Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Aaron Kunin reviews Born Yesterday

Stephanie Insley Hershinow, Born Yesterday: Inexperience and the Early Realist Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. 192 pp.

Review by Aaron Kunin

4 September 2019

The golden passage in Stephanie Hershinow’s Born Yesterday: Inexperience and the Early Realist Novel is Addison’s remark about the novelty of Paradise Lost. According to Addison, Adam and Eve in their original innocence are “more new than any characters either in Virgil or Homer, or indeed in the whole circle of nature.” Adam and Eve are new because they are, Hershinow says, “without precedent” in any known human society or written source, including the Bible (p. 19). Rather than studying available sources, Milton invents characters by conjecture: what must these people have been like if they gave themselves freely to God, their obedience an act of rational choice? 

In Hershinow’s hands, this passage becomes a key to the history of the early realist novel. At the center of this history is a character type that Hershinow calls the novice, a figure of “inexperience.” Although the machinery of plot may expose the novice to various experiences, the character has an integrity that no experience can alter. Adam and Eve eventually mature into characters from the circle of ordinary human nature; Hershinow’s novices are more like Christ, who successfully resists temptation in all four books of Milton’s Paradise Regained. Or like Arlecchino in the old commedia scenario: at each moment the novice forgets the experience of the previous moment, and has to encounter the world starting from nothing.

Hershinow makes a compelling claim that the character of the novice represents a high point in the art of the novel. What makes her argument compelling is how she inhabits the novels at the level of the sentence, taking her vocabulary from the novelists. Clarissa, in misunderstanding the abuse she receives from her family and her suitor, projects a different plot in the mode of “should have been,” where families bless the wishes of their children to remain single and "where women are not raped” (p. 11). (Hershinow usefully contrasts Clarissa, the novice, with Anna, the ingénue, who is shaped by her experiences and thus is better suited for this world than for the next.) Even Emma Woodhouse, who is “not much of a novice” to begin with (p. 130) and who seems to tread the narrow path of the Bildungsroman all the way to perfection of form, expresses an unmistakable “desire to be more than one person, to live out more than one possible path” (p. 132); strikingly, her destination is as close as possible to her starting point, since she seems to agree with her father that the worst conceivable disaster would be for her to leave her father’s house.

True to the logic of inexperience, Hershinow does not allow her premise to develop across the inner chapters of her book. Instead she discerns the strategies of resilience by which different examples of the character of the novice avoid conforming to the requirements of different subgenres: Fielding’s “approximate” libertine, Tom Jones (Hershinow: “How can Tom Jones have so much sex and still seem so unknowing?” [p. 61]), gothic heroines whose genius is their ingenuousness, sentimental heroines whose moral authority is something better than the wisdom of experience.

It would be interesting to compare versions of inexperience in other literatures; for example, the adolescent femininity of inexperience in Born Yesterday might suggest fresh readings of Voltaire’s optimist and Diderot’s fatalist, who for different reasons refuse to be guided by experience. Since my space is limited, I will content myself with asking one extravagant question.

In the chapter on Tom Jones, Hershinow observes a contradiction between Samuel Johnson’s two comparative judgments of Richardson and Fielding. On one hand, Johnson says that Richardson is superior because his characters are perfect examples of their types, whereas Fielding’s characters are an unpredictable mixture of virtuous and vicious impulses; on the other hand, Johnson says that Richardson is superior to Fielding in his knowledge of the human heart. The two judgments are contradictory if human beings are less consistent by nature than perfect types. Hershinow’s comment is devastating: “It is simply impossible to line up the accounts of realism here. Exemplarity works across Johnson’s assessments by selecting the good until it would seem to verge upon, even tumble headlong into, the too-good-to-be-true” (p. 64).

Is that a contradiction? I am not sure that Johnson would think so, and I am surprised that Hershinow seems to think so. Hershinow herself celebrates “consistency of character” as opposed to “mixed character” for its contribution to the art of the novel. Henry James has a similar account of these kinds of characters; for example, when Adam Verver calls Prince Amerigo “round,” he means that Amerigo is the same all the way around––in other words, what Forster would call “flat”––that a needle inserted into Amerigo to take a sample from his core would encounter exactly the same substance as at his surface, and that this consistency would be less dangerous than, and thus preferable to, an inconsistent surface with sharp edges.

In addition to Hershinow’s Jamesian defense of consistency of character for reasons of art, there are two other possible defenses of consistency of character on the basis of human nature. The first comes from Schopenhauer, who says that commedia dell’arte is the only verisimilar kind of theater because there are but a few kinds of people in the world, they make the same mistakes every day and in every generation, they have no memory, and they never learn anything. The other comes from Addison, for whom nature means both the “circle of nature” in which we encounter degraded examples of humanity, and the conjectural state of nature which is the subject of Milton’s sacred history. 

In other words, the distinction between round and flat psychologies is a real one, not just a way of talking about novelistic techniques. Some people have complicated, deep, dynamic psychic lives; some do not. It is not necessarily an insult to say that a person has only one idea, or embodies only one idea, or is incapable of change. For characters in early realist novels, as Hershinow shows, the refusal to be shaped by experience can indicate emotional integrity and intellectual honesty. In life, too, psychological complexity is not always an advantage and not necessarily a mark of intelligence. People who have only one idea are often better at getting what they want, because they know what they want. The idea is not so far-fetched. There are such people, even in literature departments!

 

Aaron Kunin is the author of Character as Form (Bloomsbury, 2019), and Love Three: A Study of a Poem by George Herbert (Wave Books, 2019). He is associate professor of English at Pomona College in California.