Bad Form: Social Mistakes and the Nineteenth-Century Novel

Bad Form: Social Mistakes and the Nineteenth-Century Novel

Bad Form: Social Mistakes and the Nineteenth-Century Novel

Bad Form: Social Mistakes and the Nineteenth-Century Novel


What--other than embarrassment--could one hope to gain from prolonged exposure to the social mistake? Why think much about what many would like simply to forget?Bad Formargues that whatever its awkwardness, the social mistake--the blunder, the gaffe, the faux pas-is a figure of critical importance to the nineteenth-century novel.

With significant new readings of a number of nineteenth-century works--such as Eliot's Middlemarch, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and James's The Princess Casamassima--Kent Puckett reveals how the novel achieves its coherence thanks to minor mistakes that novels both represent and make. While uncovering the nineteenth-century novel's persistent social and structural reliance on the non-catastrophic mistake--eating peas with your knife, saying the wrong thing, overdressing--this lively study demonstrates that the novel's once considerable cultural authority depends on what we might otherwise think of as that authority's opposite: a jittery, anxious, obsessive attention to the mistakes of others that is its own kind of bad form. Looking at last beyond the novel, Puckett concludes with a reading of Jean Renoir's classic film,The Rules of the Game, in order to consider the related fates of bourgeois sociability, the classic realist novel, and the social mistake.

Drawing on sociology, psychoanalysis, narrative theory, and the period's large literature on etiquette, Puckett demonstrates that the nineteenth-century novel paradoxically relies on bad form in order to secure its own narrative form.Bad Formmakes the case for the critical role that making mistakes plays in the nineteenth-century novel.


He sacrifices his identity for a moment, and sometimes
the encounter, but the principles are preserved. He may be
ground between opposing assumptions, thereby preventing
direct friction between them, or he may be almost pulled
apart, so that principles with little relation to one another
may operate together. Social structure gains elasticity; the
individual merely loses composure

Erving Goffman, “Embarrassment and
Social Organization

Verbal slips and tics, fashion failures, lapses, gaffes, and blunders: these are, we learn the hard way, what life is all about. Tough to anticipate but easy to recognize, mistakes happen; and, if they are an unavoidable aspect of life with other people, so are they bound up with an itch to narrate that life and to hear it narrated in turn. Mistakes make us embarrassed, and embarrassment, it seems, can make us talk. A truly comprehensive book about all the different mistakes we make would be a very big book: a shadow history of the social, an endless chronicle of the bungled, the forgotten, and the excessive, a theory of what ugly little things make history happen in the first place. Although Bad Form is about the mistake, it cannot in that case be about every mistake. It is, instead, an argument about the relationship between the social mistake, the omnisciently narrated nineteenth-century novel, and a bourgeois social order for which that novel held what authority it did.

1. Erving Goffman, Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior (Chicago: Aldine, 1967), 112.

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