From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America
3.1 (1983): 65-76.
Copyright © 1983, The Cervantes Society of America
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WELSH'S Reflections on the Hero as Quixote is a major contribution
not only to criticism of Cervantes but to criticism of fiction
generally.* Distinctively original in its perspective,
it makes a case for the contemporary relevance of Don Quixote that
is as novel as it is thought-provoking. Without resort to jargon it participates
in the current theoretical insistence on intertextual criticism. And without
extensive display of footnote erudition it is grounded in Quixote
scholarship. The title recalls was perhaps meant to recall Ortega's
Meditations on Quixote, and Welsh has something of Ortega's penchant
for making bold pronunciamentoes. But the study relates more nearly to those
works that have taken Cervantes' novel as a paradigm of fiction or have found
in the Quixotic principle fundamental clues to human behavior;
one thinks of Harry Levin's The Gates of Horn and Robert Alter's
Partial Magic, of René Girard's Deceit, Desire and the
Novel and Marthe Robert's The Old and the New: From Don
Quixote to Kafka.
As a literary historian Welsh shares with Walter L. Reed an interest in the diachronic afterlife of the Quixotic (An Exemplary History of the Novel, p. 92); but his relation to literary history, as to history generally, is anything but conventional. The arrangement of chapters, to be sure, turns out to be roughly chronological, from an early concern with the quixotic in Fielding, Goldsmith and Sterne, through a consideration of the quixotic in a host of nineteenth-century novels, English, French, Russian and American, to a final analysis of the quixotic in Kafka, Beckett and Nabokov. But the
* Alexander Welsh,
Reflections on the Hero as Quixote (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1981). viii + 244 pp.
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chronological structure yields in importance to a topical arrangement in
which certain human truths at the heart of Don Quixote's behavior are seen
to be reflected (illuminated and bent back) by the quixotic
behavior of other heroes. Welsh is less interested, then, in the recovery
of an original quixotic meaning, which is historicized or
psychologized in later works, than he is in the persistence through literary
history of certain quixotic structures or situations. Only in the context
of other quixotic fictions (as many as are needed to illuminate a
given topic) is a particular example of quixotism meaningful. To understand
the foolishness of Mr. Pickwick's heroism, he writes, we
. . . need to invoke Don Quixote, and at the same time Dickens'
themes help us to understand Cervantes' (p. 26; italics added). This
reflexivity of the quixotic in Welsh's argument distinguishes his study from
literary history of a source-and-influence kind. Like T. S. Eliot in
Tradition and the Individual Talent, he would seem to believe
that the entry into literary space of the authentic new work alters the
disposition of all existing works. And like Borges, perhaps, Welsh would
say that Cervantes' Don Quixote cannot be rewritten. After reading
this splendid study, one finds it more difficult than ever to accept Wayne
Booth's argument respecting the influence of Sterne on Homer as the joke
it was intended to be (see Now Don't Try to Reason with Me, p. 285).
Welsh was, until recently, the editor of Nineteenth-Century Fiction, and he is the author of books on the hero in the Waverley Novels and the city in Dickens. One would not therefore expect his argument to be so emphatically synchronic as to become anti-historical. A historical scheme does in fact emerge from the study, as will become clear; but it is a historical scheme that in certain ways works against history. Opposed to teleologies, whether of Christian, Hegelian or Marxist kinds, Welsh finds grounds for a contingent view of history in Don Quixote. He is not arguing that Cervantes denied Providence Cervantes' faith is not impugned. But he does argue that Cervantes' novel, as it may now be read in the context of other quixotic novels, provides a view of life that runs counter to absolutisms finding their justification in a final cause of one sort or another. Quixotism thus serves as a perennial criticism of teleological faith; it subverts ideologies that discover optimistic perspectives in the historical process; and it provides the basis for a redefinition of realism.
