit-experience” in the eschatological guise of resurrection, like the apocalyptic reversals in the stewardship parables.

All in all, this study of literary parables is a little gem. The notes are in some places as worthy of full attention as the main text, though placed, regrettably, as endnotes rather than at the foot of the page. Despite extensive theoretical groundwork, the writing is clear and unpretentious. Gentle in tone, Colón’s rebuke against irresponsible treatment of Christian theology in twentieth-century criticism does not yield an inch intellectually, yet itself concentrates on specifically literary argumentation. Susan Colón’s book brings freshness to the problem of the intersection of Victorian realism and religion. Her afterword seeks to assuage the fears of those who fear that the “religious and ethical turn” of current criticism is politically and intellectually regressive; but she accomplishes this most by her practical criticism itself, demonstrating the power of literary imagination to make readers – and critics – discover how they have been overset by their own prejudices.

Cite this article
Bernadette Waterman Ward, “Victorian Parables”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 42:4 , 443-446

Bernadette Waterman Ward

University of Dallas
Bernadette Waterman Ward is Associate Professor of English and Graduate Director of the English Masters Program at the University of Dallas.