Peter Brooks’s The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melo-
drama, and the Mode of Excess (1976) remains in print and has been
influential in discussions of melodrama for an entire generation (or
two) of scholars. It provides a place to start as I briefly lay out what
this book aims to do and how it relates to work that precedes it. In
his preface to the 1995 edition, Brooks argues that melodrama is “cen-
tral to our modernity,” a mode that makes available “large choices of
ways of being” shorn of any transcendental guarantee.1 Melodrama, he
claims, pits exaggerated forms of good and evil in Manichean struggle
in ways that promote the reader’s reassuring perception of various cos-
mic forces and “latent moral meanings” (9), a thesis he seeks to cap-
ture in the phrase “moral occult” (5). This thesis is historicized through
an account of the role of melodrama (a post-Revolutionary theatrical
form first named as such in the late eighteenth century) in nineteenth-
century novels that counter that genre’s claims to realism. History
moves in the direction of a formalism as Brooks engages a “mode of
excess” in which writing exceeds the literality of the real to usher in a
metaphoricity that he finds “noumenal” (54), spiritual, and primal, an
ur-language not confined to language (indeed, gestural and silent), psy-
chic and yet not a personal truth—Truth with a capital T.
In a word, Brooks offers melodrama as a key to literariness. In the ex-
cess to which he points, he gestures to a beyond the letter and the literal
that, I will argue, must also go beyond (or come short of) moral clarity
and the clear choice between polar opposites that he claims melodrama
makes available. Tellingly, that availability Brooks poses as a scene of
recognition. The bearer of Truth may insist on the Truth but is none-
theless powerless to make it happen. Rather, Truth must be witnessed
and recognized, and thus hailed by the very forces that seek to deny it.
In the coming discussion, I follow Brooks but linger on a fundamental
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