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Carolyn Lesjak’s Working Fictions: A Genealogy of the Victorian Novel is a provocative, insightful, and sometimes frustrating analysis of the labor/pleasure problematic in the British novel. Lesjak’s central theme is the alienation of work under modern capitalism, its consequent textual marginalization, and its opposition to pleasure. She reveals the subtle presence of this problematic in the realism of Gaskell, Dickens, and Eliot, and finds in the utopian thinking of William Morris and Oscar Wilde “possible models of a radically ‘other’ social life in which labor and pleasure would be reinvented” (2). Drawing on neo-Marxist and Frankfurt School theorists, she participates in the recently-renewed literary analysis of class relations, including but also moving beyond bourgeois culture in her treatment of these two key terms.
Beginning with the recognition that representations of actual work and workplaces are apparently absent from realist novels, she argues that in fact they exert a shadowy but persistent pressure throughout the period. Her introduction proposes a symptomatic interpretation of this pressure, placing it in the context of anxieties about the contradictions of capitalism and about working class resistance. It also cogently insists on the value of the term “pleasure” as denoting an active, social project, in contrast to the intrapsychic and predominantly sexual meaning implied by “desire.” Her emphatic opening up of these terms signals her wish to intervene dramatically in our understanding of Victorian literary history. Working Fictions does not quite fulfill the promise of the introduction, partly because its genealogy is rather selective (Great Expectations and Daniel Deronda represent the whole of the genre of the bildungsroman, for example) and partly because its ambitious reach sometimes leaves behind labor and especially pleasure in any concrete form, dissolving them in broad generalizations about capitalism and global economies. At its best, however, Working Fictions offers significant and sometimes brilliant re-interpretations of familiar novels that reveal the constructedness and historical contingency of our assumptions about labor and pleasure. In this respect, it substantially enlarges our understanding of Victorian fiction.
The first section of Working Fictions focuses on the industrial novel, represented by Gaskell’s Mary Barton and Eliot’s Felix Holt. In Lesjak’s analysis, both novels delegitimize working-class aggression, neglecting the structural inequities of industrialization to focus on more manageable issues. Mary Barton focuses on domestic space rather than factories and on consumption rather than production, while the valorization of culture in Felix Holt disqualifies working people from self-determination. As Lesjak trenchantly observes, “Since the ultimate basis for political judgment rests on cultural capital, neither work nor the workplace are necessary sites for political claims to representation” (73). While this observation is not wholly original (Catherine Gallagher and Ruth Yeazell made similar claims in their foundational work on the industrial novel), they are enriched by the detail of her reading and her unearthing of the traces of a proletarian public sphere, which hints at the possibility of the meaningful working-class action that the novels explicitly discredit.
Lesjak insists that the labor/pleasure problematic remains a presence, if an indirect one, after the waning of the industrial novel, and so shifts her focus to the bildungsroman as a genre of modernity in section two. In Dickens’s Great Expectations and Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Lesjak pursues the development of capitalism in a global context. Her reading of Great Expectations takes up Magwitch’s role in revealing the dirty money that drives not only his own story but the British Empire’s, analyzing the ways in which all characters attempt to conceal bodily evidence of work and so exempt themselves from this corruption. In this new historical moment, bourgeois work rests on the same alienation as industrial labor and, in its insistent influence, cannibalizes pleasure itself, turning it into another form of labor -- an argument that, if not as closely tied to matters of empire as it might be, accurately captures the bleakness of Pip’s professional “success” and the novel’s conclusion. Her intricate treatment of Daniel Deronda is one of the high points of the book. Lesjak brilliantly formulates the multiple contradictions underlying Eliot’s representation of British society, which both models nationalism and depends on trans-national economic relations, and her Zionist “solution,” which both corrects and reproduces the insularity of British nationalism. Equally astute is the explication of the relationship between Gwendolen’s miserable experience and these large-scale issues, as Gwendolen is infected with the rootless, reckless spirit of modernism, symbolized by gambling, but is excluded from “the redemptive cures of nationalism prescribed by Deronda” (132). With equal insight, Lesjak weaves an analysis of gender relations into this political history, implicating not only Gwendolen and Grandcourt but also Mirah and Deronda, further undermining the idealization of Deronda’s story as a corrective to British society. If the labor/pleasure problematic in concrete form sometimes drops out of sight, the rewards of the analysis are a more than adequate substitute, doing justice to this complex novel. And while Lesjak overstates the extent to which contemporary scholars perceive a dysfunctional disjunction between the two plots, she offers compelling new ways of reading their interrelatedness.
Working Fictions turns from the bildungsroman to utopias (loosely defined in the case of Wilde) in its third and final section. It fulfills its promise to construct a new genealogy of British fiction by placing utopian thinking within the realist tradition, defining utopias not as the opposite but as the logical extension of realism. William Morris and Oscar Wilde are the heroes of this book, refusing the opposition between work and pleasure, hypothesizing fulfilling, non-alienating modes of work modeled on art and artisanship. At the same time, however, this chapter suggests that Working Fictions is as much a teleology as a genealogy, in which Morris and Wilde represent a clearly-articulated, unproblematic rethinking of labor and pleasure. While Lesjak acknowledges some limitations in Morris’s thinking, she brackets them off in order to emphasize the revolutionary aspects of his work (the exception is his recycling of female domesticity, which she explicitly critiques). This strategy implies that Morris and Wilde have resolved the vexing relationships that Gaskell, Eliot, and Dickens could only wrestle with in confusion. In one sense, this is a perfectly defensible, even inevitable conclusion: in the utopian mode, Morris and Wilde imagine new social structures and values that correct the intractable problems of real societies. But at the same time, unbracketing troubling aspects of these socialist utopias might revise this literary-historical narrative of progress, concluding Working Fictions with a new phase of instructive conflicts. Still, this section of the book has many strengths. Lesjak writes about these authors with an enthusiasm and directness that clarify the macro-issues she raises. The deformations of capitalism and the stakes of rethinking the entrenched opposition of labor and pleasure emerge clearly as they are played out in these texts.
As this comment implies, the interpretations of particular novels are too often embedded in abstract and imprecise frameworks involving capitalism, commodities, and global economies. Lesjak refers repeatedly to the constitutive relationship between capitalism and imperialism, the “newly evolved moneyed economy” (90), and the abstraction of labor under capitalism without fleshing out these generalizations in any detail. Working Fictions does not analyze the distinctive alienations of different kinds of labor, investigate the specific ways in which a global economy inflected labor or the structures of capitalism, or distinguish between imperialism and other global relations. One might also question an implied chronology that seamlessly links the bildungsroman genre to imperialism, locating both in the second part of the century. Along with local lapses in clarity, this lack of precision hinders the book’s argument: since it claims to trace a historical trajectory, it cries out for a fuller and more concrete historicization, especially with regard to economics and empire. Without a more detailed explication of the large-scale concepts it invokes, the book’s assertions are sometimes general to a fault.
In spite of these problems, Working Fictions offers stimulating, sometimes stunning readings of major novels as it unravels the relationship between work and pleasure within Victorian literary history. It also reanimates the value of the Marxist critical tradition, whose defamiliarizing insights can still surprise us by revealing the deep structure of the modern world.
Ellen Bayuk Rosenman is a professor of English an affiliate of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Unauthorized Pleasures: Accounts of Victorian Erotic Experience (Cornell UP 2003), co-editor with Claudia Klaver of the essay collection Other Mothers: Beyond the Victorian Maternal Ideal (Ohio State University Press 2008), and is currently working on a book on the role of penny dreadfuls in working class politics.