espite E. M. Forster's cavalier dismissal of the intellectual value of suspense, which in Aspects of the Novel he describes as appealing to only a "primitive audience," Caroline Levine contends that nineteenth-century intellectuals, particularly scientists and philosophers, believed "that a doubtful pause was absolutely essential to the pursuit of knowledge" (3). The use of narrative suspense both to unsettle and to delight the reader emerged about the middle of the nineteenth century as an aspect of the aesthetic movement eventually termed "Realism," which influenced science and politics as well as fiction.
Levine makes the case that Victorian writers as various as Dickens and Pater employed suspense "as a stimulus to active speculation." In fiction written from the middle to the end of the century, plot secrets and moment of crisis compel readers to consider multiple outcomes, including those to which orthodox thought would not normally ascribe priority; thus, contends, Levine, Victorian prose writers employed suspense to challenge received opinions and preconceived notions. Narrative suspense was conducive to radical or unconventional thinking, but accepting such alternatives as plausible was often unsettling for middle-class readers. Reading suspenseful fiction altered the mindset of nineteenth-century readers because such writing introduced the scientific testing of hypotheses and rational problem-solving to what had been merely "light" reading; readers were thus compelled to engage in "the activity of hypothesizing and testing in order to come to knowledge" (8).
Levine uses a number of significant works of fiction and non-fiction to demonstrate the connection between suspense, scientific detachment, political liberalism, and realism. Although among the former are Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone; Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre; Charles Dickens's Great Expectations; George Eliot's The Lifted Veil, Adam Bede, and Romola; Edgar Allen Poe's "The Purloined Letter"; Henry James's "Travelling Companions"; and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.
. . . it has become something of a commonplace to presume that suspense fiction reinforces stability, activating anxiety about the social world only in order to repress that anxiety in favor of unambiguous disclosures and soothing restoration of the status quo. 
In a combination of strategies drawn from Reader-Response, Feminist theory, Deconstructionism, and Marxism, Caroline Levine argues to the contrary. From the 1850s onwards, she contends, Realists used suspense (primarily in fiction) vehicle to compel readers to become both speculative and skeptical, rather than merely accepting or passive receivers of the text. Suspense forced readers to consider the merits (in other words, the probability, possibility, and desirability) of various resolutions, and ultimately to question and test their own assumptions about the phenomenonological and social environment. Thus, says Levine, suspense fostered the scientific method beyond the realm of fiction. Like the new Liberalism, suspense served to undermine time-honoured assumptions and orthodoxies, and led readers to question economic, social and political conventions.
While the Brontës, Dickens, and Collins revelled in the possibilities of "alterity" in the suspenseful narrative, George Eliot became increasingly uncomfortable with "the consequences of suspenseful realism for the feminine subject" (15) because suspense implies the suppression of desire. The introduction concludes with a brief consideration of Henry James's experimental short story "The Travelling Companions" as a rebuttal of Ruskin's realism, and of Walter Pater's and Oscar Wilde's critiques of the rhetorical implications of realism.
That skeptical interrogation is a pleasurable aspect of reading is evident in the works of fiction to which Levine applies her thesis. However, one well may wonder how an essentially narrative device can be explored in such weighty tomes of non-fiction as Modern Painters and The Renaissance [text]: for example, "Written in a forceful didactic tone, Ruskin's own writing would seem to share more with sermons than with sensation fiction" (55). Like Collins, however, Ruskin inculcates the experimental method and the skeptical pause to lay bare Nature's inherent truths.
Part 1: Ruskin and the Suspension of Judgment.
[Chapter One: "Ruskin's Radical Realism"]
The eighteenth century saw no need for experimentation because it held that general truths resided in the human consciousness, and manifested themselves through the mind's taste or appetite for truth. Victorian realism, on the other hand, regarded truth as being far from self-evident because the human mind and the external world are not consonant. John Ruskin was among the first thinkers to insist that experimental activity — the raising of questions and the testing of hypotheses — is indispensable to apprehending the truth. Ruskin in "The Nature of Gothic" connects democracy, the artisan system, and "naturalism" — that is, studying nature in the real rather than merely accepting convention (and flawed) conceptions of nature. Thus, naturalism for Ruskin led to the rejection of inherited wisdom per se and a radical skepticism.
