Mothers Without Children, Unity Without Plot: Cranford's Radical Charm

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In: Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 52, No. 2 (Sep., 1997), pp. 198-220


This essay considers the possibility that Cranford's "charm" presents a critical challenge rather than an embarrassment. To account adequately for Cranford's charming "plotlessness," it is necessary to take another look at the unique dynamics of this novel's charm by reexamining the traditional framework of narrative from which these accusations derive. This new look at Cranford suggests that it represents a significant moment in nineteenth-century narrative-perhaps even making a culminating moment in the development of the novel of sympathy as well as an extremely important moment in the development of the novel of reform. Cranford's publishing history provides an excellent metaphor for this novel's unplanned (but nonetheless effective) escape from teleological narrative; it may also have provided the creative spur that prompted the novel's distinctive narrative pattern. This pattern eschews traditional plotting in order to create a narrative mode that embodies a desire (more precisely, a sympathetic resonance) antithetical to seduction. Because of its emphasis on the development of character without reference to personal desires, this sympathetic resonance can be called a "maternal " one, especially since an exploration of the maternal drives in Cranford reveals the extent to which Gaskell's own maternal drives expand the traditional definition of this term.