Coincidence in Fiction and Literature 

Dr Laurence Browne

RussiaKnowledge does not usually post academic essays, however this work includes multiple references to Russian literature, and mentions a deceased (2013) Russian/British translator and academic, Ignat Avsey who, coincidentally, taught me Russian.  For these reasons I include this work and hope you enjoy it. Laurence has written a book about this subject: The Many Faces of Coincidence (2017), which is well worth reading if anybody is at all interested in what we call coincidences. Pls also see a review of that book: (editor).

A Dostoevsky Coincidence

At around the turn of the millennium and while staying with my parents in Guildford, Surrey, I decided I would make a concerted effort to read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  According to my mother, this had been her father’s favourite book. My grandfather had travelled on the trans-Siberian railway some thirty times to get to and from his tea business in Shanghai, and also spoke some Russian, so I thought I ought to give it a go.  So one morning I went into Waterstones in North Street, headed for the classical books section and began leafing through some of the translations of The Brothers Karamazov, trying to decide which one to select.  Then, quite unexpectedly, a tall fair-haired man addressed me from a few feet away and pointing to a particular volume said, “Why don’t you try that one?”  

So I picked it out, had a look at the front and back covers, and then on impulse found myself asking him if he was the translator.  He looked shocked, as if caught out, and immediately turned on his heel and walked quickly out of the bookshop.  I was rather startled at this but later my suspicions seemed to be confirmed when I saw a leaflet for a Slavonic conference taking place at Surrey University.  Perhaps it was the direct and almost proprietorial manner in which he addressed me that made me ask him if he was the translator. I was sorry he had left so abruptly but was sufficiently intrigued to have a good look at the version he had recommended.  The first thing I noticed about the volume in my hands was that it was called, uniquely among the translations, The Karamazov Brothers.  This also intrigued me, and given that I had been directly recommended this translation, in all probability by the translator himself, I bought it without regret and was to thoroughly enjoy the lively and lucid rendering of this extraordinary work, Dostoevsky’s last and perhaps his greatest novel.  

Indeed, I read it twice and was very pleased with the translation skills of Ignat Avsey, who was able unequivocally to bring the text to life in a very direct and readable way.  Although in the back of my mind, I was on the lookout for any other of Dostoevsky’s major novels translated by Avsey, it was not until early 2018 that I discovered that he had also translated The Idiot, and on learning that I immediately ordered it. I had tried to read The Idiot several years earlier but had given up. But now with Avsey’s translation and perhaps also my own readiness for the book I was immediately hooked and could definitely relate to the quote from Virginia Woolf on the endorsements page: 

The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled around, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture.1

The seething whirlpool starts from the very first page, halfway through which Dostoevsky plants a powerful coincidence that has an enormous influence on the plot.  The two main protagonists of the novel, Prince Myshkin and his nemesis Rogozhin, find themselves together in a third class carriage of the train from Warsaw to St Petersburg and strike up a conversation. The Prince has come all the way from Switzerland, where he has been for five years to recuperate from a nervous ailment, while Rogozhin is on a considerably shorter journey from much nearer St Petersburg.  Concerning this fateful encounter, Dostoevsky writes: “Had either of them been aware of what it was that united them, they’d have wondered how it was that pure chance had brought them face to face in a third-class compartment of the Warsaw-St Petersburg train.”2

But not only are Myshkin and Rogozhin travelling in this particular third-class compartment, so too is another significant character in the novel, the sly toady Lebedev, a troublemaking busybody who knows far too much about Rogozhin’s affairs – much to the latter’s annoyance, though they have never met.  Thus, Dostoevsky provides the reader with a double coincidence in the first few pages and does not let up with either the coincidences or the sustained intensity as the story unfolds.  In this way he by no means follows the sentimental trajectory of a romantic novel where, for example, the impoverished but noble heroine is suddenly found to be an heiress, as in Jane Eyre. Dostoevsky’s use of coincidence ensures that characters of all manner of social and emotional disposition are thrust into one another’s company at a fast pace, more often than not resulting in outrageous scenes that literally have to be read to be believed possible.3

Coincidence Categories

In my book The Many Faces of Coincidence I have suggested a basic fourfold categorisation of coincidences of all types. These would range, at one extreme, from the stunning array of cosmic coincidences underpinning the life-giving parameters of our universe and planet, to the relatively prosaic everyday coincidences in people’s lives, which might be interpreted as occurring quite by chance, or perhaps involving a rather more mysterious power, as the above quote from Dostoevsky implies. Not specifically included in this categorisation are the coincidences to be found in fiction and literature, from fairy tales to Shakespeare to the works of Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse, all of which are saturated with coincidences.  Indeed, there is a Chinese saying, ‘no coincidence, no story’, and one of the aims of this essay is to come to some determination as regards the extent to which that is true.  

The four broad coincidence categories outlined in Many Faces are: a) random chance; b) natural causality; c) supernatural causality; d) synchronicity.4  These represent the four main ways in which coincidences are generally explained, be it by those who see meaning in them or by those who do not. The categories are by no means mutually exclusive and there is room for considerable overlap. For instance, the coincidence described on the first page of The Idiot where the two main protagonists meet in the same third class compartment of the Warsaw-St Petersburg train could either be random chanceor perhaps some other force such as fate, destiny, or providence.

If the latter is the case, and Dostoevsky seems to hint that it is, then any claim to reality outside the fictional scope of the novel is hugely problematic from a scientific perspective as there is no way notions such as fate or the hand of God can be empirically verified. Yet in the hands of a skilled writer of fiction such ideas can be very convincing.  They point to the coincidence category of ‘supernatural causality’, which includes all ideas of fate, providence, or the apparent attraction of affinities, and anecdotes involving these sorts of interpretation are abundant in the many books in circulation about amazing coincidences.5   

‘Natural causality’ as a coincidence category differs from supernatural causality in that it can be empirically verified, as when two or more people eat at the same restaurant on the same day and seemingly independently come down with food poisoning. Natural causal chains are similarly involved when two commuters from the same neighbourhood come across one another going into work on the train.  These are examples of common cause coincidences,as are the many simultaneous or near simultaneous discoveries and inventions in science. A famous historical example of this is the application for a patent for the telephone on the same day in 1876 by Alexander Bell and Elisha Grey, though they were not the only contenders.7  What all this points to, quite naturally, is that new discoveries are made when the preconditions are there for them to be made, another famous example being Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace and their parallel but quite separate intellectual journeys to arrive at the theory of natural selection.  

The above examples of common cause coincidences are to be distinguished not only from chance coincidences but also from those that result from direct cause and effect, as when one person steals another’s invention, which is what Grey accused Bell of doing, or when someone wins the lottery twice, not by chance, but because the outcome has been fixed. A more recent accusation of invention and patent theft concerns mobile phone technology, in particular the dispute between Apple and Samsung, with the latter ordered by a California court in May 2018 to pay more than $500 million for copying iPhone design patents.9  

But there is a grey area between natural and supernatural causality, and this concerns the disputed field of parapsychology, which includes telepathy, precognition, and other forms of extra-sensory perception.  There have been a considerable number of double-blind experiments within the sub-disciplines of parapsychology, with statistically significant results that are unequivocal and consistent.10  Be that as it may, the field is still very much off-limits for the scientific establishment and this is presumably for ideological rather than strictly scientific reasons.  So for the time being at least, until the results of parapsychological research are accepted within the scientific mainstream, coincidences with a possible parapsychological origin must be considered a borderline phenomenon operating at the intersection of the natural and supernatural causal categories. Though very different from notions of fate or providence, they do not adhere to a conventional explanation and therefore can to some extent be considered ‘supernatural’, though proponents of parapsychology would certainly query this.11

Returning to the coincidence in the third class carriage and how it might be categorised: it clearly cannot be due to common cause factors, as with commuters travelling into town from the same suburb, for the Prince has come all the way from Switzerland after an absence of five years. Similarly, their meeting would not come under the fourth category of ‘synchronicity’, the term coined by the psychologist C. G. Jung for a specific class of coincidences that are characterised by the numinosity and meaning they hold for the experiencer.  Jung refers to an equivalence of meaning between an external circumstance and the psychic state of an individual that occurs during a synchronistic event, alongside a flash of immediate insight that he called absolute knowledge.12   There may have been hints of some sort of affinity in their encounter but for neither Prince Myshkin nor Rogozhin did it involve a meaningful coincidence of the calibre outlined above.  We are left therefore with supernatural causality, and very likely Dostoevsky himself, particularly given his strong religious beliefs, would have had no difficulty agreeing with this assessment.  

