Cover of Failures of Feeling by Wendy Anne Lee
Failures of Feeling
Insensibility and the Novel
Wendy Anne Lee


December 2018
248 pages.

Cloth ISBN: 9781503606807
Digital ISBN: 9781503607477

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This book recovers the curious history of the "insensible" in the Age of Sensibility. Tracking this figure through the English novel's uneven and messy past, Wendy Anne Lee draws on Enlightenment theories of the passions to place philosophy back into conversation with narrative. Contemporary critical theory often simplifies or disregards earlier accounts of emotions, while eighteenth-century studies has focused on cultural histories of sympathy. In launching a more philosophical inquiry about what emotions are, Failures of Feeling corrects for both of these oversights. Proposing a fresh take on emotions in the history of the novel, its chapters open up literary history's most provocative cases of unfeeling, from the iconic scrivener who would prefer not to and the reviled stock figure of the prude, to the heroic rape survivor, the burnt-out man-of-feeling, and the hard-hearted Jane Austen herself. These pivotal cases of insensibility illustrate a new theory of mind and of the novel predicated on an essential paradox: the very phenomenon that would appear to halt feeling and plot actually compels them. Contrary to the assumption that fictional investment relies on a richness of interior life, Lee shows instead that nothing incites the passions like dispassion.

About the author

Wendy Anne Lee is Assistant Professor of English at New York University.

"In this stunningly original book, Wendy Anne Lee looks beyond the usual suspects in the history of the novel. A masterful stylist who navigates between wit and eloquence with admirable brio, she often made me laugh out loud—and almost made me weep."

—Deidre Lynch, Harvard University

"Arguing for the novel as a form provoked and sustained by the vexatious philosophical problem of insensibility, Wendy Lee anchors high theory in history, providing striking new readings of a wide range of canonical and lesser-known texts. Her elegant, witty, and sociable prose makes unfeeling endlessly engaging."

—Helen Deutsch, University of California at Los Angeles

"Wendy Lee makes the bold, paradigm-shifting argument that unfeeling is the heart—the inscrutable, insensible heart!—of the novel. She does so with bravura style and impressive range, producing a book that is both memorable and persuasive."

—Sarah Kareem, University of California, Los Angeles

"Lee traces insensibility from 'the unlikely stock figure of the prude' to Austen'sSense and Sensibilityand Melville's 'Bartleby, the Scrivener'—from Samuel Richardson's Clarissa Harlowe to George Eliot's Gwendolen Harleth. Along the way, she blends philosophical erudition and a series of razor-sharp readings with an uncommon wit that ratifies the absolute centrality of insensibility in the novel but also in the world...Essential."––J. Risinger, CHOICE