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Heart-stopped: Fiction and the rewards of discomfort

Recently I was talking to a younger colleague, a recent PhD, about what we and our peers read for pleasure. He noted that the only fiction that most of his friends read is young adult fiction: The Hunger Games, Twilight, that kind of thing. Although the subject matter of these series is often dark, the appeal, hypothesized my colleague, lies elsewhere: in the reassuringly formulaic and predictable narrative arc of the plots. If his friends have a taste for something genuinely edgy, he went on, then they’ll read non-fiction instead.

When did we develop this idea that fiction, to be enjoyable, must be comforting nursery food? I’d argue that it’s not only in our recreational reading but also, increasingly, in the classroom, that we shun what seems too chewy or bitter, or, rather; we tolerate bitterness only if it comes in a familiar form, like an over-cooked Brussels sprout. And yet, in protecting ourselves from anticipated frictions and discomforts, we also deprive ourselves of one of fiction’s richest rewards.

One of the ideas my research explores is the belief, in the eighteenth-century, that fiction commands attention by soliciting wonder. Wonder might sound like a nice, calm, placid emotion, but that was not how eighteenth-century century thinkers conceived it. In an essay published in 1795 but probably written in the 1750s, Adam Smith describes wonder as a sentiment induced by a novel object, a sentiment that may be recognized by the wonderstruck subject’s “staring, and sometimes that rolling of the eyes, that suspension of the breath, and that swelling of the heart” (‘The Principles Which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquiries’). And that was just the beginning. As Smith describes:

“when the object is unexpected; the passion is then poured in all at once upon the heart which is thrown, if it is a strong passion, into the most violent and convulsive emotions, such as sometimes cause immediate death; sometimes, by the suddenness of the extacy, so entirely disjoint the whole frame of the imagination, that it never after returns to its former tone and composure, but falls either into a frenzy or habitual lunacy.” (‘The Principles Which Lead and Direct Philosophical Enquiries’)

It doesn’t sound very comfortable, does it? Eighteenth-century novels risked provoking such extreme reactions in their tales of people in extremis; cast out; marooned; kidnapped. Such tales were not gory, necessarily, in the manner of The Hunger Games, and the response they invited was not necessarily horror or terror. More radically, in shape and form as well as content, eighteenth-century writers related stories that were strange, unpredictable, unsettling, and, as such, productive of wonder. Why risk discomforting your reader so profoundly? Because, Henry Home, Lord Kames argued in his Elements of Criticism (1762), wonder also fixes the attention: in convulsing the reader, you also impress a representation deeply upon her mind.

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Spooky Moon by Ray Bodden. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr

One of the works I find particularly interesting to think about in relation to this idea of wonder is Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. Frankenstein is a deeply pleasurable book to read, but I wouldn’t describe it as comfortable. Perhaps I felt this more acutely than some when I first read it, as a first year undergraduate. The year before I had witnessed my father experience a fatal heart attack. Ever since then, any description or representation that evoked the body’s motion in defibrillation would viscerally call up the memory of that night. One description that falls under that heading is the climactic moment in Shelley’s novel in which Victor Frankenstein brings his creature to life: “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.” If the unexpected, in Smith’s account, triggers convulsive motions, then it seems fitting that a newly created being’s experience of its own first breath would indeed be felt as a moment of wonder.

When I was a nineteen year-old reading Frankenstein, there was no discussion about the desirability of providing “trigger warnings” when teaching particular texts; and even if there had been, it seems unlikely that this particular text would have been flagged as potentially traumatic (a fact that speaks to the inherent difficulty of labeling certain texts as more likely to serve as triggers than others, given the variety of people’s experience). I found reading Shelley’s novel to be a deeply, uncomfortably, wonder-provoking experience, in Smith’s terms, but it did not, clearly, result in my “immediate death.” What it did produce, rather, was a deep and lasting impression. Indeed, perhaps that is why, more than twenty years later, I felt compelled to revisit this novel in my research, and why I found myself taking seriously Percy Shelley’s characterization of the experience of reading Frankenstein as one in which we feel our “heart suspend its pulsations with wonder” at its content, even as we “debate with ourselves in wonder,” as to how the work was produced. High affect can be all consuming, but we may also revisit and observe, in more serene moments, the workings of the mechanisms which wring such high affect from us.

In Minneapolis for a conference a few weeks ago, I mentioned to my panel’s chair that I had run around Lake Calhoun. He asked if I had stopped at the Bakken Museum (I had not), which is on the lake’s west shore. He proceeded to explain that it was a museum about Earl Bakken, developer of the pacemaker, whose invention was supposedly inspired by seeing the Boris Karloff 1931 film of Frankenstein, and in particular the scene in which the creature is brought to life with the convulsive electric charge.

As Bakken’s experience suggests, the images that disturb us can also inspire us. Mary Shelley affirms as much in her Introduction to the 1831 edition of the novel, which suggests that the novel had its source in a nightmarish reverie. Shelley assumes that Frankenstein’s power depends upon the reproducible nature of her affect: “What terrified me will terrify others,” she predicts. Haunting images, whether conjured by fantasies, novels, or films, can be generative, although certainly not always in such direct and instrumental ways. Most of us won’t develop a life-saving piece of technology, like Earl Bakken (my father, in fact, had a pacemaker, and, although it didn’t save his life, it did prolong it) or write an iconic novel, like Mary Shelley. But that is not to say that the impressions that fiction can etch into our minds are not generative. If comfort has its place and its pleasures, so too does discomfort: experiencing “bad feelings” enables us to notice, in our re-tracings of them, the unexpected connections that emerge between profoundly different experiences—death; life; reading—all of them heart-stopping in their own ways.

Recent Comments

  1. Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack

    Frankenstein’s Monster learned to read from Volney’s “The Ruins”, and I’ve created the first audiobook of it ever. If you’ve read Frankenstein recently and also seen the Benedict Cumberbatch version, you will remember that in the new movie version, Cumberbatch’s monster learned from Paradise Lost instead of Volney….so that audiences would know the book the Creature learned from. We are losing a vital book from the Enlightenment, and we need Frankenstein fans to help save it! https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/tarahwheelervanvlack/the-ruins-by-count-volney-audiobook

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