Coincidence and the Mythical Mind

It might be thought that for all forms of fictional composition, from the Greek tragedies to South American magical realism, the author has a built-in bird’s eye view of the direction of the story and therefore, like Dostoevsky, can come to a decision whether to include a sense of fate, destiny, or providence in the narrative.  But this is certainly not the case.  For example, it would have been inconceivable in fifth century BC Greece for a tragedy notto have a predetermined and fatal outcome, the seeds of which are sown at the start of the story.  The tragedies were always the acting out of myths well known to the audience who, by watching them dramatised, would presumably have a much greater cathartic experience than simply listening to a storyteller.  The playwrights could make adjustments for dramatic effect, especially with the dialogue, but they could not veer from the core elements of the myth.  And when in a Greek tragedy the mores are transgressed, especially within families, the fates are inexorable in their punishment, as is graphically portrayed in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, a very brief summary of which follows:  

At the birth of Oedipus, his father Laius consults an oracle and is told that because of his own transgressions he would be killed by his son who would then marry his mother. Laius orders his wife, Jocasta, to kill their baby but she cannot and asks a servant to do so.  The servant leaves the infant exposed at the top of a mountain, where by chance he is found by a shepherd who gives him to another shepherd who in turn brings the baby to his master, the childless king of Corinth. Oedipus is duly adopted and brought up as a prince. Then one fateful incident follows another until Oedipus unwittingly kills his own father and then goes on after further twists of fate to marry his mother. All is revealed at the end.  Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus uses the pins from her gown to gouge out his eyes.13  

Apparent chance coincidences are very much the modus operandi of fate in mythical literature, as well as in fairy tales.  Take Briar Rose, for example, of which there are many variations. In the Grimm Brothers’ version, a king and queen have longed for a child for many years and when a beautiful daughter is born there is great rejoicing. A celebratory feast is announced and twelve wise women are invited, though there are thirteen in the kingdom. Only twelve are invited because the king only has twelve golden plates. The feast is held and afterwards each of the twelve bestows a blessing on the child. But just when the eleventh has bestowed her gift, there is a disturbance at the door and in comes the uninvited and furious thirteenth wise woman who pronounces that in her fifteenth year the princess will prick her finger on a spindle and fall down dead. Straight after that, she turns round and storms out. The twelfth wise woman then steps forward and says she cannot negate the curse but can soften it, declaring that the princess will indeed prick her finger on a spindle but will not die.  Instead she will sleep for a hundred years.

Already in this first part of the story we have two crucial coincidences. Firstly, there are thirteen wise women but the king only has twelve golden plates. Clearly he lacks imagination because instead of finding a way around this discrepancy, he decides to leave out one of the wise women, a faux pas of hospitality that he should surely have been aware of.  But then, as we shall see, he seems not to have been the wisest of kings.  The second coincidence is absolutely essential for the progression of the story, and it is that the entry of the thirteenth wise woman comes precisely after the eleventh has given her blessing.  This means that only the twelfth is left to try to mitigate the curse. Had she arrived any earlier, the combined wishes of the remaining wise women would probably have been enough to outweigh the evil wish of their sister, and had she arrived any later, there could have been no softening of the curse and the princess would have died. For in fairy tales as in myths, like that of Oedipus, when a prophecy is uttered its outcome is certain, unless there is the sort of mitigation provided by another prophetic figure like the twelfth wise woman.

The king’s response to protect his daughter from the curse is to order all spindles in the kingdom destroyed.  But on the day of her fifteenth birthday, the princess goes wandering through the castle and comes to a tower she has never visited before. Now you would think that the king and queen would take extra care to protect their daughter on that particular day but for a reason not given in the story they are away from the castle, and the princess is left alone to roam around by herself.  So she goes up the tower, and at the top of the stairs there is a small door with a key in the lock which she opens.  She sees an old lady spinning flax on a spindle.  The princess is curious as she has never seen a spindle and the old woman offers to show her how to use it.  But as soon as she starts to spin, she feels a prick in her finger and falls into a deep sleep.  At that moment, the king and queen return from their outing and they also fall asleep, as does everyone else in the palace, including all the animals and birds.

There are four main coincidences in this part of the story: the first being that the king and queen are absent and allow their daughter to roam around at will on her fifteenth birthday.  It almost seems as if they want the prophecy to be fulfilled, either that or they are just very unaware. The second coincidence is that exactly on her fifteenth birthday, the princess comes across the tower for the first time, even though she has lived in the palace all her life.  Naturally enough she climbs up to the top, where her fate awaits.  The third coincidence is that the king and queen return at the exact moment she pricks her finger, which means that they are back in time to fall into the hundred year sleep along with the rest of the court.  Had they returned earlier, they may have wondered where the princess was and found her before she could climb up to the little room.  And had they come back later, they might have avoided the spell, but for the completeness of the story they need to be there when the princess awakens.  

Another little anomaly is that the princess has to unlock the door at the top of the tower to get in.  But so fascinated is she with the spindle that she does not stop to wonder how the old lady was able to enter in spite of the locked door.  This accomplishment, whether the old lady levitated and came through the window or was able to appear out of the blue like Mary Poppins or, more seriously, like Padre Pio, the remarkable Italian priest who died in 1968. This is the fourth coincidence in this section and has a little more to it than simply fate masquerading as chance, as with the thirteenth wise woman coming into the banquet hall when she does. Even if no explanations are given in the Grimm Brothers’ version, parapsychological abilities are involved, as they are in so many fairy tales.  And because they are fairy tales, they are never a surprise to the reader.  

While all the living beings in the palace are in deepest slumber, a hedge full of sharp thorns grows around the castle walls and in time covers the whole castle so that it is invisible from outside.  From time to time a brave young man, spurred by the story of a beautiful princess asleep for a hundred years within the castle, tries to cut his way through the hedge.  However, none of them get very far and perish in their attempts, impaled by the thorns that will not allow them to progress.  

Then one day, many years later, a young prince gets wind of the legend of the sleeping beauty and decides he must get through the hedge and find the princess.  He refuses to be put off by what has happened to those who have gone before.  So he takes his sword and ventures forth.  But as he approaches the hedge, it opens freely before him, closing behind as he passes; he does not know it but on that very day the hundred years are up.  When he gets to the castle, he sees everyone fast asleep, including the princess who he finds in the room at the top of the tower.  Enraptured by her beauty, he kisses her on the lips.  She opens her eyes and smiles, and then all the court as well as the birds and animals awaken.  The king and queen are overjoyed, and in due course the prince and princess get married and live happily ever after.14

This last section only has one major coincidence and that, of course, is the prince arriving at the castle through a welcoming hedge on the exact day the one hundred years is complete.  Clearly, it is his destiny to break the spell and marry the princess, just as it was the fate of all the other brave young men to die in the attempt to get through the hedge.  And there we have the difference between destiny and fate, with destiny much more of a positive notion than fate, though the two terms are often used interchangeably. As far as categorisation is concerned, all the coincidences that occur can really only be understood as fate (or destiny) masquerading as chance coincidences.  Expressions such as ‘It so happened that on that day…’ are common and without such occurrences, the stories would not carry their magical charge and would in effect be lifeless.  Certainly, as far as myths, legends and fairy tales go, ‘no coincidence, no story’ is absolutely par for the course.

