Serious fiction, according to Frank Kermode, avoids the apocalyptic paradigm of beginning, middle, and end. Part of the paradigm that escaped Kermode’s attention, however, is the inevitable defeat of evil by forces of good. The present essay inquires after the narratological fate of evil in the sorts of literary fiction that exist outside this paradigm. Taking up the novels of Jonathan Franzen, which are replete with representations of evil, this essay locates the sources of Franzen’s fixation in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and argues that, as theodicy fell out of favor in the European eighteenth century, Goethe developed a proto-existential poetics that sought to reckon with the apparent ineluctability of evil. The essay thus aims to offer a newly historicized reading of Franzen’s literary project; to draw attention to the significance of the collapse of theodicy for the development of literary fiction; and to position Goethe as a critical voice to emerge from that collapse and put forward literary fiction as a discursive alternative to theological paradigms.

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