Chapter Two: "Ruskin's Plots"
Ruskin's Modern Painters, Levine reminds us was a radical response to the debate about the relative merits of "Old Masters" and the current generation of British artists — and, by extension, the value of a national gallery of art. Not surprisingly, Ruskin championed the cause of his contemporaries because they valued nature as their model and source of inspiration. However, instead of arguing against maintaining the National Gallery, Ruskin argued that the works of every artist exhibited should be arranged chronologically, recognizing the value of the paintings collectively as models for teaching younger artists. But he felt that the value of "Old Masters" had to weighed and judged rather than passively accepted. He urged viewers to test the representative or "realistic" qualities of a painting.
Levine divides this second chapter into three sections, each of which relates plotted suspense to experimental knowledge: scientific experimentation itself, the incorporation of such an experimental design into the plot of a novel (specifically, Wilkie Collins's 1868 tale of crime and detection, The Moonstone), and the banishing of trompe l'oeil art because it is too real and not provoking or mysterious enough in its simulation of nature and emphasizes form over content. For serious readers of Victorian fiction, the middle section will prove the most rewarding as Levine challenges the facile assumption that Franklin Blake's innocence and Godfrey Ablewhite's guilt are obvious from the beginning. The delay of the laudanum experiment, contends Levine, compelled readers to test their personal biases and assumptions against the world as it really is.
Part 2: The Serious Pleasures of Suspense Fiction: Brontë and Dickens.
Chapter Three:"'Harmless Pleasure': Gender, Suspense, and Jane Eyre"
That Jane Eyre is one of the principal texts discussed in this book is obvious from its appearance in the chapter title; that Great Expectations rather than one of Dickens's sober, longer, and later novels will be another of these texts comes as a pleasant surprise in the fourth chapter, but certainly connects the source of suspense with the character who must operate as the reader's alterego, a detective operating within the text to unravel mysteries for us as we perceive the world through his or her eyes.
Charlotte Brontë transformed the effect of the suspense devices and mechanisms that she had inherited from her Gothic predecessors, from strategies of delay and equivocation designed merely to prolong the narrative to strategies that undermined widely-held convictions about feminine thought, character, and activity. The greatest point of suspense for several years after the publication of Jane Eyre lay outside the text in that the gender and identity of "Currer Bell" remained a matter of fervent speculation among the reading public.
Levine contrasts the somewhat inept and undisciplined narrative of Anne Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho and the "driving intrigues" (75) that vivify the plot of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Although Radcliffe moralizes about the dangers of an over-active imagination, she simultaneously offers the seductive delights of endless speculation about monstrous possibilities. Charlotte Brontë, on the other hand, places the reader's doubts and speculations at the heart of the text; these are not mere byproducts of the narrative, but the chief function of the narrative. Through the narrator-protagonist of Jane Brontë constantly challenges readers' assumptions about the conventional attributes of "feminine attractiveness and their unsettling alternatives" (83) by foiling Jane Eyre, Grace Poole, and Blanche Ingram, and the classes of feminine beauty they represent.
Chapter Four: "Realism as Self-Forgetfulness: Gender, Ethics, and Great Expectations"
Again Levine valorizes texts that were "disruptive" because they tended to undermine nineteenth-century readers' "entrenched assumptions and desires" (86): Edgar Allen Poe's "The Purloined Letter" and Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. In both, a detective's preconceptions prevent his decoding a mystery and apprehending the truth because to recognize it would be to deny entrenched patterns of thought.
