Failures of Feeling
Insensibility and the Novel
Wendy Anne Lee



The Bartleby Problem

AN IRRESISTIBLE BUT UNSEDUCIBLE young woman who would rather die than marry. A burnt-out altruist who must stop his ears to the inflicting cries of others. A would-be sovereign whose license to rule is predicated on her capacity for indifference. A pale and emaciated scrivener who would prefer not to. Unfeeling, it turns out, takes many shapes in fiction’s history, but the perverse logic of insensibility remains the same: nothing incites the passions like dispassion. Failures of Feeling traces this axiom of emotion through a literary account of what some have called “The Bartleby Problem,” that is, the encounter with a human subject who lacks volition or desire, who is neither moved nor moves.1 I argue that what philosophers and critics alike have grappled with as the limit-case of character is not the advent but the culmination of a dilemma in fiction. Not only does Herman Melville’s listless scrivener have a history, but his antecedents mark a consistent vexation for philosophy and narrative. Indeed, insensibility seems to express the philosophical problem of narrative.

We might begin by defining insensibility as unfeeling combined with inaction—in other words, not moving on the inside or on the outside. In Melville’s text we meet someone who does not move and so, presumably, has no volition. But, because he will not move, he seems also to possess a cache of thoughts and feelings. Insensibility names this unnerving oscillation between impassivity (no feeling) and contempt (bad feeling) that inheres in the Bartleby problem. This “flickering” between apathy and hostility aggravates fiction’s otherwise capacious program for emotional life.2 An ontological and ethical impasse that compels narrative’s drives and compensations, insensibility upsets the novel’s promise to deliver the goods of human interiority at the same time that it foments that very mission. Failures of Feeling thus elaborates how the phenomenon that would appear to halt feeling, relation, and narrative, in effect, incites them. Just as insensibility comes to provoke others’ sensibilities, it is the impassive, nonresponsive, inscrutable subject of fiction who generates narratives of penetrating interiority and hauntingly intense relation. As the uncle of the “hard-hearted” Clarissa Harlowe puts it in Samuel Richardson’s prime demonstration of the doomed logic of unfeeling in the history of the European novel: “How can you be so unmoved yourself, yet be so able to move everybody else?”3 This signature accusation, like a dye shot through the colorless waters of unfeeling, is the trace of the insensible.

To study insensibility’s changing figurations is to follow a telling obsession of what we now call the psychological novel, whose uneven, hybrid, gendered, and unfinished history is attended to here.4 In offering this slanted, skeletal, and multigenre genealogy of fiction, I am persuaded by Nicholas Paige’s claim that “the novel” was never “born” and so never “rises.” In his “morphological history of the novel,” Paige insists that fictional texts cannot be treated as participating in a coherent or collective practice to achieve certain protocols of belief. Individual novels “are not feeling their way through the pseudofactual night toward the bright light of the fictional day. Nor have they intuited some truth about literature.”5 Insofar as my own study charts a course for what I call Richardsonian fiction, I do so without making any progressive claims about the nature of that project. More often than not, I convey the “stuckness” of fiction—a narrative attachment that, as my conclusion argues, George Eliot tried (without success) to amputate from the genre.

The “father of the psychological novel,” Richardson distilled the raison d’être of the form into the tapping of the innermost recesses of the heart—the unbidden, involuntary “throbs,” “glows,” and “shudders” that attest to one body’s susceptibility to another. Why, then, the persistence—even within Clarissa—of a subject who shuts down that process, who both goads and exhausts the novel’s mandate to feel? The insensible, I argue, lays bare the dominant conception of emotion as responsiveness, as a story of how a moved body moves. Seen through the double lens of Enlightenment philosophy and literature, the insensible emerges as a charged figure whose very impassivity is a source of impossible power and intolerable resistance. “We cannot enter into his indifference and insensibility,” complains Adam Smith of the “mean-spirited” impervious man (TMS 42). Insensibility, as I shortly explain, spoils the entire mechanism of sympathy—without which there is neither moral sentiment nor moral society. Suddenly, the Keatsian “feel of not to feel it” assumes a criminal neutrality—contempt. A favorite emotion in both literary studies and philosophy,6 contempt describes a peculiarly noxious movement between hatred and dispassion. This affectless affect, as I will discuss, reaches back to its complex and shifting articulation as an “exemption from the calamities of others” by Thomas Hobbes, first affect theorist of a competitive market society,7 defining architect of the sovereign, and dark conscience of Enlightenment thought.8

