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The Impossible Observer

The Impossible Observer: Reason and the Reader in Eighteenth-Century Prose

Robert W. Uphaus
Copyright Date: 1979
Pages: 176
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  • Book Info
    The Impossible Observer
    Book Description:

    Rationality, objectivity, symmetry: were these really principles urged and exemplified by eighteenth-century English prose? In this persuasive study, Robert W. Uphaus argues that, on the contrary, many of the most important works of the period do not actually lead the reader into a new awareness of just how problematical, how unsusceptible to reason, both the world and our easy assumptions about it are.

    Uphaus discusses a broad range of writers -- Swift, Defoe, Mandeyville, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Johnson, and Godwin -- showing that beneath their variety lies a fundamentally similar challenge, addressed to the critical procedure which assumes that the exercise of reason is a sufficient tool for an understanding the appeal of imaginative literature.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-5965-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. 1 The Impossible Observer
    (pp. 1-8)

    Any adequate critical system must take into account its own assumptions, expectations, and operations regarding four discrete matters: (1) the reader’s experience of texts, (2) what constitutes a literary text, (3) the manner in which literary meaning is determined, and (4) the relation of criticism as a distinctly literary activity to the reader’s larger assumptions concerning human nature. Although any one of the four enumerated subjects may receive within specific critical systems more emphasis than the others, the foundation, if not the center, of any critical system is inescapably the reader. Criticism does not write itself; literary texts do not...

  5. 2 Swift and the Problematical Nature of Meaning
    (pp. 9-27)

    The main problem I shall discuss in this chapter has been raised most acutely by F. R. Leavis in his essay “The Irony of Swift.”¹ Leavis begins by examining the disjunction between Swift’s ostensible themes, including the moral content of his writings, and the effects his writings have on readers. This disjunction, if we accept it as such, raises important critical questions not only about the kinds of irony and satire that Swift employs, but about the overall moral purpose of Swift’s use of irony and satire. And lest we think these questions are the recent invention of modern criticism,...

  6. 3 Mandeville and the Force of Prejudice
    (pp. 28-45)

    The experience of reading Swift’s satire suggests two things: that the principal effect of satire is some experience of disorientation, and that the attempt to define satire reconfirms the original effect of disorientation. The paradox of satire, as bothGulliver’s TravelsandA Modest Proposalimply, may well be that at its best it evokes a broad range of effects by moving the reader from a position of rational observation to a discomfiting experience of active participation. To put it another way, satire often generates its meaning by dramatizing the disappointment—to use Swift’s word —of the reader’s expectation of...

  7. 4 Defoe, Deliverance, and Dissimulation
    (pp. 46-70)

    Many commentators have observed that Defoe has the uncanny and sometimes unsettling ability of identifying with the wide range of characters and situations he writes about—so much so that many of his works blur the literary convention of unity of point of view. Defoe’s fiction has been subjected to both secular and religious readings, and the tension between these views may itself be endemic to much eighteenth-century fiction. Just a brief sampling of some recent Defoe criticism indicates both the variety of interpretations applied to his novels and the broad range of effects evidently elicited by these novels. Everett...

  8. 5 ‘Clarissa,’ ‘Amelia,’ and the State of Probation
    (pp. 71-88)

    It has frequently been noted thatAmeliarepresents Fielding’s altered conception of the novel, especially in light of his understanding ofClarissa.¹ However, my discussion ofAmeliaandClarissawill focus less on the question of influence than on how Richardson and Fielding, using such common thematic interests as the trial of virtue, the possibility of reform, and the uneasy relation between secular and spiritual meanings, exploit these thematic interests as a test of the reader’s understanding of and response to what Richardson calls the “State of Probation.” By focusing on their diverse expressions of the “State of Probation,” expressions...

  9. 6 Johnson‘s Equipoise and the State of Man
    (pp. 89-107)

    As I argued in the last chapter, Richardson and Fielding are both concerned with the religious life of their characters and readers, but these two authors address themselves te the reader’s and characters’ “State of Probation” in vastly different ways. Fielding wishes to enact the possibility of religious conversion, even in the face of an overwhelmingly defective secular world, but Richardson rejects the possibility of Lovelace’s conversion because this would falsify the uncompromising tragic severity of Clarissa’s Christian dying to the world. Like Richardson and Fielding, Johnson takes for granted—more than he uses as his focus—the fallen nature...

  10. 7 Sterne’s Sixth Sense
    (pp. 108-122)

    We have seen how Johnson, particularly inRasselas, accommodates his sense of “equipoise” to the uncertainties of human life. Such phrases as the “stream of time” and the “current of the world” evoke a sense of indeterminacy, and the narrative process ofRasselas, most dramatically its inconclusive conclusion, is obviously adjusted to the prevailing idea of being “contented to be driven along the stream of life without directing [our] course to any particular port.” On the face of it, it might appear that the conclusion ofRasselasanticipates the whole ofTristram Shandy, for neither work is in any great...

  11. 8 Moral and Tendency in ‘Caleb Williams’
    (pp. 123-136)

    It is true, as some critics have shown, thatCaleb Williamsmay be read to some extent as an analysis of the corrupting influences of social and political institutions, but such a reading is unable to account for the compelling psychological reverberations of the novel.¹ Because Godwin uses a reading model by which the internal workings of the imagination, activated by Caleb’s curiosity, elicit a fascinating sense of psychological complicity, I believe thatCaleb Williamsis the most insistently psychological novel to be considered in this study.

    Godwin, as the original preface (which was withdrawn) of the novel indicates, initially...

  12. 9 Criticism and the Idea of Nature
    (pp. 137-142)

    It was Samuel Johnson who made the provocative statement that “there is always an appeal open from criticism to nature” (Shakespeare, 7:67). The matter of precisely defining the concept, or concepts, of nature in the eighteenth century is, as Arthur Lovejoy has memorably demonstrated, a very tricky problem.¹ However, my interests are determined less by the exact meaning of the term than by the significance of the gesture, especially as it illumines the diverse views of human nature in the texts I have considered. Concepts of nature are often tacit assumptions, as we have seen in the way that Swift...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 143-156)
  14. Index
    (pp. 157-162)