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What permits Welsh to make these claims? The
answer is a découpage of a quite radical sort. The focus of
the study is firmly on two aspects of quixotic heroism: the quest for justice
and the endurance of practical jokes. Such a focus requires the bracketing
of other quixotic characteristics like the presence of a Sancho Panza figure
or a Dulcinea and the presence of books as the cause of the hero's illusions;
but it is also a good example of Paul de Man's proposal that blindness (even,
as here, a willed blindness) to certain textual aspects is a condition of
insight into others. Thus while certain readers might wish to argue, against
Welsh, that themes of the Doppelgänger and of Bovarysme in modern novels
are (or may be) quixotic, they are nevertheless likely to be impressed by
The focus on the quest for justice and the endurance of practical jokes does after all roughly characterize the difference between Part I and Part II of Don Quixote, as well as the difference between Quixote as hero and Quixote as fool. And from this recognition certain consequences follow. The sequence of this experience, Welsh writes, from knight errant to victim of injustice, becomes the story of true quixote novels and of realism not that realism sanctioned by history for the nineteenth century, but a persistent protest against the injustices of man and nature (p. 43).
In this contrast the author who most saliently opposes Cervantes is Sir Walter Scott. Comparisons and contrasts between the two authors have a long history. Scott himself encouraged them. His first essay for the Edinburgh Review (1803) reviewed two new translations of Amadís de Gaula, and in the early chapters of Waverley, even while distinguishing his hero's quixotism from that of Quixote and disclaiming imitation on his own part as author, he invited a comparative assessment. In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain blamed Scott for restoring in Ivanhoe the chivalric spirit that Cervantes had laughed out of existence; he claimed further that Scott was responsible for the Civil War; and in Huckleberry Finn he named the wreck that Huck and Jim encounter in the river the Sir Walter Scott. Twain in fact viewed Scott as an Ariosto rather than a Cervantes, an author who in Spitzer's terms promoted rather than exposed the problem of the book. (Borges' parable tells us, however, that even those who set out to mock literary illusions may end up perpetuating them.) Welsh's consideration of Cervantes and Scott takes a different tack. The Scott he describes certainly influenced later fiction; indeed, Scott's influence
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was immense, as other recent studies like Donald Stone's The Romantic
Impulse in Victorian Fiction (1980) and George Levine's The Realistic
Imagination (1981) also argue. But his influence was that of a historical
realist and not a romancer. Scott's fiction, Welsh argues, provides us with
a secularized version of the idea of Providence and ultimately promises
justice, but justice defined as a future state of things (pp.
There is more at stake here than the contrast between Cervantes and Scott nothing less indeed than the question of what properly defines fictional realism and, beyond this and intimately connected to it, of what defines justice and history. If Cervantes as quixotic realist opposes Scott as historical realist, then Welsh as critic of Cervantes has placed himself in implicit opposition to Lukács as critic of Scott. One of the most interesting subterranean activities at work in a study that has many tunnels is indeed Welsh's attempt to wrest fictional realism from the grip of Lukács and his Hegelian and Marxist followers by way of his reading of Cervantes.
Scott provides Lukács in The Historical Novel with the prime example of historical realism. Noting how unexceptional Scott's heroes are, Lukács reads this fact as Scott's means of representing the dialectical nature of history. Scott's types exist passively at the intersection of opposing social and historical forces and in his fictional elucidation of their dilemmas (which they do little themselves actively to resolve) Scott uncovers the political complexity and contradictions of the historical moment, even as he demonstrates the dynamic character of the historical process. Revolution as a necessary step to evolution is the lesson Lukács claims to read in Scott, and it is no embarrassment to him that Scott was a Tory who approved of Peterloo and ferociously opposed the 1832 Reform Bill. No embarrassment since, as a realist committed to the truthful presentation of things as they were, Scott accurately described the movement from Feudalism to finance Capitalism and, in demonstrating progress in the past, implied progress in the future.
Welsh might qualify Lukács to the extent of questioning the implication in Scott of future progress, but he has no quarrel with the argument that history and justice in Scott's novels are shown to be converging. Scott's fiction, in fact, provides the nineteenth century with a myth of completed action (p. 136), a divided fable in which all that is revolutionary, extra-legal, disruptive of social harmony has happened in the past. Heroes like Henry Morton in Old Mortality, or
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Waverley, or Frank Osbaldistone in Rob Roy, witness but do not, like
Don Quixote, initiate action beyond the law; they are seldom if ever responsible
for a suspension of the ethical; they remain loyal to the establishment and,
of course, end up as the beneficiaries of the disruptions that have taken
place. Satisfaction, Scott seems to be saying, is possible within the law,
and his fiction, rather like Macaulay's whig historiography,
is both committed to progress and yet rather satisfied with the present state
of affairs. Welsh provides another comparison, however: Scott's fiction,
he suggests, gives novelistic expression to the idea, adumbrated in Kant's
logic and fulfilled in Hegel's dialectic, that nature and human history are
moving to a rational end in which justice will be assimilated to power (pp.
