Social Science and the Realist Novel’s Turn to Character
Stern, Rachel Michelle
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AbstractFrom Marxist criticism to network theory, literary scholarship conceives of social representation in the realist novel as a function of narrative scope. In this reading, novelists illustrate our existence within a social body by forging unexpected narrative connections among seemingly disparate characters, across a wide range of socio-economic classes. My dissertation traces the rise of an alternative form of social representation in the realist novel, the representation of a society through an individual character who is its product. In mid-Vctorian realism, character is increasingly figured as a static constellation of predeliberative affects, tendencies, and motives, while narrative, no longer a successful vehicle for an individuals’-eye-view synthesis of events, becomes increasingly fragmentary.
My project traces this new formulation of character to the introduction of positivist social empiricism into novelistic practices of representation. The resulting category of positivist literary realism marks a new stage in both technologies of literary representation and cultural interpretation of social scientific epistemology. Although postivism advances a sweeping diachronic narrative of social progress, its empiricist paradigm emphasizes the representative power of self-contained, particular social observations. In the novel, these become observations of character. Per Harriet Martineau, we are to read particular characters as representing the unfolding of general social laws under a particular set of circumstances. But in the fiction of Charles Dickens, John Henry Newman, and George Eliot, treating individual character as self-contained product of social forces ultimately points to the unknowability of the process that shaped that character. John Stuart Mill tries and fails to reconcile this empiricist understanding of character with a more narratively integrated account of character development. Under these circumstances, narrative loses its putative realist function of connecting cause and effect. Instead, realist fiction recognizes the isolation and determination of character by conceptualizing social forces as operating within the mind of the individual. Positivist realism moves the novel toward a structure that depicts the cause and effect laws under which we operate as fragmented and situates social causality within individual consciousness itself.
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