"Narrative mysteries in the Victorian period teach us to set aside self-interest and personal desire in order to attend to the surprising, unsettling world" (87) as it is rather than as we imagine it to be or desire it to be. The greatness of Great Expectations, then, lies in its continually offering us plausible and even persuasive possible outcomes that, in fact, are never realized — Miss Havisham's being Pip's mysterious benefactor, and Pip's marrying Biddy are notable examples of how Dickens simultaneously thwarts both Pip's desires and his reader's.
Part 3: George Eliot Investigates.
Chapter Five: "The Gender of Realism Reconsidered in Adam Bede"
George Eliot's critique of conventional notions of feminine beauty, female self-suppression, and suspenseful plotting is associated with Dinah's "self-forgetfulness," which foils Hetty's self-absorption with her own attractive image. Thus, in Adam Bede George Eliot sets up an orthodox credo to be tested by genuine experience. However, her own handling of suspense in the novel's plot is unorthodox in that, although she withholds knowledge from Adam and Dinah, she deliberately makes us knowledgeable so that we will not identify too closely with these fundamentally decent characters, whose judgments about Hetty we know are faulty.
Chapter Six: "Realist Narrative in Doubt: The Lifted Veil"
This chapter is in a sense an extension of Chapter 5, in which Levine discusses Eliot's wrestling with the female self-annihilation implicit in a suspenseful narrative. In the sixth chapter, the vehicle for the discussion is not one of Eliot's pastoral novels but a strange tale of the supernatural, "The Lifted Veil." As was the case with Cassandra of Troy, in this story clairvoyance, knowing in advance how things will turn out, proves to be a curse for the protagonist because, contends Levine, being in a constant state of uncertainty or ignorance about the future — and guessing or speculating about it — are essential elements of the human condition. Suspense is circular in that it drives readers backward and forward in time, so that a later discovery is welded to an earlier uncertainty. Thus, argues Levine, the narrative of suspense has the danger, like one of Lattimer's visions in the story, "a self-confirming form" (133). Eliot thereby dramatizes her preference for "imaginative labor" over "repetitive passivity" (137).
Chapter Seven: "The Prophetic Fallacy: Romola"
An historical novel set in Italy in 1492, Romola is also a feminist bildungsroman which continually tests and tries the titular heroine, who develops because she eschews conventional notions of the feminine. Romola rejects the authority, first of her father, then of her husband; she breaks out of the conventional role of the wife and "throws gender orthodoxies into question" (138). Levine argues that the novel only apparently asserts the value of the rational; in fact, "George Eliot mobilizes both the rationality of the test and the nonrationality of the dream as alternative modes of representing the world" (139). Eliot is ambiguous about whether Romola's deceptive Greek husband, Tito, consciously chooses to be greedy and treacherous, or whether his false nature is the product of "Material production, or ... unconscious drives of desire, or...divine fiat" (156). Certainly his duplicity is necessary to the mechanism of the plot. "Hence the validity of the causal model of choice and its consequences is, like prophecy, authoritative and self-justifying, confirmed only by the evidence that the text describes" (156). Neither the reader nor the virtuous Romola nor the devious Tito has anything but the illusion of freedom of choice and expectation.
Part 4: Unravelling the Rhetoric of Suspense: James, Pater, and Wilde.
Chapter Eight: "Losing the Plot: Henry James's 'Travelling Companions'
What makes this chapter different from those that precede it is that Levine's point of departure is not a well-known and widely-read nineteenth-century text, but a relatively obscure work of short fiction, Henry James's early, experimental story "Travelling Companions." However, in that Levine is emphasizing how James's characters suspend their judgments and James's readers must ultimately revise theirs, her analysis is relevant to such better known works as The Turn of the Screw. What Levine terms "narrative reflexivity," using the plot resolution and the final disclosing of solutions to plot secrets to compel the reader to revise his or her reading, is James's critique of the Victorian realist experiment. For James suspense seemed inevitably to end in conformity and acquiescence rather than revolutionary, unsettling doubt.
