Both Nancy Armstrong and Elaine Freedgood are interested in the novel as an agent: a thing, to use Freedgood’s term of choice, which does something to subjects. In Armstrong’s all-encompassing formulation, the novel creates them, literally forming the modern subject; in Freedgood’s study, the novel—specifically, the Victorian realist novel—mystifies the subject’s relation to the world by restricting the range of meanings readers attribute to the “things” it represents.
The goal of The Ideas in Things is to redress this situation, restoring to objects in Victorian fiction some of the semiotic richness that, Freedgood claims, their novelistic context obscures. This is a context in which, she argues, both a narrow range of critical concerns and the mystifying effects of the novels themselves render “things” of interest chiefly—or only—to the extent that they function as metonyms for character. Realism, says Freedgood, teaches readers that some details signify and others do not; thus the well-known example of Balzac’s barometer signifies the real for Roland Barthes precisely because it cannot be said to signify anything more. As Freedgood points out, the challenge of the barometer’s meaning has been taken up by Bill Brown, who, “reading it beyond the covers of the text” (12), discusses its “evocative meaning in the Aubain parlor, in the ambient culture in which the story was written, and in our critical reading of it” (11). Less an improvement on Brown’s reading than an extended, theoretically rich justification for it, Freedgood’s project is also an exercise in demonstrating its practical results. The book thus speaks to the continued pull of the realist impulse in criticism, in the guise of a promise to reveal the truth behind appearances.
Freedgood takes on four “things,” or more precisely three things and one kind of thing: the mahogany furnishings of Jane Eyre’s red room; Negro Head tobacco in Great Expectations; cotton curtains in Mary Barton; and a variety of objects in Middlemarch, including Dorothea’s plain dress and the emeralds she can’t bring herself to wear. The argument also enlists in its service several non-literary texts, such as English Furniture from Charles II to George III and discussions of Australia in the Victorian periodical press, with an eye toward restoring details that would have informed the cultural climate of the novels’ composition. Following the example of Edward Said’s restoration of Mansfield Park’s colonial context, Freedgood places special emphasis on the violence involved in the production and circulation of these objects: violence obscured, in a distribution of blame whose ratios never become entirely clear, by the things themselves; the novels in which they appear; the readers of these novels, and the realist project itself.
Thus the mahogany furnishings Jane Eyre uses to furnish Moor House are said to conceal the colonial history that brought the wood itself to England; mahogany in this reading refers both to the sadism in Jane’s own history and an unacknowledged history of deforestation, colonization, and slavery. Similarly, the sadly-named Negro head tobacco smoked by Magwitch in Great Expectations “encrypts” the story of the destruction of Aboriginal peoples in Australia, the site to which the tobacco may be traced. These meanings are “stored” in the representations themselves, writes Freedgood, and non-literary texts enable her to uncover the meanings “latent” in them (103). The goal of her readings is to transform customary objects of what she calls “weak metonymy”(2-3), or reading-for-character, into occasions for “strong metonymy” (15-17), restoring a host of historical, cultural, and social associations. Freedgood suggests that our emphasis on commodity culture suppresses awareness of a historical moment preceding fetishization and commodification, in which the histories of these things “spoke” more loudly and variously to readers than they do today. She calls this hypothetical culture “thing culture” —a somewhat elusive concept that nevertheless helps to remind us that the commodification story is just one of many possible stories Victorian things can tell.
Repressed; encrypted; stored: Freedgood’s argument relies heavily on metaphors that themselves encrypt assumptions about the mute “thing’s” relation to its past, and in general locates blame in the realist text itself. But readers are also said to find comfort in the ignorance this repression makes possible. Where, however, is the contemporary reader—especially in Freedgood’s intended audience—who reads “reflexively” and “thematically,” “picking out metaphors” and relying on represented objects chiefly for their capacity to illustrate character? More familiar is the kind of reader who (or reading that) supplements textual analysis with what feels like an admonitory trip to the library, in which what is inevitably discovered is a scene, similar to those described here, of repressed or disguised violence: the reader Eve Sedgwick identified some time ago as the agent (or perhaps victim, or perhaps both) of a certain kind of paranoia. Thus while Freedgood provides exemplary illustrations of the genre as well as a fluid and intelligent theoretical justification for it, readers will not be surprised to find that mahogany in Jane Eyre, tobacco in Great Expectations, and cotton curtains in Mary Barton tell roughly the same story as the tea, sugar, and other goods that circulate throughout Victorian realist fiction as they did in Victorian everyday life. Freedgood does, however, return these things to their novels in edifying ways, as in a discussion of the way in which Mary Barton’s domestic objects signify their potential value outside the home, as pawn shops become repositories of items given up as the need arises (75).