In a series of brilliant applications Welsh shows how Scott's divided fable was endorsed by later nineteenth-century novelists, even when (or especially when) they touched on revolutionary subjects. Among the novels considered are Hugo's Les Misérables, Mrs. Gaskell's Mary Barton and George Eliot's Felix Holt, in all of which protests against injustice are in one way or another contained within an affirmation of the social contract. In these and other novels nineteenth-century realism displays a faith that history will turn out all right in the end; it is a faith that is lost in the twentieth century; and from a present vantage point, Welsh argues, the fiction of Cervantes and his imitators provides a more realistic picture of both history and justice.
Quixotic novels are more realistic because they show that justice is haphazard (p. 6.1) and not, as Lukács and others believe, definable in teleological terms. Justice is not some grand organizing feat yet remaining to be accomplished in human society (p. 80); instead, and this is one of the lessons quixotic novels teach us, it is a marginal pursuit, a quest for satisfaction that the law cannot provide (p. 59). Justice, Welsh sums up, is not an end . . . not a state of affairs brought about by history . . . not a department of the state nor a deduction from the law. Justice is something that knights errant try to restore when they can, but which never can be restored. Justice is a very foolish endeavor. But each protest against injustice is a defense of an individual being, and each endurance of an injustice proves the resilience of an individual (pp. 221-22).
All of which, it might be felt, is a heavy burden for the Rescue of the Galley Slaves episode to carry; except that, as already indicated, it
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is never in Welsh simply a question of specific sources and traceable influences.
When Quixote takes justice into his own hands in this episode, or in the
incident of the boy being whipped, or when he defends his autonomy from the
law on the occasion of his arrest by the Holy Brotherhood, he asserts the
value of personal freedom against the coercive force of authority. Nor is
this foolishness on these occasions to be taken in the light
of satirical exposure of the hero, as if, shades of Auerbach, the reader
were simply to experience honesto entretenimiento at the sight of
folly colliding with unproblematic notions of reality and justice. Rather,
Quixote's foolishness may be read as an estimable quest for justice beyond
the standards operating at the time, and, in the context of other quixotic
heroes who sally out against or beyond the law, and who suffer punishment
as a result, Quixote's actions become the occasion for serious reflections
on the stability of justice as an ideal. As if to underscore the intertextual
nature of his enquiry, Welsh discusses a number of episodes in later novels
that bear upon the question before he considers the episode of the
galley slaves; these include Parson Adams' rescue of Fanny from rape in
Joseph Andrews, which leads to his being brought before the magistrate,
the vicar of Wakefield's unjust imprisonment for debt, and Mr. Pickwick's
imprisonment in the Fleet for refusing to pay costs and damages in the case
of Bardell versus Pickwick. In all instances, foolish heroes, knights errant
of a kind, come into conflict with the law and, in so doing, display the
uncertainty of claims and the individual caprice of all quests for justice
Reflections on the Hero as Quixote is throughout informed by an interest in legal theory; Hume. Sidgwick, John Stuart Mill, Edmond Cahn, John Rawls are only some of the legal theorists cited in support of Welsh's reflections on quixotic justice. They, too, then comprise part of the intertext of his enquiry; so that, when Welsh writes, for example, in chapter 3 (Knight Errantry and Justice) that the ceaseless rise and subsidence of claims suggest that injustices can only be temporarily resolved (p. 79), it can hardly be argued that Don Quixote in itself sponsors the remark, or even that quixotic novels as a whole conduce to the observation. What sponsors the remark is Quixote and quixotic fiction seen from a certain angle. The extrinsic legal perspective may prove troublesome to some critics, especially perhaps to those receptive to Anthony Close's argument that modern Spanish interpretations of Quixote derive from German idealistic philosophy rather than from Cervantes' novel. For Welsh's interpretation of
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Quixote is frankly filtered also through the analysis of other
fiction, through an interest and expertise in legal philosophy, and through
a tacit commitment to a view not far removed from existential humanism. His
study, then, may be disturbing to scholars committed to the recovery of original
meaning, though such is its authority that even these scholars may seize
on the escape clause provided by E. D. Hirsch to grateful literary historians
and respond to the work by seeing it as a fine example, not of course of
the meaning of Don Quixote, but of its
significance in a modern context. New critics (if the species
is still extant) may with more reason complain that Welsh's method exempts
him from the need for close analysis. Important as the episode of the galley
slaves is to the argument, there is remarkably little attention to its texture
of multiple ironies, little concern for its intrinsic ambiguities. The best
answer to a charge of this kind (which carries weight) is that Welsh's
macroscopic method yields results beyond the ken of microscopic analysis.