"Travelling Companions" is at once a romance and an Italian travelogue, the latter aspect reflecting twenty-seven-year-old Henry James's artistic tour of 1870-71. Working against a plotted fiction, James has his protagonist follow the route of his guidebook rather than the yearnings of his own heart — and yet the protagonist keeps on running into Miss Evans. She refuses his marriage proposal twice before finally capitulating or accepting. This solution produces a rather dissatisfying romance and leaves the reader to ponder Miss Evans's motivations. James's narrator does not interrogate or critique his Murray; rather, he trusts to its logic and authority, and makes his journey conform to its prescription. Lattimer responds unemotionally to the descriptions of art and architecture in his guidebook, whereas Miss Evans "registers deep but silent emotion" (173). The short story offers a standard marriage plot whose suspense is undercut by the randomness of the couple's re-encountering one another and the protagonist's passivity. Hence, the romantic resolution is somehow disquieting and startlingly abrupt.
Chapter Nine: "Pater's Plots: The Renaissance and The Picture of Dorian Gray
What can Pater's art history possibly have in common with Wilde's tale of the supernatural? Since the final chapter must chart the collapse of the Victorian relist experiment, and since Wilde's novella is certainly suspenseful, one wonders (speculates, theorizes) about how Levine can utilize The Renaissance (a "plotless" work of nonfiction in the sense of having a cause-and-effect sequence of events in a rising action) to buttress her argument. But if we accept that Wilde and Pater are following the same basic idea — the quest for truth in image and experience — we can begin to see the possibilities. Ruskin celebrated art's natural referrant: that is, a work of art had merit according to its degree of naturalness. Pater, on the other hand, celebrates the viewer's playing off the image and reality, and values this back-and-forth process rather than the product, the work of art, per se. However, few read or teach Pater's tome, while Wilde's novella often appears in secondary and post-secondary reading lists, so that many will welcome Levine's perspective on The Picture of Dorian Gray, which she regards as a fin-de-siecle re-writing of Eliot's Adam Bede.
The Strengths of The Serious Pleasures of Suspense
The text's strengths lie in the specificity of its argument and its connecting artistic works, including paintings, that are not customarily associated, and in Levine's associating her "suspense" thesis with the realism of such various works of art. Particularly worthwhile are her analyses of Collins's The Moonstone and three short stories: "The Purloined Letter," "The Lifted Veil," and "Travelling Companions." If one is unfamiliar with these, after reading Levine's The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt, one will feel compelled to read these (in the case of the ast two in the list, lesser-known) works of short fiction.
A Few Reservations about The Serious Pleasures of Suspense.
Levine's strict adherence to the Feminist critical perspective is surely the book's greatest limitation since it tends to inhibit consideration of the role of the Victoprian publisher, serialization, paratextual elements such as illustration, and the inflence of intertextuality upon reception. Levine (surprisingly) does not raise the issue of the effects of part- or serial-publication upon the tendency of the reader to speculate as to causes and outcomes, to read and reconsider, and be kept in a constant state of delightful doubt until the next instalment.
A Summing Up
What is, perhaps, most exciting is Levine's utlizing art criticism, particularly Ruskin's The Stones of Venice and Pater's The Renaissance in a discussion of a literacy device so closely associated with fiction and so rarely considered as relevant to nonfiction. Levine brings to her task a strong background in significant canonical works of the period, especially Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, and a sensitive appreciation of some lesser-known works of short fiction. Levine makes a convincing case that suspense appealed not to a passive readership but to readers prepared to develop and test multiple hypotheses, even those which challenged the old orthodoxies.
Excerpts from Levine's The Serious Pleasures of Suspense
- Charlotte Brontë's Undermining of the Conventions Governing the Feminine
- John Ruskin's Realism and Its Effect on His Readers
- Walter Pater's Rebuttal of Ruskin
Levine, Caroline. The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism & Narrative Doubt. London and Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2003. Pp. xi + 237. ISBN 0-813 9-2217-8.
Last modified 23 September 2004