She also offers a somewhat tortuous glimpse into the guilt structure that, she suggests, compels not just her own critical project but those of others as well. Motivated by a desire not to fetishize the violence of which she writes and yet still to write about it; urged on by her wish to keep teaching the ideologically-flawed novels that provide pleasure even as they shamelessly seek to hide their violent history, Freedgood enlists “us” as collaborators in the business of bad realist reading:
[R]eaders do not habitually or reflexively stop and ponder the meaning of Magwitch’s preferred tobacco—realism doesn’t work that way, or rather, we haven’t allowed it to as yet. (Perhaps part of our problem with this form is the amount of cultural work we have attributed to it at the manifest level). As I’ve noted earlier, realism has seemed to have a low threshold of interpretability and therefore we must be careful about what we choose as meaningful in the welter of detail it serves up—indeed, such care is the hallmark of sophisticated criticism, or literary reading as we have so far known it. . . . Many of us are both deeply connected to, and admiring of, the texts we read, teach, and write about for a living, but we are also haunted by the cultural work such works have performed.107, 109
Again, a certain unsteadiness characterizes the assignment of blame: is it that realism doesn’t work that way, or that “we” haven’t allowed it to? Or does the impossibility of being able, finally, to decide tell us all we need to know about “our” investment in realist representation? What Freedgood describes as a “to-and-fro” relationship to the genre characterizes not just the reader’s purported love-hate attitude toward the realist text, but also the question of where this book wants to say the fault lies. It was perhaps this instability that provoked in me a desire to reject the passage’s embrace, to look for a way out of the dilemma: by reminding myself, as both of these books do so well, that the pleasures of realist reading, like the pleasures of realist critique, need not be bad or guilty ones.
For Freedgood, the fullness and “smoothness” of Victorian realism hides the meanings of things in part to protect readers against unwanted knowledge, “making possible” (again, for whom?) “a satisfyingly deficient relation to the real” (108). But the raw materials of Jane Eyre’s mahogany furniture and Mary Barton’s curtains have already been thoroughly domesticated, so that the story they seem naturally to tell—the one closest to the surface—is about English manufacture and English domesticity (Freedgood notes as well that objects themselves possess qualities she attributes to their realist representation). They furnish the lives lived among them in more than one way: mahogany’s glow reflects that of its owners, while a deal floor always being scrubbed perhaps bespeaks the conscientiousness and the compulsiveness—a response to the guilt described above?—of those who maintain it. Telling of these things’ origins requires the tracking down of a genealogy obscured not simply, and perhaps not chiefly, by novels, but also by the various activities of transportation, production, and transformation that produce the subject in whose image they are made: that produce, as well, the world in whose violent context “we” (professional readers and critics) continue to live. And if this is indeed the case—that novels and readers are made by the same process—then it’s no wonder “we” can’t quite pinpoint the exact location of the guilt, and no wonder that no amount of scrubbing (or literary criticism) seems capable of washing it away.
The recovery of a Victorian context in which readers “may” have read differently—and the “may” is Freedgood’s—never quite provides any evidence that they did. If “thing culture” existed, where are the recorded thoughts of its denizens? Where are the reflections of those readers for whom Jane Eyre provoked meditations on the history of mahogany, or for whom the mention of Negro head tobacco sparked reflection on the origins of the name? When Victorian readers read Jane Eyre or Mary Barton, did their knowledge of wood or of the origins of cotton curtains make a difference? Was the reader of English Furniture also a reader of Jane Eyre, and if so, did he or she make the connection? Or did novels efface these stories of colonization by means of the more successful colonization of their own willing victims, seduced into being the very kinds of subjects the novel needed them to be—the “satisfied” subjects they had, in other areas, such as home furnishing, already become? Readers for whom “things” reflected not their own displaced violence, but rather, and instead, their own pleasingly burnished images?
The world thus reflected is Armstrong’s chief concern: not the revelation of missing details about the manufacture of wood or curtains, but rather the way in which represented things in Victorian novels furnish and burnish readerly interiorities. If Freedgood’s book relies on a distinction between a novelistic world and one accessible through other kinds of texts, Armstrong’s relies on an always-blurred boundary between them: a world constituted in crucial ways by the novel. How Novels Think thus serves as a kind of corrective, should one be needed, to those too in love with the purported reality of the real, for the world it describes is one the novel, aided by other cultural discourses, creates: “the so-called external world,” as she puts it, that “serves as [the] medium of self-expression” for the making of individuals and nations (59). Like Freedgood, Armstrong sees realism as a genre of evasion, suppression, and dissimulation—not because it is more comfortable or pleasant to ignore the violent origins of one’s mahogany, but rather because this sleight-of-hand, she writes (in the characteristically take-no-prisoners formulation of her ongoing project) produces a universal template for modern subjectivity. For Armstrong, the fact that the novel transforms exteriorities into interiorities is precisely the point, exemplifying the novel’s particular brand of object relations, its stabilization of relations between subjects and objects. Thus, for instance, Emma’s need to fix the meaning of Jane Fairfax’s pianoforte, in Austen’s novel, signals a new way of determining value: one grounded in the ungroundedness of the consumable object.