His method might also be termed synoptic in the meteorological sense
describing the analysis of observations taken in various places over a wide
region at or near the same time. The value of his synoptic approach may be
further indicated by a brief consideration of the second part of the study's
focus: practical jokes.
The prominence of practical jokes in Don Quixote has always been obvious, of course; but despite the attempts of philological critics to combat idealistic readings of the Romantic period by insisting on the novel's comic and corrective thrust, the dimension of practical jokes often poses an embarrassment to modern readers. An enjoyment of practical jokes is thought to be passé, a putative feature of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century responses to the novel no longer possible today. Through his synoptic analysis Welsh puts the question in another light altogether. Practical jokes are not in his view peripheral features of certain novels only, but are found in novels of all periods and are in some way essential to narrative itself. Alongside such jokes as Sancho's tossing in the blanket and Quixote's strappadoing at the hands of Maritornes, Welsh invites us to consider such other practical jokes as Parson Adams' treatment by the roasting squire, various jokes in Tristram Shandy and Jacques Le Fataliste, the practical jokes Tom Sawyer plays on Huck Finn and Jim at the end of Twain's novel, the satires of circumstance throughout Hardy's fiction, the joke played on Isabel Archer by Ralph Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady, and the jokes played on the heroes of Kafka's novels,
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who trust that apparent anomalies of official justice will be resolved
by a responsible authority [but] . . . are ignorant of this
authority (p. 193). There are also extra-literary jokes, like the cruel
joke of the firing squad played on Dostoevsky and the practical joke that
the child plays on himself in the Fort / Da game Freud describes.
It is impossible briefly to give an adequate sense of all the insights Welsh derives from practical jokes, but one theme may be highlighted. Practical jokes do change in import through literary history. Unamuno might compare Quixote's sufferings at the hands of the Duke and Duchess to the passion of Christ, but there is a measurable distance between the amused response Cervantes seems mainly to have invited and the censure of the roasting squire that Fielding elicits from the reader of Joseph Andrews. Between Joseph Andrews and Tristram Shandy another change is evident: in Sterne's novel practical jokes have become actions of circumstance; and from Sterne onwards circumstances rather than human agency are the cause of jokes that test questing heroes; the practical joke in Pickwick Papers is, in Dickens' words, a dreadful instance of the force of circumstances. Yet another change in the general import of jokes occurs between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a change that may be briefly described in terms of the increasing contingency or gratuitousness of circumstances in relation to human life.
The movement is clearly from a time when practical jokes were relatively insignificant to a time when they assume cosmic proportions, but their relation to realism is at every stage manifest, whether the jokes are of a retributive, experimental, or demonstrative sort. Demonstrative jokes, especially, focus attention on the predicaments of existence (p. 87). Welsh is much taken by Ortega's description of how reality becomes aggressive in Don Quixote as if to proclaim the insufficiency of culture; sheer materiality exists, but ideal culture is only a memory or a promise. In Welsh's view, practical jokes subvert not only our trust in the solidity of the physical world but more significantly our faith in teleological explanations of circumstances.