Providence in Literature

Just as fate can be differentiated from destiny so too can it from the idea of providence, which essentially means a benevolent divine plan, a pre-Christian concept15 that was later adopted and strongly endorsed by Christian theologians, including the highly influential St Augustine. Augustine rejected “the concepts of both chance and fate,” and held that “divine providence operates in all things, no matter how mundane and obscure.”16   Unlike fate, providence is not capricious, though it may appear to be to those suffering, like Hamlet, from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” And just before his death at the end of the play, when Hamlet is offered a way of avoiding what is to be a fatal duel, he includes in his refusal the idea that providence is fixed and that free will cannot fight against it, whatever various fortune-telling systems might say, be it the runes, astrology or palm reading.  Hence Hamlet’s defiance of augury in the following quote, and his conviction that all that can really be achieved is readiness for what will come: 

Horatio: If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.

Hamlet: Not a whit. We defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all.17

It was not until the modern era that the idea of God’s providence holding sway over human affairs was seriously questioned in literature.  According to Thomas Vargish, author of The Providential Aesthetic in Victorian Literature, the first novelist in the English language to overturn the ‘providential tradition’ of English literature was George Eliot, and Vargish goes into great detail to show, novel by novel, how she moved increasingly away from a providential perspective.18  Not entirely unsurprisingly, one of the most important elements of the providential tradition was the use of coincidences as an integral element of the plot.  The Victorian literary scholar Barbara Hardy puts it very simply: “Coincidence is a symbol of providence.”19   This is not so far removed from how fairy tales operate and one only has to look at the coincidences that are an essential part of the fabric of Charlotte Brontë’s immensely popular Jane Eyre to see how fairy-tale like the book is.

Brontë’s use of coincidences in Jane Eyre, in terms of the categorisation described earlier, is actually quite varied, and goes beyond the usual mythological method of fate or destiny masquerading as chance, or in this case the guiding hand of providence.  There are, nevertheless, a good number of these types of coincidences. For example, when a distraught Jane decides to get away from Rochester after nearly falling into a bigamous marriage, she makes her escape before dawn taking only twenty shillings and a small parcel of her belongings.  She reaches the road and hails the first coach that comes her way.  Its destination is quite a distance away, the cost is thirty shillings and Jane only has twenty.  The coachman takes her as far as her money will allow and perhaps rather cruelly, though Brontë makes no such aspersion, lets her out at a desolate moorland crossroads where the nearest town is ten miles away.

This is the first coincidence, though Jane would not yet be aware of it.  The second is that she leaves her parcel on the coach and so is unable to barter her belongings for food and shelter, and is therefore completely destitute.  After two nights on the moors and wandering around a nearby hamlet becoming increasingly hungry but finding little sympathy amongst the locals, she reaches the end of her tether.  It is evening and has been raining, and she dreads another night in the open air. She cries out loud:

Shall I be an outcast again this night? While the rain descends so, must I lay my head on the cold, drenched ground?  I fear I cannot do otherwise: for who will receive me?  But it will be very dreadful, with this feeling of hunger, faintness, chill, and this sense of desolation – this total prostration of hope…  Oh Providence! sustain me a little longer!  Aid! – direct me!20

Jane has called out to ‘Providence’ and thereby to God.  She has spontaneously uttered a prayer in her misery with no expectation of it being answered.  She is outside the village and goes up a hill, looking for a hollow to lie down in. But then she sees the flickering of a light in the distance.  She makes her weary way in its direction.  The light comes from a solitary house and she peeps through the window to see two graceful young women discussing a German text.  She is so taken with them that she forgets her predicament until they are about to leave the room.  So she takes her courage in her hands and knocks at the door.  The door is answered by a housekeeper who refuses to let Jane talk to her mistresses and shuts the door on her, causing Jane to collapse on the doorstep in even greater anguish.

But unbeknownst to Jane, the master of the house and elder brother of the two young women, St John Rivers, has arrived home at the same time as Jane knocks on the door and waits and watches in the shadows.  He decides that Jane’s situation is genuinely unusual, that she is more than a beggarwoman, and he allows her in over the objections of the housekeeper.  It is a clearly a major coincidence that Rivers arrives just at this moment.  It is also a speedy answer to Jane’s prayer and as such is completely consonant with the providential tradition.  The relationship between prayer and coincidence is an interesting and subtle one, with sceptics dismissing claims of answered prayer in terms of selection bias. Yet it has a long and venerable tradition, with passages from the Bible to support it, as in James 5:16 which includes this sentence: “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”  Then there is the famous saying of Archbishop William Temple, which very much summarises the attitude of those who believe that there is a very real connection between coincidence and prayer: “When I pray, coincidences happen; when I do not, they don’t.”21

From a providential perspective it is undoubtedly right that Jane’s prayer should be answered, and this coincidence can be readily placed within the coincidence category of supernatural causality.  But this is only one possible explanation, always apart from pure chance, though that would certainly not have been Brontë’s intention.  The other possible explanation is that it is a synchronistic event, in other words a deeply experienced meaningful coincidence.  There is nothing specific in the text that suggests this, however, and Jane herself would doubtless have seen it as a miraculous and personally tailored answer to her prayer.  

Answered prayer is not something explored in great detail by Jung in his monograph on synchronicity. However, he does say that synchronistic phenomena are involved.22  From a Jungian perspective, when prayer emanates from a depth of the psyche not normally accessed, an archetype may be stimulated and while that does not cause synchronistic events, it may render them more likely.  An archetype in the Jungian (as opposed to Platonic) sense refers to a pattern of unconscious content that can have a profound impact on an individual when it rises to the surface.23   This includes synchronistic experiences, as Jung’s associate Marie-Louise von Franz explains:

It is in the moments when an emotion-charged archetypal content is influencing consciousness with unusual force that so-called synchronistic events often tend to occur; concrete events take place in the individual’s outer environment that have a meaningful connection with the inner psychic contents that are constellated at about the same time.24

More Coincidences in Jane Eyre

Jane’s association with the Rivers siblings could be described as a protracted synchronicity which culminates in what even for Victorians would have been an outrageous coincidence.  After her appearance on their doorstep, the Rivers family takes Jane to their heart, to the extent that she is considered a younger sister.  So close does she feel to Diana and Mary that she says of her interaction with them: “Thought fitted thought; opinion met opinion: we coincided, in short, perfectly.”25   Despite this closeness, Jane does not reveal her true surname for fear of discovery and goes by the name of Jane Elliott.  Nevertheless, St John has his suspicions that her surname is in fact Eyre and this is confirmed when he sees that Jane has written her name on a blank sheet of paper in a moment of abstraction.  He then informs her that with the death of her uncle, John Eyre, she has come into a fortune of £20,000, a considerable sum in those days.  