Insensibility’s conflation of inaction and unfeeling reaches back to that nonnarrative linchpin of any narrative sequence of events: Aristotle’s unmoved mover, the first cause of the universe that makes all motion possible by not being subject to motion itself. If divinity is, in fact, the archetypal insensible (as Agamben suggests in his reading of Bartleby as a subject of divine “decreation” and “pure, absolute potentiality”), it also drives a host of other potent figurations: the outcast, the villain, the sovereign, and, of course, the dead.9 Part human and part inhuman, the insensible traffics in what Descartes describes as “nothingness or non-being” (du néant ou du non-être), thus claiming an exemption from the play of will and desire that is animated by mortal life.10 Such an implausible figure evacuates the conception of emotions as motives, disrupting the principle of causation that underwrites both our theory of mind and our theory of the novel.

The lineup of insensibles offered in this book reorients the conventional codependency between interiority and the novel, if not upending that relation then at least questioning its innocence. If, as Lauren Berlant writes, “desire is memorable only when it reaches toward something to which it can attach itself” (20), then why would it attach to the blank, nonstick surface of the insensible? Put differently, how does the insensible come to incite narratives of longing, sadness, and desire, as if only a figure of immobility could prompt an investigation of inner life? Catherine Gallagher—extending the insights of Nobody’s Story, which argues that narratives about “conjectural, suppositional identities belonging to no one . . . could be entered, occupied, identified with by anybody”16—theorizes how readers cathect onto subjects who float free from historical reference. The epistemologically available figures of fiction, who “carry little extratextual baggage,” can hop on and off flights of readerly imagination, enabling play in the “language game” of belief in which “flexible mental states [became] the sine qua non of modern subjectivity.”17 To Gallagher’s crystalizing claim that “readers attach themselves to characters because of, not despite, their fictionality” (Nobody’s Story, 351), I observe a countergravitation toward a seeming afictionality—characters with indeterminate antecedents who are somehow nonappropriable. In other words, if the nimble “nobodies” of the novel travel light, without any carry-on luggage, then insensibles are like fiction’s dead weight: taped-up, hardshell suitcases marked “HEAVY.” Their “givenness” (353) as characters cannot exactly be located in fictionality because their opaque self-determination keeps flagging the problem of their origins.

We might say that while theories of fictionality address how relations with characters are like or not like ontologically real human relations, a theory-of-emotions approach still wonders what an ontologically real relation is.18 Gallagher ends her essay with a similar turn, as it shifts to a fluid meditation on the fictionality of “any representation of consciousness” (quoting Ann Banfield) and, thus, the fictionality of intimacy itself (359, 357). Gallagher here formulates the necessary “incompleteness and disjunctions” of character as “inviting gaps for the reader to slip through” or “subjective blanks to be overcome by her own idealized ego” (360). In my variation those blanks and gaps feel more like black holes, enabling less pleasurable ego consolidation than existential free fall following rabid pursuit. Without quite repudiating the terms of “familiarity, immediacy, and intimacy” of fiction’s covenant (360), the literature of insensibility is a reminder of the work required by its inimitable pact, of the mess its participants keep having to make.

“Emotions work like stories do,” writes Rae Greiner, engaging Martha Nussbaum’s claim that the cognitive structure of emotions partly takes narrative form. “Embedded in ‘narrative history,’ [emotions] make sense in relation to what might happen and to what came before.”19 For Enlightenment writers the story of what happens now and what happened before was a story of passion and action, how moved bodies move other bodies. To understand those dynamics required a theory of mental causation, yet any account of why someone did what she did (or what she might still do) was fundamentally compromised by the fact that sensory experience only happens, as Smith writes, to “our own person” (TMS 11). My senses are not triggered when you touch a scalding kettle. I do not feel the heat that you feel. Yet when I see you stretch your hand toward the piping-hot object, I wince in anticipation of the pain, and when the kettle burns you, I seem to feel it, too. I may shout, but it will be too late to prevent you from making contact—speech being slower than sight. Furthermore, when I later tell the story of your injury, I will be sure to include details like the fire-truck redness of the kettle, the unsuspecting look on your face as you reached for the nearby plate of brownies, and its grimacing horror when you hit scorching enamel instead. My goal is for others to experience the sensation, even if to a much lesser degree than you or even I did. Smith writes, “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation” (TMS 11).

