Theses Doctoral

Unhappy Consciousness: Recognition and Reification in Victorian Fiction

Parker, Ben

Unhappy Consciousness is a study of recognition scenes in the Victorian novel and their relation to Marx's concept of commodity fetishism. Victorian recognition scenes often show a hero's self-discovery as a retrospective identification with things. When, for example, in Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer learns the truth about her marriage: "She saw, in the crude light of that revelation... the dry staring fact that she had been an applied handled hung-up tool, as senseless and convenient as mere shaped wood and iron." The retrospective discovery of identity in Victorian novels is often figured as a catastrophic falling-apart of a stable self that is also an economic object or instrument: a bank check, a debt, a forgery, an inheritance, or an accumulated principal. Recognition scenes cannot be considered in the light of a timeless "master plot" or the classical poetics of Aristotelian anagnorisis, but need to be interpreted in terms of historical forms of social misrecognition (such as Marx's analysis of fetishism). Unhappy Consciousness contends that, if we are going to talk about nineteenth century things, we will have to take into account the novelistic misrecognition of the self, insofar as the heroes misrecognize themselves in forms of commodity fetishism. The thing is so often the subject herself insofar as "barred," dispersed among retrospective or delayed object identifications. I respond to the historical contextualization in Victorian cultural studies of "commodity culture," insisting that the economic structure of the commodity is not only a topic for realist notation, but makes up the inner logic of the novel form. Unhappy Consciousness urges a return to questions of novel theory which were perhaps set aside during New Historicism, arguing for a particularly novelistic mode of "objectification" (the form of the hero's activity) seen in interaction with the historical mode of objectification found in the capitalist value-form. I advance this argument through studies of several canonical Victorian works. Chapter One looks at the tension in Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit between the ideological closure attained in the "family romance" plot of buried wills and restored parents, and the dead-end of interpretation and retrospection found in the plot of financial crisis and stock swindles. Chapter Two argues that, in Anthony Trollope's The Last Chronicle of Barset, the tautological nature of interest rate is not confined to the urban financial plot but is displaced and affectively diffused over the provincial mystery plot. Chapter Three is a study of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in which I read the detective as an exaggerated portrait of the subjective effects of capitalist alienation, a monad whose only intervention in the world is to link predictive results with opaque processes, to "produce" recognition scenes (the solutions to each case) as a salable commodity. He is a machine for retrospection who has no personal past. In Chapter Four, I read Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady as a critique of the fetishizing of autonomous consciousness, using Marx's definition of fetishism as the misrecognition of a social form as the content of a thing. Isabel's mistake is to misconstrue the structure of the male gaze that constitutes her "freedom" as the inherent property of her individuality--until it is unmasked as a trap. As so often in the Victorian novel, fetishism is a mode of self-knowledge.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Dames, Nicholas
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 7, 2013