Jane’s reaction is one of stunned silence as she considers the ramifications of so great a windfall. And then she wonders why St John knows about this and he reveals that they are in fact first cousins, and that the uncle who made Jane his heir had cut St John and his sisters out of his will because of an estrangement between himself and their father. St John’s middle name is Eyre and his mother was Jane’s father’s sister and also the sister of John Eyre. This is the mega-coincidence that is so crucial to the overall plot: that Jane in her utter destitution should have landed on the doorstep of her first cousins!  And no wonder, in retrospect, that she felt so closely identified with Diana and Mary. Unlike her muted reaction to the news of her inheritance, when Jane discovers that the Rivers siblings are her cousins she is overjoyed: 

Glorious discovery to a lonely wretch! This was wealth indeed! – wealth to the heart! – a mine of pure, genial affections. This was a blessing, bright, vivid, and exhilarating; – not like the ponderous gift of gold: rich and welcome enough in its way, but sobering from its weight. I now clapped my hands in sudden joy – my pulse bounded, my veins thrilled.25

There is no doubt that for Jane this is a deeply meaningful coincidence, even more so when she realises that the sum she has inherited can be easily divided into four, one part for herself and three for her cousins:  “Twenty thousand pounds shared equally would be five thousand each, justice – enough and to spare: justice would be done, – mutual happiness secured. Now the wealth did not weigh on me: now it was not a mere bequest of coin, – it was a legacy of life, hope, enjoyment.”26   As Hilary Dannenberg points out in her book Coincidence and Counterfactuality, this is a classic example of kinship recognition, hints of which we have seen in Jane’s relations with Diana and Mary.  Kinship recognition is an age-old device for creating a compelling storyline and we can see it, as already referred to, in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, as well as in his intensely dramatic tragedy Electra. Shakespeare uses this device in both Winter’s Tale and Twelfth Night, and it is a key element in Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders.  

Kinship recognition is a well-worn but powerful technique which works because of the visceral impact it naturally has on the reader or audience.  In Dannenberg’s words: “…the kinship recognition scenario is so basic in human experience that, when activated in narrative fiction, it has the power to override the potentially reality-destroying signals of implausibility in the coincidence plot.”27   Dannenberg also points out that Brontë veers away from a straightforward providential explanation for this coincidence.28   In an earlier chapter she makes reference, through Jane, to hidden sympathies that could well be behind the occurrence of otherwise unlikely coincidences, including the coming together of estranged family members:

Sympathies, I believe, exist (for instance, between far-distant, long-absent, wholly estranged relatives asserting, notwithstanding their alienation, the unity of the source to which each traces his origin) whose workings baffle mortal comprehension. And signs, for aught we know, may be but the sympathies of Nature with man.29

This is a pre-Christian view that was not entirely extinguished with the ascendency of the Church and indeed ran parallel to it, especially in the thinking of the medieval alchemists and natural philosophers.  Jung refers to it as a possible background explanation for synchronicity, citing in his monograph this quote from Hippocrates, who lived in the fifth century BCE: “There is one common flow, one common breathing, all things are in sympathy. The whole organism and each of its parts are working in conjunction for the same purpose.”30   In Jung’s opinion this sort of thinking was still very much alive in the Europe of the mid-twentieth century,31 so how much more so in Brontë’s time, despite the providential perspective so dominant before the ascendency of secularism. 

A few months after the kinship discovery and the distribution of funds, St John asks Jane to accompany him to India.  He plans to become a missionary there and feels that Jane would make an ideal wife.  Jane recoils at this idea but finds herself weakening in the face of his insistence. 

Finally she says to him, “…were I but convinced that it is God’s will I should marry you, I could vow to marry you here and now…”32  St John is overjoyed for he believes it is indeed God’s will that this should happen.  Jane prays to Heaven for direction and is almost immediately answered with the thrill of an intense feeling, followed by a distinct voice calling her name.  St John hears it too, and Jane knows with certainty it is the voice of Edward Rochester and that he desperately needs her. From this moment it is all over with St John Rivers and nothing else needs to be said.  The next day Jane goes to the crossroads and takes the same coach she came on so she can be with Rochester.  On arrival she discovers that there has been a fire which has left Rochester blind and in which his deranged wife has died.  There is a silver lining, however, in that now Jane is free to marry him without committing bigamy.

At their reunion Rochester reveals to Jane that at a particular time four days earlier he was in such desperate straits and longed for Jane so much that he cried out loud for her, repeating her name a number of times.  Jane does not tell him but the timing tallies exactly with when she heard his voice calling her.  This is the final coincidence of the book and one that Dannenberg describes as not following “the normal patterns of the traditional coincidental encounter but borders on Jungian synchronicity.”33   However the coincidence might be categorised, whether as a synchronistic event, or what seems most likely, a straightforward and direct case of heart-felt telepathy at a moment of profound need, it certainly provides a dramatic and satisfying finale for the enthralled reader.  There is a further providential touch as well, for Rochester regains partial sight in one eye, allowing him to be able to see both Jane and their newborn son.

Coincidences in the Modern Era

Before leaving the nineteenth century, it is worth mentioning that when a particular author’s name is entered into an internet search along with ‘coincidence’, the name that comes up with by far the most entries is that of Charles Dickens. Unfortunately, there is insufficient space in this essay to explore the many ways in which Dickens used coincidence to augment his plots.  The same applies for Thomas Hardy and George Elliot.  The late nineteenth century, very much as a consequence of Darwin’s Origin of the Species, was a time of increasing secularism, which not unsurprisingly resulted in a widespread rejection of the notion of providence.  George Elliot, for example, while she did not believe in providence herself, created characters like Silas Marner who did.  She used all the techniques of the providential tradition, including obvious coincidences, but did not subscribe to its premises.34   A contemporary reviewer, W. H. Mallock, made the following observation about Eliot towards the end of her life: “She is the first great godless writer of fiction that has appeared in England.”35

Moving into the twentieth century, there is little let-up, despite the increasing secularisation of society, in the use of coincidences by novelists.  A wonderfully blatant example is to be found in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, which first came out in 1934.  The murder of a particularly unpleasant American millionaire has been meticulously planned beforehand by twelve people who have all suffered profoundly because of a vicious murder he committed a few years earlier.  They book sleeping cabins on the Orient Express from Istanbul to Paris alongside the millionaire, filling up all the first class compartments, except for one, which fortuitously becomes occupied at the eleventh hour by none other than the world famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.  According to Isaac Anderson, writing in the New York Times Book Review of March 4, 1934: “The great Belgian detective’s guesses are more than shrewd; they are positively miraculous.  Although both the murder plot and the solution verge upon the impossible, Agatha Christie has contrived to make them appear quite convincing for the time being, and what more than that can a mystery addict desire?”36

What more indeed? And the same goes for fans of P. G. Wodehouse, who for over a century have revelled in both his impeccable use of English and the deft marshalling of coincidences that form the fabric of his extremely funny stories.  Like Dostoevsky, he was well aware of what he was doing in terms of coincidental encounters, and in an early scene in Heavy Weather, also first published in 1934, Wodehouse brings in fate as part of his narrative.  Having been fired from his position as assistant editor of the children’s paper Tiny Tots by its proprietor, a chastened Monty Bodkin leaves Lord Tilbury’s office “erect and dignified, like some young aristocrat of the French Revolution stepping into the tumbril.”37  Fate steps in at this point and makes a crucial decision:

A month’s salary in his pocket, chagrin in his heart, and in his soul that urgent desire for a quick one which comes to young men at times like this, Monty Bodkin stood hesitating in the doorway of Tilbury House.  And Fate, watching him, found itself compelled to do a bit of swift thinking.

‘Now, shall I,’ mused Fate, ‘send this sufferer to have his snort at the Bunch of Grapes round the corner?  Or shall I put him in a taxi and push him off to the Drones Club, where he will meet his old friend, Hugo Carmody, with momentous results?’

It was no light decision to have to make.  Much depended on it.  It would affect the destinies of Ronald Fish and his betrothed, Sue Brown; of Clarence, ninth Earl of Emsworth, and his pig, Empress of Blandings; of Lord Tilbury, of the Mammoth Publishing Company; of Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe, Bart, of Matchingham Hall; and of that unpleasant little man, Percy Pilbeam, late editor of Society Spice and now proprietor of the Argus Private Inquiry Agency.

