Beyond Foucault: Criminal Narratives and Personal Liberation

John J. Richetti
University of Pennsylvania

In Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Johns Hopkins, 2001), Hal Gladfelder has taken on what is by now a well worn topic, and I confess that my heart sank as I contemplated the title.   But my spirits rose steadily as I read the book, since this is a fresh and stimulating, often original, deeply intelligent, and almost completely persuasive study.   Gladfelder stakes out a convincing and cogently argued revisionist position on this modish subject, dismissing as incomplete and indeed simplistic my own work done many years ago in this area as well as Lincoln Faller’s more comprehensive studies of English criminal narrative.[1]   He also, perhaps more impressively and daringly, rejects what he identifies as the exaggerated Foucauldian orthodoxy on the broader question of the relation between the novel and modern regulatory and repressive institutions articulated by D. A. Miller and John Bender.[2]   At the end of the book, Gladfelder effectively refines what he calls Bender’s and Miller’s “bleak arguments,” finding in Fielding’s dual career as novelist and magistrate (as in Bentham’s panopticon proposal) more of a dream of social order than an actual technology of supervision.[3]   He brings a bracing common sense (accompanied, let it be said, by considerable theoretical sophistication) and a talent for close and clever reading of texts to the issue of the relationship between the novel and other institutions for social and political control that post-Foucauldian critics have elaborated.   In revisiting older work on criminality and narrative, Gladfelder works from the assumption that dissidence is a form of protest and even an expression of agency and freedom.   He wants to move beyond work like mine and Faller’s that concedes what he feels is far too much to the paralyzing power of ideology.   In questioning the influential readings of the novel’s social functions offered by Bender and Miller, he wonders whether theirs is not a melodramatic and abstract rendering of the actualities of power and state surveillance and of the criminal subversion that he claims in practice eludes and resists it.   Actual police power, he points out sensibly, was “never the impersonal, rationally ordered, ideologically self-consistent apparatus projected by Fielding’s and Bentham’s texts” (207) but depended, as it still does, on the real violence that such programs were intended to obviate.

Gladfelder begins his study by proposing to shift the focus of discussion from the force of controlling institutions such as the prison and the police as reflected or indeed enacted somehow by narrative to the actual “experience of the outlaw: the social forces and forms of identity that violate the boundaries of legality” (8).   In a way, his guiding perspective and thesis are simple and straightforward and certainly flexible enough to deflate more abstract and totalizing theories: even if intended to enforce moral and social norms, criminal narratives invariably by their very nature “always provide, more or less explicitly, the grounds for a challenge” to authority “because they are structured by social conflict” (8).   Authors of criminal narrative need, he argues, to make their subjects compelling and convincing, and in so doing they inevitably create for readers an “imaginative complicity with deviance” (9).   This is a paradox as old as picaresque fiction or Gay’s Beggar’s Opera or the Godfather films or the Sopranos television series, and in a way it is a weak and merely truistic premise for Gladfelder to begin with.   But I think he redeems himself in practice if not in theory by the rich particularity and consistent insightfulness of his readings, by his extraction of what he calls “the jarringly concrete textures of a closely observed [criminal] life” that complicate the formulae and narrative patterns of criminal biography.   One might object to the impossibly broad generality of the cultural context Gladfelder invokes at the outset, as he relates modern individuality itself to deviance.   “The singularity of the individual is transgressive in itself, inescapably deviant in its origins and enactment” (6).   Surely, the transition from communal to individualized consciousness is too gradual and complex a phenomenon to be spoken of so glibly, and such a formulation assumes that individuality, even criminal individuality, is always a matter of isolated opposition to the community.   But as a platform from which to investigate the subversive potential of narratives dealing with marginal figures like Defoe’s narrators, Gladfelder’s proposition is useful and helps to support his exhilarating liberationist reading of eighteenth-century criminal narrative.