As in his treatment of justice, so in his treatment of jokes, Welsh describes a historical scheme which, crudely reduced, assumes a providential orientation of belief up to the eighteenth century, followed by an Enlightenment faith in progress and a Victorian faith in history; only when the profound seriousness of the nineteenth-century myth of the future (p. 142) is put in question (presumably at
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different times by different aesthetic sensitivities) do we encounter a modern
world lacking faith in either Providence or History and facing circumstances
(often in the form of jokes) whose injustice is not to be redeemed by
Quixotic novels both reflect and criticize this scheme in Welsh's argument, and it may be queried whether the implicit contradiction here is ever resolved. There is something in the study of the paradox one encounters in certain kinds of Marxist criticism (that of Lucien Goldmann, for example): great authors are at once bound by and free from the historical consciousness of their times. In each approach realism is the key to freedom from ideology. But whereas in Goldmann great literature goes beyond actual consciousness to possible consciousness and thereby escapes, at least to a certain extent, from the theological into the historical sense, in Welsh the historical sense is just as ideological as the theological, and the lesson that quixotic novels teach however implicitly up to the modern period is the absurdity of basing a world view or a sense of identity in either a providential or a historical faith.
In his readings of Joseph Andrews (pp. 106-108, 189-90), Welsh shows how Fielding can at one and the same time genuinely advocate a belief in providence, which he shared with his age, and yet also disturb his readers' faith that a completely intentional universe does not admit of injustice by having providence defended by the mildly ridiculous voice of the quixotic Parson Adams, whose theoretical faith keeps colliding with awkward circumstantial facts (like the supposed drowning of his son). Is it the importation of an anachronistic modern viewpoint that allows Welsh to find subversive possibilities in Joseph Andrews? Or is it Fielding's adoption of a quixotic character and situation that compels these possibilities? Whatever the answer, by the time of Kafka the advocacy of providence has lost all claim to credibility, as is most clearly demonstrated by the practical joke played on the man from the country in Before the Law. For the general relevance of Kafka in the history of quixotic fictions, Welsh states, it suffices to say that circumstances can play the part of God or father (p. 196).
Both Fielding and Kafka make connections between the heroism of Don Quixote and that of Abraham, whose story in Genesis 22, as Auerbach argued, is bound up with the destiny of realism in Western literature. Between Fielding and Kafka stands Kierkegaard, whose Fear and Trembling uses the Abraham / Isaac story to argue for the
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superiority of the theological to the ethical and of the Christian
absolute to the tragic universal. Kierkegaard's work
is central to Welsh's understanding of quixotic realism as it is to Unamuno's
in The Tragic Sense of Life. Abraham (the exemplary knight of faith)
is confronted by the equivalent of a cosmic joke when God bids
him go sacrifice his son (p. 119); in response, and in order to stand in
absolute relation to the absolute, Abraham has to suspend ethical considerations;
he overcomes the ethical through his faith in a higher principle, at once
theological and teleological. But what if this faith is misguided? This is
the question that interests modern authors like Kafka and Beckett, who
nevertheless value Kierkegaard for his courage in seeking answers beyond
the ethical, the historical and the tragic. The question interests Welsh,
too, permitting him (in ways that cannot be adequately represented here)
to contrast Abraham and Quixote, the theistic Kierkegaard and atheistic modern
authors. Abraham's willingness to trespass beyond the ethical has to
be seen in an entirely different light if there is no God, or if the
terminus ad quem is merely the cooling of a star (p. 201). In
this light, too, realism takes on a different meaning; it becomes a
teleological suspension of the ethical without a teleology (p. 123);
it requires cultivation of the absurd (p. 143); it calls for
discipline without a teleology (p. 144). Herein lies the peculiar relevance
of the quixotic novel to our present condition. If neither justice nor realism
is teleological (and this is the fundamental hypothesis of Welsh's study),
then the historical realism of Hegel, Scott and Lukács becomes
superannuated, and quixotism, defined as the passive heroism of victims of
circumstance, or as the restless, never conclusive battle of ordinary heroes
against injustice in the nature of things (pp. 143-44), becomes
the true mark of fictional realism.