Sympathy is the cognitive effort to reconstruct “like situation[s].” Sensations are fleeting, singular, and proprietary—I have almost no access to them, even sometimes to my own. Narrative helps me. By reconstructing “every little circumstance . . . with all its minutest incidents,” my imagination reproduces the conditions that gave rise to your response, that is to say, your emotion (TMS 26). Ideally, I would imagine not just the scene itself but a whole history of scenes—your whole history: how you burned your other hand last week on a blue kettle or how, as a baby, you fell into a hot tub and still have a phobia of boiling water. Conditions will explain causation. If I can answer “as perfect as possible” the question, “What has befallen you?” I will be able to perceive your feelings, almost as you perceived them yourself (TMS 26; 14).

A century before Smith’s theory, Spinoza’s detailed narrative breakdown of affects (not just sadness and joy but timidity, ambition, gratitude, devotion, dread, disdain, and weariness) upheld a situational model of emotions. Longing, for example, is a “sadness, insofar as it concerns the absence of what we love,” but this sadness triggers another pathway, a desire to return to the scene of love, when and where the object was present: “He who recollects a thing by which he was once pleased desires to possess it in the same circumstances as when he was first pleased by it” (E P36: 89). Spinoza’s observation does not just associate place with feeling but makes the more extreme claim that circumstances make the passion—that, as in Smith’s account, if you could just reproduce the circumstances, you could engender the feelings they once produced. The inability to do so, to recover the situation of love, is equivalent to the loss of love itself, leaving us with only our longing as a record of its absence. This book concerns the essential absence of any emotion, as well as the narrative tenacity with which we try to reconstruct it.

I begin with a reading of Melville’s “Bartleby” through the lens of Hobbesian contempt in order to establish a conceptual touchstone for understanding insensibility. This introduction appends the chronological trajectory of literature that begins in Chapter 1. In reframing the Bartleby problem from a picture of capitalist abjection to a philosophical riddle about narrative, I advance the book’s overarching theory of insensibility: what it is, how it works, and what it has to do with fiction. The opening chapter then moves back in time to an unlikely precursor to Bartleby, the stock figure of the prude, whose ubiquity in early print culture attests to a primary connection in the history of the novel between insensibility and gender. Linchpin to an elaborate, seventeenth-century taxonomy of female subjects who come to populate English literature, the prude bears the brunt of dualism, embodying and (in her punishing transformations) repairing a misalignment between inside and outside, motive and action, feeling and speech. Returning us to the feminocentric scene of the précieuses, prude fictions, I argue, conjure the dream of female sovereignty and its unbearable, heretical, and anticonjugal aspirations.

Such concerns link these early, rangy protofictions to Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), the marble-hearted subject of the second chapter and echt prude narrative of Western literature. Newly framed, Clarissa Harlowe’s tragic case of unfeeling can be understood through a doomed metaphysics of emotion, explored here mainly through Lockean “indifferency.” This chapter also explains my understanding of a Richardsonian project as synonymous with psychological fiction in what I discuss as Frances Ferguson’s crucial theorization of the novel as a self-cancelling form, whose double purpose is both to construct and to eradicate the inner life. To this end I argue that Clarissa’s life as a transparent, urban rape survivor installs a trenchant self-critique and sweeping countermodel within a Richardsonian tradition.

My third chapter turns to the sentimental novel’s man of feeling, radically reinterpreting his fine-tuned capacities for public sympathy through the insensible who loomed largest over the eighteenth century, Charles I. Alternately public enemy and slaughtered sovereign, Charles inspired narratives of enigmatic unfeeling, which could be read as either regal tranquility or landmark contempt. This chapter examines, in particular, the insensibility of laughter, what Hobbes controversially defined as a triumphant glorying in the infirmities of others and Bergson a “momentary anesthesia of the heart.”20 My analysis features two works by Oliver Goldsmith: his sentimental but unfunny The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and his “unfeeling” but very funny She Stoops to Conquer (1773). Unable to resolve the mutual exclusions between emotion and laughter in his only novel, Goldsmith realized that the problem was the genre itself, whose characteristic humorlessness, he complained, had already infected the theater. His solution was to reappropriate Puck, comedy’s ready-made insensible, as the delightfully “unfeeling monster” Tony Lumpkin, a character who revives sovereign exceptionality as “Humour, my dear: nothing but humour.”21