His introductory chapters (consisting of the first of three parts and an epilogue) are a survey of “criminal representations” in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century in England: various kinds of popular journalistic accounts of criminal activity.   In compact, well-informed chapters, he works us through selections from fairly large amounts of material that he divides this way: “criminal anatomies” (pamphlets describing the underworlds), “picaresque and providential fictions,” “crime reports and gallows writing,” “criminal trials,” and “criminal biographies.” It’s a lot to take in, however, and one begins to wonder why we’re being led through these miscellaneous materials.   The answer is that each of these categories dramatizes in different ways forms of resistance from below to moral and social domination.   In the first chapter on criminal anatomies, the separation of the criminal and the law-abiding, the normal and the deviant, is blurred by such representations; in the next chapter, the picaresque and the providential “project as universal the currents of violence, disorder, and rupture that animate them” (34).   So, too, reports from the gallows, if read carefully, can express not the state-sponsored spectacle of discipline and punishment, the “uncontested diffusion of hegemonic values,” but nothing less than “struggle” whereby the condemned “brought their own claims and habits of resistance with them to the scaffold” (56).   In criminal trials much the same form of resistance, says Gladfelder, can be observed, as trial narratives “opened up the cultural field of representation, recounting the histories of those who would otherwise have remained beneath the threshold of social visibility” (67–68).   And, finally, in the longest of these introductory chapters, on criminal biography itself, Gladfelder explores the “metonymic slippage between authorship and criminality, whose relationship during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was intimate, permeable, confused” (91).

All of these chapters are fascinating, but the last two are the most convincing.   Gladfelder finds in published accounts of criminal trials news from the lower social strata that challenges traditional hierarchies of importance and sympathy for characters.   Moreover, in their “relentless amassing of facts that could count as evidence” (71) and their tendency thereby to open up the problem of meaning and to resist closure, accounts of trials create a link or share a common cultural impulse with an emerging formal realism.   The criminal trial as it evolved in the early eighteenth century (and here Gladfelder is indebted to Bender and other literary scholars who have used the findings of legal historians like John Langbein) offered a model “of open-ended narrative construction, staging the conflict between the transgressive individual and a normative community” (71).When he comes to criminal biography itself, Gladfelder has many provocative things to say in line with his extraction from it of an implicit resistance to the dominant ideology.   But his claims are, necessarily, based on a small and to my mind not entirely typical selection of these narratives, and he has too little to say about the run of the mill criminal life.   For example, he makes much of the highwayman Thomas Dangerfield’s Memoires , a record of a four-month crime spree in southeastern England in 1685, and it is a fascinating document, a notebook of petty details of a distinctly unglamorous and prosaic thieving life.   Gladfelder uses Dangerfield’s Memoires as proof of his contention that criminal biographies often smuggles in “problematic material” and “subversive possibilities” into their conventional monitory pattern, and he is certainly correct in this case.   So, too, his examination of the sensational case of a murderous apprentice, Thomas Savage, whose story went through twelve editions between 1668 and 1679, is subtle and convincing.   Gladfelder moves, as he puts it, beyond the “plausible but confining” (79) readings offered by Faller and Richetti in order to examine the pamphlet’s “registration of the concrete particulars of speech and action . . . which allows for less easily assimilable details to emerge, signs of the criminal’s singularity, and which leaves room for more complex, psychologically challenging readings” (82).   These, and a couple of other brief criminal biographies he examines carefully, do indeed yield such readings, but I can think of many more from “Captain” Alexander Smith’s popular anthology, The History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highway-men, Footpads, House-breakers, Shop-lifts, and Cheats of Both Sexes (2 vols., 1714) that most emphatically do not, that are instead merely tabloid sensationalism that expresses an uncomplicated, horrified fascination with murder and mayhem.   To be sure, Gladfelder admits as much when he notes for example that the “evidential realism” of Dangerfield’s 1685 Memoires “remained anomalous into the early eighteenth century” (86).

The second and larger part of Gladfelder’s book deals with Defoe and Fielding, offering readings of Colonel Jack, Moll Flanders, and Roxana, and then extended considerations of Fielding’s pamphlets on the Canning and Penlez cases and, finally, a chapter on Amelia.   These are all well-traveled roads, and one has to admire Gladfelder’s courage in treading where so many others have trod.   I think he offers many extremely shrewd insights, especially on Colonel Jack’s childhood, along with others on Moll Flanders and Roxana that are always sharply incisive and often enough startling, genuinely original.   For example, commenting on the scenes where Roxana forces her maid, Amy, into bed with her jeweler “husband,” he speaks of her “will to master the disruptive currents of sexuality which figure so violently in her own life” and brilliantly labels her “Juliette without the Sadeian delirium of holocaust” (140).   Gladfelder is also as good a critic as I’ve read on the broad cultural implications of Defoe’s narratives.   Defoe was drawn, he says very powerfully, to “what it might mean to live out the transgressive, improvisatory invention of oneself” (97), and his fictions “unsettle sanctioned forms of identity” and “write selfhood as always, inwardly, verging on crime” (148).   Anyone who writes about Defoe in the future will have to consult Gladfelder.   I know that I will.