But objects are not really Armstrong’s point, though object relations sometimes are. In a series of readings that range from Jane Fairfax’s piano to Dracula’s threatened individualism; from place and property in Scott and Defoe to the fluidity of gender boundaries in The Mill on the Floss, Armstrong argues that the novel’s relation to individuality is both formative and ambivalent; indeed, that it is formative because ambivalent. The novel, this book asserts, must produce in the form of the individual subject the very resistance to group assimilation it sets itself ideologically against; individuality thus takes shape precisely as an excess or disturbance the novel cannot tolerate. Hence the production not only of such anti-realist genres as the gothic and sensation fiction, but also the presence within realist fiction of gothic and sensational elements that must be disavowed in order for the realist subject to be produced. Gender plays a somewhat different role here than in Armstrong’s previous work: if in Desire and Domestic Fiction the quintessential modern subject was a woman, here subjectivity is fashioned as universal, but that universality is formed via the displacement of masculine anxieties onto feminine characters and feminine character.
Armstrong’s discussion is divided into two parts: one about the relation between the individual and the group or mass; the other about masculinity and femininity. The first addresses individualism’s incompatibility, as political and literary rhetoric imagines it, with any possibility of assimilation to or incorporation within a group. The tension between the need to assert or produce individuals on the one hand, and the requirements of civil society on the other, yields a dangerous residue that comes to be defined as individuality per se. It is this residue that must be simultaneously produced, indeed valued, but also expunged by novels; this is the work that novels do, or the way they “think.” The novel, in this formulation, thinks us into existence: “In using displacement to explain how Victorian fiction shifts its initial emotional investment from one object to another, I attribute this mechanism neither to the individuated unconscious nor to some mass anxiety. I prefer to look at the novel as a way of thinking in its own right, the culture’s way of maintaining, upgrading, and perpetuating its most basic categories in the face of pressures that changing social conditions bring to bear on them” (83). Assimilating readers to its vision of the world, the novel makes readers “of one mind” with itself: it is “the genre that gave form to the modern individual and continues to defend and update it” (135).
In the gendered portion of the argument, “violence erupts when the individual achieves individuality, hence masculine identity, by subordinating and controlling femininity,” while “Femininity in turn produces the illusion of masculinity’s social independence and economic autonomy” (87). The Mill on the Floss, Wuthering Heights, and Dracula, as well as other novels and cultural texts such as Darwin’s Descent of Man, Armstrong argues, seek to ensure “nothing less than the survival of humanity as an autonomous and enduring category” (83) by means of the displacement of masculine energy onto female subjects and femininity. For this category can only endure and maintain its authority if the ruthlessness and aggression that underwrite it are displaced; hence the way in which, Armstrong shows, these texts repeatedly “attribute competition to sexual desire; relocate that desire in a woman, and enjoy repudiating it” (98). Or, in a somewhat different scenario, both Wuthering Heights and Dombey and Son displace competition between men and women into competition between men, creating pity for specific masculine characters whose aggression has been “drained” out of them. The two parts of the argument come together in, for example, the way aggressive and competitive female characters such as Becky Sharp and Catherine Earnshaw direct the reader’s attention away from the cultural requirement that successful men possess similarly “monstrous” characteristics (80); in the figure of Dracula, who, “having no individuality . . . can mimic virtually anyone, male or female” (149); and in Armstrong’s recapitulation of Judith Butler’s argument that the individual begins as a mix of elements or identity-possibilities, including gender, and then eliminates some in favor of others (141).
In outline, these interpretations may seem familiar, as novels are said to produce what they proceed to disavow. But in their form, detail, and passion Armstrong’s readings are original, ingenious, and dramatically compelling, as in a discussion of the “hydraulic model” that determines the flow of sexuality, money, “information, and modernization as well” in The Mill on the Floss, in which the river that carries Maggie and Stephen away exemplifies the novel “thinking about masculine desire as a substance capable of flowing from one individual to another” (93). The book convinced me (or rather, affirmed my conviction, for of course I knew it already, and suspect others do as well) that the novel has thought us all and the world we inhabit into existence. The novel according to Armstrong does away with the difference between self and world; rather than merely representing, it engenders. Thus there are no “things” here, filled with extra-novelistic meaning, but only a very un-thing-like novel, with its capacity not to produce a “world of the novel” but rather to make a novel of the world: to create the world—the so-called external world—that we live in.
Audrey Jaffe’s The Affective Life of the Average Man: from the Victorian Novel to the Stock-Market Graph is forthcoming in the Victorian Critical Interventions series from Ohio State University Press. She is a professor of English at the University of Toronto.