What--other than embarrassment--could one hope to gain from prolonged exposure to the social mistake? Why think much about what many would like simply to forget? Bad Form argues that whatever its awkwardness, the social mistake--the blunder, the gaffe, the faux pas-is a figure of critical importance to the nineteenth-century novel.
With significant new readings of a number of nineteenth-century works--such as Eliot's Middlemarch, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and James's The Princess Casamassima--Kent Puckett reveals how the novel achieves its coherence thanks to minor mistakes that novels both represent and make. While uncovering the nineteenth-century novel's persistent social and structural reliance on the non-catastrophic mistake--eating peas with your knife, saying the wrong thing, overdressing--this lively study demonstrates that the novel's once considerable cultural authority depends on what we might otherwise think of as that authority's opposite: a jittery, anxious, obsessive attention to the mistakes of others that is its own kind of bad form. Looking at last beyond the novel, Puckett concludes with a reading of Jean Renoir's classic film, The Rules of the Game, in order to consider the related fates of bourgeois sociability, the classic realist novel, and the social mistake.
Drawing on sociology, psychoanalysis, narrative theory, and the period's large literature on etiquette, Puckett demonstrates that the nineteenth-century novel paradoxically relies on bad form in order to secure its own narrative form. Bad Form makes the case for the critical role that making mistakes plays in the nineteenth-century novel.