Social Minds in the Novel

By Easterlin, Nancy | Style, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview
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Social Minds in the Novel


Easterlin, Nancy, Style


Alan Palmer. Social Minds in the Novel. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2010, viii & 220 pp. $49.95 cloth.

Alan Palmer's Social Minds in the Novel builds on his earlier book, Fictional Minds, which "used the real-mind discourses of philosophy, psychology, psycholinguistics, and the other cognitive sciences to construct a theoretical framework for the study of characters' minds" (16). The present volume emphasizes interpretation rather than theory, but it is nonetheless self-contained, providing enough of a theoretical outline of social cognition to be read independently of Fictional Minds. Palmer thus aims to demonstrate that cognitive psychology not only explains some features of literary texts but also serves as a valuable tool for interpretation.

Chapters one and two delimit Palmer's subject and provide a summary overview of cognitive approaches and the theory of social minds. The book's subject is, as Palmer succinctly explains, the contrast between externalist and internalist perspectives, or inter- and intramental activity. Whereas traditional narratology has emphasized the internalist perspective through a preferred focus on a character's inner speech, Palmer points out that readers construct character consciousness based on "a bare minimum of information" by building throughout a narrative a "continuing-consciousness frame" (10). Thus, inner speech is tied to externalist understanding of the character. Further, Palmer argues, drawing on scholars including Clifford Geertz, Andy Clark, David Chalmers, and Daniel Dennett, that the novel is a system of distributed cognition, valuable especially for the enhanced explanatory power of group thought. Noting that little attention has been paid to social minds in the novel, Palmer presents a typology of intermentality that includes: intermental encounters, small intermental units (pairs and nuclear families), medium-size intermental units, large intermental units, and intermental minds. Palmer presents a case study of a passage from Evelyn Waugh's Men at Arms to demonstrate the functioning of collective mind in the novel.

After having established this theoretical groundwork in the first two chapters, in chapters three through six, Palmer turns his attention to specific texts. Chapter three, "Middlemarch," begins with an analysis of "the Middlemarch mind," and Palmer then roughly follows the typology elucidated in chapter 2, further segmenting his analysis of "the Middlemarch mind" in subsequent subsections determined predominantly by social class. Following this, another series of brief sections focuses on "The Lydgate Storyworld," analyzing in turn the references to Lydgate through which the reader constructs a continuing-consciousness frame, Lydgate's relationship to Middlemarch, and his relationship to Rosamond. In chapter four, "Little Dorrit," Palmer, reminds us that "Dickens is the novelist of appearances, and of the visible," and in accord with this Palmer varies his chapter organization, preceding his typology of intermental units of varying sizes with short sections directed at marking the visible features of social exchange, which include "Visible Thought," "The Face," and " The Look." As Palmer puts it, "In each case, dispositions link specific mental events and actions ... to those characters' stable, long-lasting personalities" (105, 109). Chapter five, "Persuasion and Other Novels," is intentionally different in structure from the previous chapter, focusing first on how the nature of Anne Eliot's mind is crucial to the comprehension of Austen's entire storyworld. Noting that the study of cognition has erroneously been separated from the study of emotion, just as emotion has been neglected in criticism on Austen's novels, Palmer focuses on emotion in a central section of this chapter. With the goal of demonstrating that "the explicit and self-conscious debate on the balance between . . . social and individual minds ... is also a characteristic of the fiction of the period as a whole" (164), Palmer discusses four more novels in the remainder of this chapter.

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