There is something of Camus' version of the myth of Sisyphus here, though Welsh does not choose to extend the comparison. He does, however, interpret the quixotism of L'Etranger and has provocative, if not contentious, proposals to make concerning a connection between Gide's notion of the gratuitous act and Quixote's striving for self-respect and identity. He considers not only Gide's Cares du Vatican in this connection but The Idiot, Dostoevsky's great work of quixotic realism (p. 212). and he argues that the crime for the purpose of achieving an identity can be interpreted as an extension of Don Quixote's active program (p. 212). Rather than
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pursue this debatable reflection further, however, or consider Welsh's always
interesting reflections on such other questions as the asexuality of quixotic
heroes, the difference between the romance and the quixotic work, and the
significant differences in treatment of adolescence in English
and French nineteenth-century novels, I wish now to conclude with a brief
argument for the importance of this study.
Reflections on the Hero as Quixote is primarily important as a work of humanistic scholarship that is frankly interested in fiction as a mode of knowledge in the lessons the quixotic novel can teach readers about justice, identity, history and realism. It is literature, however, and not the literary work, fiction and not the individual novel, that teaches us; and however far Welsh distinguishes his epistemological goals from those of the deconstructionists, he does share with them certain interpretative assumptions. With Roland Barthes he has made the crucial move from work to text, even though he chooses to circumscribe his textuality under the generic name of quixotism. With Jacques Derrida there is both an adventitious connection in their common interest in Kafka's Before the Law as an exemplary tale for our times (Derrida gave a talk, not yet published, on Before the Law at the University of Florida on April 19, 1982) and a more intriguing common dislike of teleological (or eschatological) thinking. Derrida's deconstructions of origins and ends have made him a problematic Marxist, as Michael Ryan's Marxism and Deconstruction (1982) most recently shows, but along with Foucault, one suspects, he would be more willing to proclaim la fin de l'homme than Welsh, who in this study often views (and endorses) quixotism as heroic individualism in absurd circumstances or as a marginal chivalry whose tasks are endless and inconclusive. Both, however, share an essentially ethical concern to question the Law. On the question of realism, as already indicated, Welsh contests Lukács' view of realism as the selective but accurate depiction of history as dialectical process. Welsh's argument is aided by positive readings of Flaubert, Kafka and Beckett, authors dismissed by Lukács on account of their psychopathological descriptions of inwardness, or their withdrawal of heroes from participation in history, or their failure to employ stylistic innovations on behalf of a dynamic and developmental view of human personality and society. Lukács' nineteenth-century criteria for fictional realism have, of course, been criticized before; Brecht wittily characterized
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them with the phrase: Be like Balzac, only more so. But Welsh's criticisms
take on special meaning when they are seen as joining forces with other recent
redefinitions of realism. Leo Bersani's A Future for Astyanax (1976),
for example, finds grounds in the fiction of Flaubert for a suspicion of
the complicity between plot and desire, and George Levine's The Realistic
Imagination: Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley (1981) considers
realism in Victorian fiction in terms of the monstrous possibilities
of a discontinuous universe without a rationale in god or science.
Welsh's study, finally, is important in at least two other ways. First, it reveals how helpful an extrinsic frame of reference (in this instance, legal philosophy) may be as an interpretative tool, when used tactfully and integratively; at the same time, it demonstrates how commensurate great novels may be with the intellectual demands philosophy makes on them, how capable of providing in their subtler language answers to ultimate questions. Secondly, Reflections transcends the boundaries of literary histories narrowly conceived in national or period terms. Like Walter L. Reed's An Exemplary History of the Novel: The Quixotic versus the Picaresque (1981), it argues implicitly that the novel can only be understood as a multinational phenomenon (Reed, p. 22). Like Reed's study also, Welsh's book serves as another criticism of (or complement to) Ian Watt's epochal The Rise of the Novel (1957), which, ignoring Cervantes, defined English eighteenth-century fiction in terms of formal realism with roots in Lockean epistemology. Partly because it covers so much territory, Reflections is not always an easy study to read. Conceptually, Welsh starts more hares than he captures, and his argument can be elliptical or truncated. The repair of his occasional indeterminacies, however, leads (in Wolfgang Iser's useful formula) to the production of meaning on the reader's part. This is a book to place at the center of a graduate seminar on fiction in departments of English and Comparative Literature. Indeed it speaks to humanists generally. Cervantists, however, are likely to appreciate it most; reflecting on its appearance in the same year as Walter Reed's study, they may feel that the novel has come home at last.
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