From Goldsmith’s hero of comic misrule we turn to that figure of godlike dispassion who presides at the apex of the novel form. Endlessly diagnosed with world-class heartlessness, Jane Austen, like Clarissa Harlowe and the prudes before her, stands accused of heresy and abuse, of spoiling the plot for herself and for others. In this chapter we see how the reception of Austen’s fiction—a history crucial to the reputation of the genre at large—exemplifies the ways in which failures of feeling are entwined with narrative failure. Once again, the charge of insensibility marks a disruption to protocols of fictionality, here the plaiting of narrative with conjugal felicity.22 My analysis moves to the curdled plot of Sense and Sensibility, whose stalwart heroine, Elinor Dashwood, has been so closely identified with Austen herself. In my reading of Elinor I intervene against a nearly unavoidable assumption about her psychic repression by engaging an alternative framework of emotions in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1738), a text considered the philosophical companion to Austen’s oeuvre. Sense and Sensibility, I argue, extends and revises the Treatise’s influential account of sympathetic relations, distressingly completing Hume’s picture of intimacy. My interpretation features Hume’s tangled lines of resemblance, contiguity, and causation—what, in Austen’s novel, makes emotion a contagion, or one sister’s pain feel like the other’s.

Failures of Feeling concludes by turning to the afterlife of insensibility in a late nineteenth-century novel that flags its own Richardsonian descent. Daniel Deronda makes an ideal bookend for this study. It not only features a heroine who declares at the outset, “I can’t love people. I hate them” (after strangling her sister’s canary), but, more profoundly, offers an anguished meditation on the legacy of the insensible to the project of fiction. For Eliot, this subject—now brought to the breaking point of mental and narrative health—cannot be extricated from the “history of a young lady” begun by Clarissa and put to rest, Eliot hopes, in her “history of a young lady hitherto well provided for” (253). Deronda offers multiple takes on novelistic unfeeling, most memorably in the figure of the Alcharisi, a brilliant conflation of Diderot’s paradoxically dispassionate actor and Defoe’s flagrantly unmaternal mother. All told, Eliot’s late work draws together the different strands of the Bartleby problem explored by this book: the ridiculed dream of female sovereignty in prude fictions, the anxious and sadistic logic of the Richardsonian plot, the inevitable burnout of the man of feeling, and the compromising ethics of intimacy in Jane Austen. Eliot, I argue, brings these elements to bear in order to euthanize a genre that relies on the now thoroughly pathologized principle by which insensibility inflames the passions. Insofar as Eliot sketches alternative pathways for the English novel, then, they would appear to involve leaving behind both England and the novel, two forms whose very nonrehabilitation only testifies to their dogged endurance.


1. See especially Sianne Ngai’s formulation of “the Bartlebyan question of suspended agency” in Ugly Feelings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 33.

2. See James Fowler on the “‘flickering’ effect” between prude and vertueuse in romans libertins, where “prude can function as an antonym of vertueuse, or as a virtual synonym.” James Fowler, The Libertine’s Nemesis: The Prude in “Clarissa” and the Roman Libertin (London: Maney, 2011), 4.

3. Selected Letters of Samuel Richardson, ed. John Carroll (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964), Letter 60.1, 253.

4. Histories of the English novel constitute an archive nearly as rich and heterogeneous as fiction itself. The post-Watt era alone (crucially announced by Michael McKeon’s The Origins of the English Novel and Nancy Armstrong’s Desire and Domestic Fiction, and elaborated in their subsequent studies) has given rise to numerous methodologies and principles of literary studies. A sampling of such diversity can be found in Margaret Doody’s The True Story of the Novel; Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions; Deidre Shauna Lynch’s Economy of Character; Srinivas Aravamudan’s Enlightenment Orientalism; and Franco Moretti’s Maps, Graphs, Trees. For a range of approaches to eighteenth-century fiction see John Bender’s Imagining the Penitentiary; Barbara Benedict’s Framing Feeling; Rosalind Ballaster’s Seductive Forms; Ruth Perry’s Novel Relations; John Richetti’s Popular Fiction Before Richardson; Patricia Meyer Spacks’s Novel Beginnings; and William Warner’s Licensing Entertainment. For background see W. B. Carnochan’s “‘A Matter Discutable’: The Rise of the Novel,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 12, no. 2–3 (2000): 167–84.

5. Nicholas Paige, Before Fiction: The Ancien Régime of the Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), xii–xiii.

6. See especially Macalester Bell’s Hard Feelings: The Moral Psychology of Contempt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); William Ian Miller’s Anatomy of Disgust (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); and Ngai’s Ugly Feelings.

