An examination of the nineteenth-century American novel that argues for a new genealogy of the concept of the will.
What if the modern person were defined not by reason or sentiment, as Enlightenment thinkers hoped, but by will? Western modernity rests on the ideal of the autonomous subject, charting a path toward self-determination. Yet novelists have portrayed the will as prone to insufficiency or excess—from indecision to obsession, wild impulse to melancholic inertia. Jennifer Fleissner’s ambitious book shows how the novel’s attention to the will’s maladies enables an ongoing interrogation of modern premises from within.
Maladies of the Will reveals the nineteenth-century American novel’s relation to a wide-ranging philosophical tradition, highly relevant to our own tumultuous present. In works from Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter to Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons and Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, the will’s grandeur and its perversity emerge as it alternately aligns itself with and pits itself against a bigger Will—whether of God, the state, society, history, or life itself. Today, when invocations of autonomy appear beside the medicalization of many behaviors, and democracy’s tenet of popular will has come into doubt, Maladies of the Will provides a map to how we got here, and how we might think these vital dilemmas anew.
Jennifer L. Fleissner is associate professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington, where she is also affiliated with the Department of Gender Studies.
“In this brilliant, utterly singular study of the will, the modern individual, and modernity itself as problems, Fleissner makes a stunning intervention in the history and theory of the novel. It is no exaggeration to say that Maladies of the Will is on par with the achievements of Ian Watt and György Lukács. But Fleissner’s ability to combine astonishing erudition with deft diagnoses of critical impasses in our present strikes me as unparalleled. This book marks nothing less than a historical turning point in how we will read literature.”
— Sianne Ngai, University of Chicago
“Full of dazzling philosophical insight, Maladies of the Will offers a striking new way to understand the American novel. Fleissner shows us how the novel is uniquely equipped to grapple with the irreducible strangeness of the human will. To evade the problem of the will––as some strands of current thought tend to do––is to miss what novels have uncovered about the dilemmas of agency that continue to define our lives. A tremendous achievement.”
— Nancy A. Bentley, University of Pennsylvania