‘H’m!’ said Fate.

‘Oh, dash it!’ said Fate. ‘Let’s make it the Drones.’38

By playing around humorously with the idea of fate, Wodehouse at the same time highlights its ability to set in motion a chain of events with profound consequences for the characters involved.  Lighhearted though his stories may be, they are saturated with intended irony, largely directed at the English upper classes, and coincidences abound.  The reason why Monty Bodkin has been fired is because the editor of Tiny Tots is away on holiday and as assistant editor, Monty has taken charge.  The timing for the editor’s holiday is an opportunity for Monty to add a little spice to the Tiny Tots column ‘Uncle Woggly to his Chicks’, the first paragraph of which reads: “Well, chickabiddies, how are you all?  Minding what Nursie says and eating your spinach like good little men?  That’s right.  I know the stuff tastes like a motorman’s glove, but they say there’s iron in it, and that’s what puts hair on your chest.”39   And this, plus the rest of the column, gives Lord Tilbury the excuse he needs to dispense with Monty’s services, and allows fate to take over proceedings.  

If not fate so described, then certainly a distinct sense of fatalism runs through what is generally regarded as one of the great literary achievements of the twentieth century, Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, first published in its original Italian in 1958 as Il Gattopardo.  It is a historical novel and concerns the decay and gradual disintegration of a Sicilian noble family, the Salinas, seen largely through the eyes of the book’s central character, Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina.  The book begins during the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, specifically with the landing of Garibaldi on the west coast of Sicily in 1860 and the subsequent fall of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.  There are some historical coincidences that emerge as part of the plot, including the timing of the opening scene with Garibaldi’s landing, but these are not inappropriate.  After all, the action has to begin somewhere and part of Lampedusa’s purpose in writing the novel was to make certain observations about the era as well as about his family, with the figure of the Prince based on his own great-grandfather.40

The Leopard was published posthumously and was the only novel Lampedusa wrote. It is not particularly filled with coincidences, although there are a number of interactions and fortuitous meetings the Prince has where he is able to express his views.  These interactions are important for the reader’s understanding of the Prince’s character as well as the era, and as with the historical coincidences are part of the fabric of the book.  However, there is a major coincidence that occurs in the second chapter, and the rather tragic direction of the storyline flows from it.

Briefly, there is a genuine affection developing between Concetta, the second of the Princes’s three daughters, and Tancredi, his nephew and ward.  The family have moved for the season to their palace at Donnafugata and the affection continues to grow between Concetta and Tancredi, to the extent that Concetta confides to the family priest that she is sure Tancredi is about to propose.  But alas, that same evening – and it is the timing that makes the coincidence – the rapacious, very wealthy and corrupt mayor of Donnafugata, very much a Mafioso prototype, presents his seventeen-year-old daughter Angelica at the palace.   The relatively impoverished Tancredi is duly smitten and from there it is all downhill for Concetta, who with her two sisters remains a spinster, which in a sense is the central tragedy of the book.  Don Fabrizio prefers his nephew to any of his seven children and this is another element of the tragedy and doubly ensures the unravelling of the House of Salina.  

There is, however, a twist to the tale in a coincidental coda that takes place in the last chapter and which concerns the now aging Concetta, revealing to her what might have been had she reacted to Tancredi’s initial infatuation with Angelica with less indignation and pride.  A glimpse into the origin of that hauteur is hinted at in the penultimate chapter when, as he nears the end of his life, Don Fabrizio reflects that “in Concetta’s beauty and character was prolonged the true Salina strain.”41 Certainly Lampedusa uses coincidences as elements of the structural framework for his story.  But it is the ideas and insights that shine through, along with the descriptive excellence of the writing.  

The Case of Doctor Zhivago

Like Lampedusa, Boris Pasternak only wrote one novel, though unlike Lampedusa he was able to see its publication while he was still alive.  That might well not have happened given the antagonism of the Soviet censors.  But Pasternak refused to be deterred, and in 1956 the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago was successfully smuggled out of the Soviet Union by an Italian journalist.  In 1957, an Italian translation was published by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who in 1958 also published The Leopard.  Feltrinelli took a risk in both cases – political in the one and financial in the other, The Leopard having been rejected by the major Italian publishers.  Both books were instant successes and were widely praised as well as widely translated.  The literary critic V. S. Pritchett described Doctor Zhivagoas “the first work of genius to come out of Russia since the Revolution,”42and The Leopard as “perhaps the greatest novel of the century.”43 

The focus here, though, is not any tenuous set of coincidences between the two books, but rather on the coincidences to be found within Doctor Zhivago, which are not only prolific but were also a deliberate choice on the part of Pasternak.  As the English poet and writer John Wain observed: “Most novelists have been studious of probability; Pasternak goes out of his way to introduce walloping coincidences.”44    But perhaps the description “walloping coincidences” is an understatement. The coincidences in the novel from its very outset and at several levels are unrelenting and far too profuse even to try to enumerate.  But just to take a few of the coincidences surrounding the two main characters, Yuri Zhivago and Lara Guichard: there are the strange circumstances of their first coming across one another in their youth; their unexpected encounters on the battlefield during the First World War, where he is a doctor and she a nurse; and again fortuitously meeting after the Zhivago family moves to the Urals to get away from Moscow and the effects of the Revolution.  

Their connection starts early on, even before they are introduced to one another, and remains throughout their lives, though they are not really conscious of its depth until near the end of their days together.  As a girl in Moscow Lara is seduced by her mother’s financial advisor and lover, the lawyer Komarovsky, and to take revenge a few years later she decides to shoot him at a Christmas party which Yuri has also been invited to.  Fortunately she misses.  Yuri witnesses what happens but does not stay, and the incident is smoothed over by Komarovsky.  This is the same Komarovsky who is to blame for a once wealthy businessman leaping to his death from a train.  The action takes place in the first chapter, across the fields from where a twelve-year-old Yuri happens to be staying with his uncle.  Also on that train is Misha Gordon who is later to become a close friend of Yuri and on whom the suicide had bestowed much affection before he jumped, affection that was clearly meant for his own son of the same age, whom he had abandoned.  

A few years pass, and one day, while still schoolboys, Yuri and Misha accompany a doctor to a hotel where a woman has tried to poison herself.  The situation is not dangerous but before they leave, they observe a man emerge from behind the partition where the woman is recovering.  On his way out, he gives a powerfully controlling glance of complicity to a girl sitting in the room.  Though unaware of who she is, this is Yuri’s first glimpse of Lara. She lives in the hotel room with her mother, who has already been jilted in favour of her daughter:

‘Do you know who that man is?’ said Misha when they came out onto the street. 

Yura, busy with his thoughts, did not reply.

‘He’s the one who made your father drink and caused his death.  The lawyer who was in the train with him – you remember, I told you.’

Yura was thinking about the girl and the future, not about his father and the past.

