FORGIVENESS IN VICTORIAN LITERATURE: GRAMMAR, NARRATIVE, AND COMMUNITY by Richard Hughes Gibson, Reviewed by John R. Reed
 

FORGIVENESS IN VICTORIAN LITERATURE: GRAMMAR, NARRATIVE, AND COMMUNITY
By Richard Hughes Gibson
(Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) xiv + 169 pp.
Reviewed by John R. Reed on 2015-06-02.

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This is an intriguing book and definitely worth reading for anyone with an interest in the subject of forgiveness in literature, especially literature of the Victorian Period. Still, it has its limitations. Though Gibson argues that earlier critics are mistaken in finding that interest in forgiveness declines during the late Victorian years and after, his own scheme follows a similar pattern. He begins with Dickens, who -- in Dombey and Son -- earnestly upholds the value of forgiveness; moves to Trollope, who is more skeptical in The Vicar of Bullhampton; to George Eliot, who is more so in Adam Bede; to Hardy, who treats forgiveness as potentially harmful in Jude the Obscure; and finally to Wilde, who aestheticizes it in De Profundis. While Gibson also argues that the topic of forgiveness has lately piqued fresh interest, this has come--as his Introduction indicates--not in literature but in recent philosophical, theological, and other extra-literary writings. By applying some of these recent approaches to his chosen Victorian authors, he gains some insights, but as often happens when applying modern methods to writings from earlier periods, he is also led into some oversights.

Since forgiveness among the Victorians was not so much a virtue as a practical and conceptual problem, Gibson contends--with the help of a modern philosopher--that narrative could help to solve this problem. For later Victorian writers such as George Eliot, the problem with forgiveness is that it could neither alter the past nor erase the consequences of the original offense. Drawing on Charles Griswold's Forgiveness: A Philosophical Investigation (2007), however, Gibson argues that the past can be re-narratized. By reconstructing events and their roles in them, both forgiver and offender can at least alter their perceptions of the past.

Of the three terms in Gibson's title, then, narrative seems to work best. Community is also useful in signifying a practical purpose for forgiveness--to construct or re-establish a sense of community through acts of forgiveness, as exemplified by Anthony Trollope's The Vicar of Bullhampton (1870). But perhaps the least effective of Gibson's three major terms is grammar, which he defines as "a loose network of (usually unstated) guidelines that shape the meaningful use of words" (5).

On the other hand, Gibson faces the difficulty of detaching forgiveness from repentance, atonement, reparation, and confession. Though he knows they are distinct, he also recognizes that Victorian authors sometimes linked two or more of them. Dickens, for instance, not only urges a Christlike forgiveness of sinners, but also treats sinners as debtors who must make up their accounts with God. (In Dickens and Thackeray: Punishment and Forgiveness [1995], I have likewise argued that while Dickens makes his good characters forgive the bad ones, he still punishes the latter, usually by means of their own acts or the actions of other bad characters).

Nevertheless, Gibson slights some major elements of Victorian thought that bear directly on his topic. One of these is the concept of original sin, which no human can forgive. Since much of one's attitude toward sin and its correction depends on one's belief or disbelief in the concept of original sin, many Victorian writers tried to ameliorate Christian views of what might become of this sin in the next world. While the concept of Atonement-- God's forgiveness of all mankind's original sin--opened to everyone the pathway to heaven, the concepts of purgatory and hell still entailed prolonged or permanent punishment, which implied the deferral or denial of forgiveness. For this reason, various Victorian authors argued against the prospects of both hell and purgatory, granting more agency to human forgiveness. They justified this move by arguing that in making all humans part of a community of sin, the concept of original sin facilitated interpersonal forgiveness: if we ourselves are born sinful, we find it easier to forgive others in the same condition. (Gibson actually mentions a passage from The Vicar of Bullhampton between Lily Dale and her mother that could have been used to illustrate this point.)

Besides original sin, Victorian writers grappled with the conflict between free will and determinism. As Milton's God says of Adam and Eve, Victorians generally believed that human beings were "sufficient" to stand, "though free to fall" (Paradise Lost). While severe religious sects with a Calvinist bent thought otherwise, most Victorians believed that humans were both free and capable: free to commit sin--usually out of some sort of pride or rebelliousness--and capable of subjecting their wills to the will of God. "Our wills are ours, we know not how," writes Tennyson in the prologue to In Memoriam. "Our wills are ours, to make them thine." But this concept of will complicates the notion of forgiveness, for it seems to require repentance from the offender as well as forgiveness from the offended.

Gibson himself can be forgiven for not mentioning a scandal of the late 1860s and early 1870's-- The Priest in Absolution scandal that Sally Shuttleworth fascinatingly examines in a recent article. This scandal revealed how much the Victorian British hated the whole concept of clerical forgiveness in the confessional, a practice profoundly associated with the loathed and feared Catholicism of that time. Victorians argued that forgiveness, especially of children, properly belonged to parents. It should not be a part of a religious institution, certainly not the Church of England.

Altogether, this book explores some interesting ways of examining forgiveness in Victorian literature, but the limited number of texts examined constrains its usefulness more generally. Also, for a book of less than 200 pages, the price ($90.00) is outrageous.

John R. Reed is Distinguished Professor of English at Wayne State University. His books include Dickens's Hyperrealism (Ohio State, 2010).


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