The problem running through these chapters, to which Gladfelder returns often, is Defoe’s own complicated relationship to these marginal persons and criminal autobiographers, a perennial question in Defoe criticism.   Defoe, he says wittily, is an eighteenth-century Zelig, although unlike Woody Allen’s hero he maintains an ironic distance from his characters.   Nonetheless—and this is where Defoe goes well beyond the popular materials he imitated—he may be said to write “from inside the act, and the thought, of transgression itself” (120).   Thus, “through the energy and nervous gregariousness of his textual voices” (131), Defoe invites identification and complicity with these transgressors, but of course at the same time on another level and in other genres he articulates a horror of social disorder and unrest.   To some extent, all this is pretty familiar, but there is a freshness and pertinence in Gladfelder’s specific articulations that I find winning—irresistible in fact.   But I can’t say the same for the Fielding chapters, which strike me, some very interesting moments on Amelia aside, as derivative and merely familiar.   When he writes about Defoe, Gladfelder will I think surprise readers who know the novels; in his Fielding chapters one can often enough see everything coming a mile away.   For example, after considering the depressing spectacle of Fielding’s reactionary social pamphlets in which he upholds “an almost terroristic conception of authority,” Gladfelder finds nonetheless that his registering of “dissonant voices and fascination with the outcast and rebel” bespeak an “affiliation” with the objects of his scorn and condemnation (158).   Thus, in the deplorable pamphlet on the wretched Bosavern Penlez, Fielding sets out to convict but winds up presenting him sympathetically and dramatizing the law he was paid to enforce as cruel and arbitrary.   This seems to me predictable, even facile: one might say something similar about any reactionary social pamphlet.   What works for Defoe does not, it seems to me, work for Fielding.

But Gladfelder’s reading of Amelia goes a long way toward making up for his glib and morally superior rendering of Fielding the magistrate and social commentator.   His chapter on that problematic novel may be the best extended reading in the book, more of an accomplishment as a critical essay than the brilliant aperçus that dot the Defoe chapters.   Gladfelder deviates slightly but significantly from the various standard interpretations of Amelia by critics such as Rawson, Hunter, and Bender, finding in the heroine for example an energy, courage, and (even) sexuality that other critics have missed.[4]   He also treats (correctly I think) Dr. Harrison as a deeply flawed figure, who “reflects most intimately Fielding’s own sense of uncertainty in the face of cultural instability and contestation over the control of narrative meanings” (203).   His summary of the significance of Fielding’s last novel may be the best I’ve ever read.   Here he successfully relate Amelia‘s strange and unresolved qualities convincingly to the novelist’s practice in those years as an examining magistrate.   So the effortless plotting of Tom Jones is undermined by the intractable problems of evidence that break down confident narrative reconstruction.

Gladfelder ends with a stirring epilogue on Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Wollstonecraft’s Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman, and Inchbald’s Nature and Art in which he seems to describe another book he might well go on to write about English radicalism and the literature of crime.   Each of these novelists, as he shows, has a coherent and complicated awareness of the paradox of criminal narrative that his book has explored: “in each of these narratives there is both tension and complicity between the political message—rationalist, progressive—and the traditional genres in which it is inscribed” (211).   And to the end, Gladfelder resists the fashionable bleakness of the post-Foucauldian school when he defends novelistic investigation from charges that it affirms the repressive surveillance of the modern authoritarian state.   I like very much his protest that realist fiction, as it begins in criminal narrative, resists “the imposition of unitary meanings” and works against “the resolution of narrative contradictions” (223).   Even when I disagree with Gladfelder, I’m on his side.


[1]   John J. Richetti, Popular Fiction Before Richardson: Narrative Patterns 1700–1739 (Oxford, 1969); Lincoln Faller, Turned to Account: the Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth-and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge, 1987), and Crime and Defoe: A New Kind of Writing (Cambridge, 1993).

[2]   D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1988); John Bender, Imagining the Penitentiary: Prison and the Architecture of Mind in England 1719–1779 (Chicago, 1987).

[3]   Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore and London, 2001), 207.

[4]   Claude Rawson, Henry Fielding and the Augustan Ideal Under Stress (London, 1972); J. Paul Hunter, Occasional Form: Henry Fielding and the Chains of Circumstance (Baltimore, 1975).