At first he could not even understand what he was talking about, and anyway it was too cold to talk.’45

Many years later, when they are living together in the Ural town of Yuryatin, Yuri recounts these details to Lara.  She remembers Yuri being there on that day but had not realised Komarovsky had been the bane of his life as well as hers.  Her immediate response is: “’It isn’t possible!  How extraordinary!  Can it really be true?  So he was a tragic influence in your life too!  It brings us even closer, doesn’t it!  It’s as if it were all predestined!’”46   Predestined it all may have been but the concept itself, that everything is fixed and preordained, is far too restrictive an explanation for the fecundity of coincidences and significant interactions that take place in Dr Zhivago.  Perhaps a more satisfactory explanation is that mentioned earlier in connection with Jane Eyre, the idea of hidden sympathies and the coming together of affinities; the principle of correspondentia that Jung sees, quoting Hippocrates, as a possible explanation for synchronistic events: “There is one common flow, one common breathing, all things are in sympathy.”47   

Indeed, there are coincidences in the novel that only the reader is aware of – not the characters – that strongly suggest hidden sympathies.  One of the most significant of these is the burning candle Yuri sees in a window as he and Tonya, his wife-to-be, are driven in a sleigh to the Christmas party at which Lara will attempt to shoot Komarovsky.  Yuri has no way of knowing that an agitated and determined Lara is in the room with Pasha, her husband-to-be, and has asked him to turn off the electric lights so that they can talk with just a candle glowing.  In the text the effect of the candle is thus described: “Its light seemed to fall on the street as deliberately as a glance, as if its flame were keeping watch on the passing of carriages and waiting for someone.”48   Yuri is moved by the candlelight and the stirrings of a poem arise within him: “’A candle burned on the table, a candle burned…’ he whispered to himself – the confused formless beginning of a poem,”49   which later becomes Winter Night and is included at the end of the novel as one of Zhivago’s poems. After the publication of Doctor Zhivago, in a letter he wrote in reply to an English schoolteacher, Pasternak provided the following insight into both his method and his understanding of reality:

The objective world in my habitual, natural grasping, is a vast infinite inspiration, that sketches, erases, chooses, compares and describes and composes itself… living, moving reality in such a rendering must have a touch of spontaneous subjectivity, even of arbitrariness, wavering, tarrying, doubting, joining and disjoining elements…  Over and above the times, events and persons there is a nature, a spirit of their very succession.  The frequent coincidences in the plot are (in this case) not the secret, trick expedients of the novelist.  They are traits to characterise the somewhat wilful, free, fanciful flow of reality.  (Letter in English to John Harris, 8 February 1959)50

In the above passage there is the sentence, “Over and above the times, events and persons there is a nature, a spirit of their very succession.”  In the last part of the book, when their relationship is developing into its full flowering, Yuri explains to Lara what his actual experience was when he first saw her in the hotel, held by Komarovsky’s glance.  From that moment she became embedded in his being, to such a depth that even his beautiful and devoted Tonya could not touch it. The second time Yuri saw Lara was when she tried to shoot Komarovsky, very soon after the strangely telepathic moment occasioned by the candle in the window.  It would almost certainly have been a profoundly meaningful coincidence for him: “Yura was dumbfounded. – This girl again!  And again in such extraordinary circumstances!  And again that grey-haired man was near her.”51  When Yuri much later expresses to Lara the extent of his feeling, one that he is able to trace to their very first encounter, the timeless quality of their love is revealed in its fullness:  

‘That night, as a schoolgirl in your coffee-coloured uniform, in the shadow of the room at your hotel, you were already as you are now, you were just as overwhelmingly lovely.

‘Later, I have often tried to name and to define the enchantment of which you  sowed the seeds in me – that gradually fading light and dying sound which have spread throughout the whole of my being and have become to me the means of understanding everything else in the world through you.

‘When you – a shadow in a schoolgirl’s dress – arose out of the shadows of that  room, I – a boy, ignorant of you – with all the torment of the strength of my response, at once understood: this scraggy little girl was charged, as with electrical waves, with all the femininity in the world.  Had I touched you at that moment with so much as the tip of my finger, a spark would have lit up the room and either killed me on the spot or filled me for the rest of my life with a magnetic flow of plaintive longing and sorrow.  I was full to the brim with tears, I wept and blazed inwardly…’

Lara lay dressed on the edge of her bed… Sometimes she raised herself on her elbow, propped her chin on her hand and gazed at him open mouthed.  At other times she buried her head in his shoulder and cried silently with joy, without noticing her tears.  A last she leaned out of bed, put her arms around him and whispered happily:

‘Yuri, my darling, how you know everything, how you guess everything. Yuri darling, you are my strength and my refuge, God forgive me the blasphemy.  Oh, I am so happy.’52

No Coincidence, No Story?

An internet search on using coincidences in fiction comes up with consistent advice to the budding writer to be wary of them though not necessarily to dismiss them out of hand, and in some cases quite the contrary.  According to the contemporary novelist Alice Mattison, clearly a proponent of an intelligent use of coincidences in fiction: “Coincidence is often what gives fiction its chance to mean something.  When two things come together, improbably or not, a spark is struck.  Making those things happen simultaneously suggests that meaning is just beyond the surface.”53   This is very much the position adopted by Pasternak.  In contrast, the writer Michael Kurland, author of thirty novels, is of the opinion that too many coincidences spoil the plot and are generally to be avoided.  He recommends one or two at the most in order to avoid a ‘yeah, right’ response from readers: “We’re all entitled to one whizz-bang coincidence that either starts our story or turns it into a new and unexpected direction…  But put too many coincidences in a story, or make them too blatant, and you’re asking for that ‘yeah, right’ response.”54

Although Mattison and Kurland clearly have different approaches to the use of coincidences in fiction, they both accept that coincidences have a place in stories, and in that determination they are completely in accord with the historical record.  One of the aims of this essay, as mentioned earlier, is to determine whether it is possible to write fiction without recourse to coincidence. A small caveat is necessary here for, to quote another contemporary writer, Steven James: “We don’t typically think of it this way, but really all stories start with a coincidence.  Stories begin when the author dips into the stream of cause and effect and pulls out a moment that initiates all that will follow.”55   And he has this advice for aspiring authors: “Use the story’s opening sequence to justify incidents that would otherwise seem too convenient. This is where coincidences will fly under your readers’ radar.”56  

So apart from the opening scene, which readers in their suspension of disbelief must take as a given, is it possible to write a story without any coincidences whatsoever? Interestingly, I came up with one only clear articulation of this question from several attempts to scour the internet using a number of different search criteria.  No doubt this is an instance of the paucity of the internet in regard to being able to find answers to questions not commonly asked.  But the articulated question is direct and to the point, with the questioner asking on a writer’s forum: “Is it possible to write a [sic] fiction without a coincidence?”57   A number of affirmative but unconvincing answers are given, with one claiming that the best detective stories do not need coincidences. Unfortunately, the responder fails to provide a concrete example of even one, which rather weakens his or her case. Nevertheless, this view has some support from no less a mystery writer than P. D. James, who in an interview gave the following answer to a question about what might be out of bounds for detective stories: 

I think too great a coincidence. What’s interesting to me is that coincidence frequently happens in real life. We know in our experience that extraordinary coincidences happen, and they do, I think, very often [happen] in real-life investigations of murder.  But somehow it isn’t right in the mystery…  We shouldn’t rely on an extraordinary coincidence.  I think that the clues have got to arise naturally — from the circumstances of the book and the people, the characters — and not be inserted rather artificially.58

While P. D. James advises against overreliance on coincidences, she does not repudiate them out of hand.  So could there be a place for coincidences in detective fiction?  Agatha Christie was obviously not averse to them but can we say the same for the great French writer of the police procedural, Georges Simenon? Taking at random two of his Maigret novels, Liberty Bar and Maigret and the Idle Burglar, written thirty years apart, we can observe Simenon’s changing attitude to coincidence over time. In Liberty Bar there is an important coincidence in one of the early chapters that leads gradually and very cleverly to Maigret’s being able to find the murderer.  The coincidence itself is a simple one: after making enquiries at the victim’s residence, Maigret makes the mistake of picking up the victim’s gabardine instead of his own.  He carries it out under his arm and only realises when he gets back to his hotel. But what he finds in one of the pockets is the clue he needs to proceed in an otherwise perplexing case.  And such is Simenon’s command of the action on the page that this seemingly innocuous coincidence is very likely to go straight under the reader’s radar.