7. See C. B. Macpherson’s pivotal argument that possessive individualism is modernity’s reconceptualization of persons from contributors to a moral and social whole to independent proprietors of their own capacities. Macpherson presents Hobbes’s philosophy as premised on the establishment of a possessive market society, in which individuals are forced into a ceaseless grab for power. While this totalizing structure of competition, in which all land and labor are subject to market forces, was still in the making in seventeenth-century England, Macpherson argues that its fundamental transformation of social life had become clear enough to Hobbes and to others. In particular, wage-earning had already substantially replaced more paternal forms of relation between workers and owners. C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962), 61–68.

8. Victoria Kahn calls the publication of Leviathan “a watershed in the construction of the new political subject,” that is, one who believes in the possibility of rewriting their political obligations. “Leviathan was the turning point because it emphasized the fictional dimension of contract to a greater degree than before, because it offended contemporary beliefs on both sides of the political divide, and because it was more powerfully argued than any other account of contractual obligation.” Victoria Kahn, Wayward Contracts: The Crisis of Political Obligation in England, 1640–1674 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 6.

9. Giorgio Agamben, “Bartleby, or On Contingency,” in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. and trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000): 243–71, 253–54.

10. René Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, in Descartes: Selected Philosophical Writings, trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 73–112, 100 (hereafter cited as M).

11. George Eliot, Daniel Deronda, ed. Terence Cave (London: Penguin, 1995), 253.

12. See, e.g., Lauren Berlant’s account of “the theatrical or scenic structure of fantasy” and the recognition of “its fundamentally social character.” Lauren Berlant, Desire/Love (Brooklyn: Punctum, 2012), 8. Berlant’s elegant study attends specifically to the encounter staged by desire and its “drive to be embodied and reiterated,” or what she calls “desire’s formalism” (20).

13. Michael Frazer, Enlightenment of Sympathy: Justice and Moral Sentiments in the Eighteenth Century and Today (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 4.

14. See Ngai’s broader argument that modernity calls for a new repertoire of emotions: “in the transnational stage of capitalism that defines our contemporary moment, our emotions no longer link up as securely as they once did with the models of social action and transformation theorized by Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes, and others under the signs of relatively unambiguous emotions like anger or fear” (Ugly Feelings, 5). As tantalizing as such a call for a modernist theory of emotions may be, earlier philosophies of the passions still contribute to a contemporary understanding of affects. For starters, the elaborate taxonomies of feeling that so occupy Western philosophers after Aristotle grapple precisely with the instability of phenomena such as anger and fear and their relation to each other and to other emotions. For studies of earlier theories of the passions that emphasize their ongoing significance, see especially the interdisciplinary contributions of Miranda Burgess, Antonio Damasio, Daniel Gross, Jonathan Israel, Victoria Kahn, Catherine Malabou, Martha Nussbaum, Adela Pinch, Adam Potkay, Jesse Prinz, and Barbara Rosenwein. See also Amanda Bailey and Mario DiGangi, eds., Affect Theory and Early Modern Texts: Politics, Ecologies, and Form (New York: Palgrave, 2017).

15. A short list of influential scholars of eighteenth-century sensibility includes G. J. Barker-Benfield, Michael Bell, Markman Ellis, David Fairer, Paul Goring, John Mullan, Christopher Nagle, Thomas Pfau, Mark Phillips, William Reddy, G. S. Rousseau, Geoffrey Sill, Gillian Skinner, Janet Todd, and Ann Jessie Van Sant. Specific studies are treated throughout this book, especially in Chapter 3.

16. Catherine Gallagher, Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670–1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 168.

17. Catherine Gallagher, “The Rise of Fictionality,” in The Novel, vol. 1, History, Geography, and Culture, ed. Franco Moretti (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 336–63, 351, 349, 346.

18. See Adela Pinch’s thought experiment in her reading of “really” and “actually” in Daniel Deronda: “To focus on the way characters in novels—in which there are no actual people—may become ‘real’ to each other, without being shockingly ‘actual,’ may serve as a model for how fictional characters may become real (but not ‘actual’) to readers (as in this thought-experiment: ‘Adela was reading Daniel Deronda. In an hour or so she actually met Deronda’).” Adela Pinch, Thinking About Other People in Nineteenth-Century British Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 149.

19. Rae Greiner, Sympathetic Realism in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 2–3.

20. Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic (Mansfield Center, CT: Martino, 2014), 5.

21. Oliver Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer: or, The Mistakes of a Night. A Comedy, in Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Arthur Friedman, 5 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), 5:85–217, 154, 108.

22. See Helen Thompson’s influential critique of conjugal authority in her Ingenuous Subjection: Compliance and Power in the Eighteenth-Century Domestic Novel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).