In the Company of Strangers is about how different ideas of the family affect the deep narrative structure of novels.
The principles of marriage and reproduction seem to be fundamental to the idea of narrative—we traditionally expect stories to end with marriage and often with an implicit promise of reproduction. The prospect of marrying and having children is associated with narrative closure; the adventures and chaos of the story are given retrospective meaning and legitimacy by the happy marriage at the end, and its promise that the family line will continue.
My book looks at how alternative ideas of family and kinship challenged this template. In particular, I argue that a fundamental rethinking of how family ties are formed and sustained was behind the experimental narrative projects of Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (In Remembrance of Things Past in an earlier translation).
We all know that plots about genealogy—wills, long-lost relatives, marriages, bequests—were the great obsession of the English nineteenth-century novel. In the Company of Strangers suggests that this fixation with the family and its mechanisms was also a way of thinking about it, of casting it into doubt.
In many Victorian novels, Oliver Twist most obviously of all, outside strangers (such as Fagin) and relatives of blood or marriage (Mr. Brownlow) compete to control the destiny of the protagonist. In Dickens, the family (almost) always wins; In the Company of Strangers explores how in Joyce and Proust, the stranger wins, and how these novels offer a narrative world in which continuity and meaning come from outside the genealogical family structure.
The construction of a narrative world which is not implicitly built on the family is a lot of what feels “modern” about Ulysses and Proust, but my book also shows how the roots of this can be found in “anti-families” throughout Victorian fiction that rival the family plot, such as Fagin’s den of thieves, or Holmes and Watson’s mini-“family” in Baker Street.
This book is broadly in the field of narratology—that is the examination of how stories are structured and built. It deals with the questions of how time and change are represented, how novels set up or imply a meaningful sense of connection between the individual and others, between the individual and his/her own past, or with the human past more generally.
It is an attempt really to bring together two fields, narratology, as I said, and “queer theory” which is a critical approach concerned with understanding the place of homosexuality in literature and culture.
While the texts I analyze in the book do not all, by any means, deal with homosexuality per se, haunting them, I argue, is the question fundamental to a gay life, or to a life outside of marriage and reproduction, which is, how does one make a meaningful narrative out of one’s life without producing progeny?
The first paragraph in the Introduction is about a family memory which prompted the book in the first place.
On page 11 I discuss fairytales looking at the problem of maturation and development without the promise of reproduction.
I am proudest, as far as literary analysis goes, of the Proust chapter.
What I most hope for as an outcome for the book is that readers will come away first with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Dickens, Conan Doyle, Joyce and Proust, but also questioning forms of narrative we take for granted as standard, and think about other ways we can make sense of time and of lives, other ways in which we can narrate the world.
Barry McCrea is from Dublin, Ireland. After a B.A. in Spanish and French at Trinity College, Dublin, he moved to the United States to do a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Princeton. He is currently associate professor of Comparative Literature at Yale. Besides In the Company of Strangers (Columbia, 2011), Barry McCrea is the author of novel, The First Verse (Carroll & Graf, 2005) and Minor Languages and the Modernist Literary Imagination (forthcoming from Yale in 2012).