In Maigret and the Idle Burglar, Maigret is called to the scene of the crime when procedurally he should not have been, and happens to recognise the victim before the body is removed.  Much of the early description in the novel revolves around Maigret’s memories of the victim, the ‘idle burglar’ of the title, of whom he was very fond.  In regard to the use of coincidences, Simenon allows himself much more liberty in the later novel, which of course is his right as an accomplished author whose craft and skill affirm him as one of the very best, whatever the genre.  According to André Gide, he was “the greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have in literature.”59

A firm proponent of the dictum ‘no coincidence, no story’ is the English professor Walter R. McDonald, author of the journal article ‘Coincidence in the Novel: a Necessary Technique’.  He writes: “Coincidence is the stuff fiction is made of; the necessary trick of the writer is to make the coincidence seem natural.”60   McDonald gives several examples of how coincidences are used in fiction, citing in particular William Faulkner’s Light in August and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and makes the observation that novels are by their very nature inundated with coincidences.  It is the writer’s skill, he argues, to piece various disparate occurrences together in such a way that their juxtaposition is accepted as natural by the reader. Just because a situation in a novel may not lookto the reader like a coincidence, it does not mean it is not a coincidence.  McDonald elucidates:

Some may object to my calling ‘coincidental’ those events which are obviously successfully related; they will say, justly, that once the events are functionally related to what precedes and follows them, they are by definition no longer coincidences – that is they do not lack apparent causal connection.  As true as this is, they are still arguing from the effect on the  reader; it does not analyse the writer’s technique of bringing together disparate elements to create his coherent, suspensefully involving story.61

And a couple of paragraphs later:

If the writer consistently pulls off his trick, letting us believe that these events are growing out of the given story, then we read on, and the characters take on a life independent of their creator.  In other words, the magic of literature has happened to us again.62

Recent Developments in Literary Coincidence

There are so many examples of coincidence in twentieth century literature that could be explored here, beginning with the works of Joseph Conrad, the title of one of whose bestselling novels is Chance and which involves the exploration of just that.  He also wrote the short story, The Secret Sharer, which involves a doppelgänger relationship and is almost pure coincidence from beginning to end.  And then there is James Joyce, with whom Pasternak has been compared in terms of coincidental allusions.63   However, both these writers are from the early decades of the twentieth century, as indeed have been most of the post-Victorian examples discussed.  So jumping ahead to the early eighties we encounter Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, an example of what Hillary Dannenberg identifies as a postmodern literary approach to coincidence, where deliberate textual ambiguity pushes the reader to make his or her own interpretations.  Indeed, Dannenberg regards Flaubert’s Parrot as representing “the zenith of the postmodernist coincidence plot, since it provides a complex and multifarious fabric of analogical coincidences with extensive metanarrative comments on coincidences.”64   

The narrator in the novel is a retired doctor, Geoffrey Braithwaite, who is fascinated with the life and writings of Gustave Flaubert and has made a trip to Rouen ostensibly to discover whether the stuffed parrot Flaubert wrote about still exists.  But a deeper motive for his exploration, as it gradually dawns on the reader, is Braithwaite’s need to understand his wife’s suicide. The major analogical coincidence in Flaubert’s Parrot is that between Emma Bovary, the protagonist of Flaubert’s most famous novel, Madame Bovary, and Braithwaite’s wife Ellen.  They are both serially unfaithful to their reliable husbands, and both commit suicide.  Like Braithwaite, Emma’s cuckolded husband Charles is a doctor.  Dannenberg describes such coincidences as analogical because they are not directly concerned with the plot of the story but rather are “cognitively constructed through the perception of correspondences.”65   

In this case, the perception of correspondences is not only Braithwaite’s but also the reader’s. Are the coincidences between the Bovarys and the Braithwaites genuinely meaningful, in other words, are they synchronistic? Or are they for Braithwaite ironic indications of a heavy handed fate that he does not really believe in?  Or is Braithwaite’s obsession with Flaubert in fact triggered by these correspondences?  In true postmodern style, it is up to the reader to come to his or her own conclusions, both about the correspondences themselves and about what they might mean to Braithwaite.  An indication can be found in a chapter appropriately titled ‘Snap!’, in which Braithwaite addresses the question of coincidences. Much of this is in line with the rejection of coincidence in fiction briefly discussed in the previous section: 

And as for coincidences in books – there’s something cheap and sentimental about the device; it can’t help seeming aesthetically gimcrack.  The troubadour who passes just in time to rescue the girl from a hedgerow scuffle; the sudden but convenient Dickensian benefactors; the neat shipwreck on the foreign shore which reunites siblings and lovers.66   

But a little further on he brings in the notion of coincidence as irony:

One way of legitimising coincidences, of course, is to call them ironies.  That’s what smart people do. Irony is, after all, the drinking companion for resonance and wit.  Who could be against it?  And yet sometimes I wonder if the wittiest, most resonant irony isn’t just a well-brushed, well-educated coincidence.67

There is no attempt by Braithwaite to explain coincidences, or even to dismiss them as ‘mere chance’, though that seems very much to be the attitude he would arrive at if pushed.  The beginning of the book starts with Braithwaite’s search for the Flaubert’s stuffed parrot, and he finds that both the museums in Rouen dedicated to Flaubert have what they consider to be the actual parrot.  If this is a coincidence, it is a causally induced one, as well as potentially a witty and resonant irony.  He later learns that Flaubert borrowed a stuffed parrot from the Museum of Rouen and also returned it.  And at the end of the book Braithwaite recounts a visit to the natural history section of the Museum of Rouen, where he finds three other parrots that could just as easily have been Flaubert’s, not counting any that might be missing from the collection or had been thrown out over time because of deterioration.  

Jumping ahead another thirty years to early twenty-tens, we come to an adventurous and entertaining novel that deals directly with the subject of coincidence, J. W. Ironmonger’s The Coincidence Authority (published in the US simply as Coincidence) There has been a considerable amount written about coincidences over the last twenty or thirty years, very much in line with the general increase in public interest in spiritual matters.  At the same time, a number of books have been released debunking concepts such as synchronicity and the idea that things are ‘meant to be’ by showing how even the most extraordinary coincidences can be explained mathematically.  All this provides a great opportunity for Ironmonger to write about coincidences and their interpretation in a fictional scenario.  

One of the two main characters in The Coincidence Authority is Thomas Post, a lecturer in Applied Philosophy at London University’s Institute of Philosophy.  He is known as the ‘Coincidence Man’ because of his interest in coincidences and his zeal in being able to account for them mathematically.  The other is the highly coincidence-prone Azalea Lewis, also at London University, teaching English literature at Birkbeck.  They first encounter one another in a serious pile up on an escalator at Euston station, in which they are literally thrown together. Thomas breaks an arm and Azalea a rib. They are taken to one side by paramedics and find themselves “propped up on the cold stone floor, leaning against a wall.  His broken arm was still draped around her shoulder as if they were a couple.  In shock and pain, neither of them sought to move it.”68    But then they are driven to different hospital emergency units so have no time for introductions.  Notwithstanding his condition, Thomas becomes acutely aware of Azalea and thinks of her during the next few days, wondering how he might find her again.  

With his arm in a plaster cast, Thomas is soon back at work and during a lecture he explains the famous ‘birthday problem’ which states that it is mathematically more than fifty percent likely in any group of twenty-three people for two of them to share a birthday. There are twenty-five students in the class, which with Thomas makes twenty-six, and not unexpectedly two people do share a birthday, Thomas being one of them.  What is rather more unexpected, however, is that the student he shares it with has the same surname, Post, and moreover his arm is also in a plaster cast.   Gasps of astonishment come from the class, but all this is grist for the mill for the Coincidence Man as he tells the students to go away and work out the probabilities. Shortly afterwards, as he is sitting back in his office enjoying a glow of satisfaction after the success of the lecture, Thomas gets a phone call and a woman’s voice is at the other end of the line:

‘Are you the Coincidence Authority?’ the voice asked.

Thomas laughed.  I’ve been called a lot of things but I don’t think I’ve ever been called that.’

There was an awkward silence.

‘All the same,’ he added, ‘I think I’m probably the person you want.’

‘Oh good.  I’m a colleague of yours,’ said the voice on the phone, ‘from Birkbeck. 

I’ve been reading your paper on coincidence.’

‘Well you won’t believe this,’ said Thomas, ‘but not only have I just come from delivering a lecture on coincidence, but I’m holding that very paper in my hand.  Well actually I’m not, because I have only one good hand at present, and that one is holding the telephone.  But I’m looking at that very paper on my desk.  So we have a coincidence right away.’

The woman laughed, and her laugh was like the tinkling of a wind chime. ‘What I should like,’ she said, ‘is to come and talk to you about it.’69

She arrives at his office some twenty minutes later and – no surprise to the reader – turns out to be Azalea.  The entire book is full of coincidences of this calibre, alongside shifts backwards and forwards in time as the multiple strands of the story unfold, with scenery changes from the Isle of Man to northern Uganda.  As anticipated, Thomas and Azalea fall in love, though their relationship is tested by their different perceptions of the nature of coincidences and the reasons for their occurrence.  The intensity of Azalea’s proneness to coincidence almost throws Thomas off his convictions and mathematical explanations.   But not until the very end is the unexpected solution to Thomas’s conundrum revealed. With its mindboggling array of coincidences and its leaps across time, The Coincidence Authority is very much a postmodern novel, though it may with its ending be knocking on the doors of a stage beyond the characteristic irony and nihilism of postmodernism, exploration of which is beyond the scope of this essay. 

A Very Brief Coda

This essay began with a reference to my unexpected and fortuitous encounter with the Dostoevsky translator, Ignat Avsey.  When I started on this project, I thought about getting in touch with Avsey to thank him for our very brief interaction and for suggesting that I read his translation of The Karamazov Brothers, also for his highly engaging translation of The Idiot which I had only recently come across.  Sadly, I discovered that he had died of cancer in 2013 at the age of seventy-five.  The following is from Ignat Avsey’s obituary in The Guardian, written by the publisher Antony Wood:

He breathed new life into not only two of Dostoevsky’s best-known novels (The Karamazov Brothers and The Idiot) but also two of his least-known (The Village of Stepanchikovo and Humiliated and Insulted)…  I first met Ignat in 1982 when offered, as a publisher, his first translation, of Dostoevsky’s black-comic novel The Village of Stepanchikovo.  With his obsessions, limitless ambition, unpredictable mood swings and unquenchable flow of language – which I learned to stem on occasion with a deft movement of the hand – he seemed to walk straight out of that novel.70

As a small thank you to Avsey, I would like to recommend Part 2, Chapter 5 of The Idiot, especially the last few pages.  Here we have a powerful and shocking coincidence that in one way or another involves all the categories suggested at the start of this essay.  Ideally, one should read the novel from the beginning, which is not so difficult with Avsey’s translation.  Dostoevsky really does bring a whirlwind of lived intensity to the page, and he does not appear to be particularly concerned one way or the other by the presence of coincidence in his plotting.  As with all great literature, it is the brilliance of the writing that counts, and the effect that it has on the reader.  Of course coincidences happen in everyday life, so why should they not occur in novels? The approach to them might need to be a little different, as P. D. James and others have suggested, but just as coincidences are an integral part of the fabric of everyday life so too are they an integral part of the fabric of fiction. 


1.   Dostoevsky, The Idiot, i. 

2.   Ibid., 3. 

3.   e.g. Ibid., 92-122, 161-82; .

4.   Browne, The Many Faces of Coincidence, 115-16, 176.

5.   e.g. Plimmer and King, Beyond Coincidence; Vaughan, Incredible Coincidence.

6.   Reichenbach, The Direction of Time, 147; Rosenthal, Struck byLightning, 21-22.

7.   Lander, “Who Invented the Telephone?”

8.   Sober, “Coincidences and How to Reason about Them,” 366.

9.   Elyachar, “Samsung To Pay Apple $539 Million For Replicating iPhone Design.”

10.  Tart, The End of Materialism; Radin, Supernormal, 130-99.

11.  e.g. Dossey, Premonitions; Sheldrake, The Science Delusion; Tart, The End of Materialism.

12.  Jung, Synchronicity, 51, 124.

13.  Sophocles, Oedipus Rex.

14.  Pullman, Grimm Tales, 200-05; Grimm, Household Tales.

15. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, “Providence.”

16.  in Vargish, The Providential Aesthetic in Victorian Fiction, 16.

17.  Shakespeare, Hamlet, 5.2.210-15.

18.  Vargish, The Providential Aesthetic in Victorian Fiction, 6.

19.  Ibid., 6.

20.  Brontë, Jane Eyre, 291.

21.  Inglis, Coincidence, 150.

22.  Jung, Synchronicity, 141.

23.  Browne, The Many Faces of Coincidence, 17-18.

24.  von Franz, Projection and Re-Collection in Jungian Psychology, 91.

25.  Brontë, Jane Eyre, 341.

26.  Ibid.

27. Dannenberg, Coincidence and Counterfactuality, 32.

28.  Ibid., 154.

29.  Brontë, Jane Eyre, 193.

30.  Jung, Synchronicity, 101.

31.  Ibid.

32.  Brontë, Jane Eyre, 371.

33.  Dannenberg, Coincidence and Counterfactuality, 154.

34.  Vargish, The Providential Aesthetic in Victorian Fiction, 164-65.

35.  Ibid., 165.

36. Anderson, “Murder on the Orient Express.”

37. Wodehouse, Heavy Weather, 18.

38.  Ibid., 18-19.

39.  Ibid., 13.

40. Lampedusa, The Leopard, xi-x.

41.  Ibid., 192.

42.  Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, trans. Hayward, front page.

43.  Lampedusa, The Leopard, back cover.

44.  Wain, The Meaning of Dr. Zhivago, 115.

45.  Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, trans. Hayward, 65.

46.  Ibid., 360.

47.  Jung, Synchronicity, 101.

48. Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, trans. Hayward, 81.

49.  Ibid.

50. Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, trans. Pevear, xiii.

51.  Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, trans. Hayward, 85.

52.  Ibid., 383.

53. Mattison, “How to Write Coincidence the Right Way.”

54.  Kurland, “Yeah, right! Coincidences in fiction.”

55.  James, “What a Coincidence: 7 Clever Strategies for Harnessing Coincidences in Fiction.”

56.  Ibid.

57.  Writing Stack Exchange, “Can fiction be written without a coincidence?”

58.  NPR Fresh Air. “P.D. James Believed Mysteries Were Made Of Clues, Not Coincidences.”

59.  Simenon, Liberty Bar, front page.

60. McDonald, “Coincidence in the Novel: a Necessary Technique,” 373.

61.  Ibid., 374.

62.  Ibid.

63.  Cornwell, James Joyce and the Russians, 62.

64.  Dannenberg, Coincidence and Counterfactuality, 170.

65.  Ibid., 105.

66.  Barnes, Flaubert’s Parrot, 67.

67.  Ibid.

68. Ironmonger, Coincidence, 44.

69.  Ibid., 48.

70.  Wood, “Ignat Avsey Obituary.”


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————-. Doctor Zhivago.Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  London: Vintage, 2011.

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