Consuming Fictions: Gender, Class and Hunger in Dickens's Novels

Overview

In this remarkable study, Gail Turley Houston examines the rich interplay of consumption as alimental process, medical entity, psychological construct, and economic practice in order to explore Charles Dickens’s fictional representations of Victorian culture as he presents it in his novels. Drawing from medical, historical, economic, psychoanalytic, and biographical materials from the Victorian period, Houston anchors her work in the belief that if class and gender are fictional constructions, real people’s lives...

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Overview

In this remarkable study, Gail Turley Houston examines the rich interplay of consumption as alimental process, medical entity, psychological construct, and economic practice in order to explore Charles Dickens’s fictional representations of Victorian culture as he presents it in his novels. Drawing from medical, historical, economic, psychoanalytic, and biographical materials from the Victorian period, Houston anchors her work in the belief that if class and gender are fictional constructions, real people’s lives are affected in complex and coercive ways by such constructions.

Proceeding chronologically, Houston traces particular patterns throughout ten of Dickens’s major novels: The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend. Houston maintains that Victorian codes of behavior prescribed for gender and class regarding sexual and alimental appetites were so extreme and complicated that numerous consequent eating disorders and related diseases developed. Ideologies about consumption translated into medically defined consumptions, such as anorexia. Using anorexia and its etiology as representative of an underlying cultural dynamics of consumption, Houston examines anorexia as a deep structure of the Victorian period.

Further, consumption as economic process is reflected in the expansion of individual material desires at the expense of the designated body politic. In other words, extravagant consumption occurs in society only if certain groups—usually consisting of lower-class men and women and, in Dickens’s novels, women in general—are severely limited in their consumption.

To support her approach, Houston turns to Rita Felski’s Beyond Feminist Aesthetics, agreeing with Felski’s argument that it is necessary to recognize the complex dialectics that take place between the individual and society. Not only does culture construct human beings, but human beings also construct culture. Felski’s theory aids Houston in emphasizing that Dickens not only influenced but was also greatly influenced by the Victorian dynamics of consumption. In fact, Houston argues that while Dickens dismantles Victorian ideologies about class and hunger by demonstrating the unnaturalness of expecting one class to starve so that another might gluttonize, he nevertheless accepts and perpetuates the Victorian identification of woman as the self-sacrificing, always-nurturing "angel in the house" without need of nurture herself.

This extraordinary book will appeal to literary scholars, as well as to scholars in the social sciences, history, humanistically oriented medicine, and women’s studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This book is unquestionably a singular contribution to its field. It presents a systematic close analysis of all of Dickens’s novels from the perspective of gender and hunger. What is more, it contextualizes its findings into the large framework of Victorian England, particularly the role of a capitalist, consumer society. There can be no doubt as to the importance of the field: a major author studied in relation to the dominant social problems of his day."—Lilian R. Furst, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Booknews
A feminist analysis of Victorian culture, as portrayed in 10 of Dickens' works, as a hierarchy of greed, appetite, and sexuality in which women and lower-class men starve so that wealthy men may gorge. The author argues that even when class and gender are fictional constructions, they shape real people's lives in complex and coercive ways. In Victorian England she traces the idea of the self-sacrificing "angel in the house" and the politics of consumption and hunger. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809319534
  • Publisher: Southern Illinois University Press
  • Publication date: 11/29/1994
  • Edition description: 1st Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Lexile: 1630L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Gail Turley Houston is an assistant professor of English at Brigham Young University.

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Table of Contents

Preface
1 Introduction : Victorian Consumptions 1
2 Broadsides at the Board : Collations of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist and the Hero's Masterplot 14
3 Beyond Class : Consumption and Gender 38
4 Binging and Being, Self-Starvation and the Self : The Heroine's Masterplot in The Old Curiosity Shop and Martin Chuzzlewit 61
5 The "Home Department" and Dickens's Business Novels : Dombey and Son and David Copperfield 90
6 "Unmindful of Her Wants": Dickens's Little Women and the Accession of Desire in Bleak House and Little Dorrit 123
7 "The Monster That Swallows Up So Much" and the "Disappearance" of the Dickensian Heroine: Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend 154
8 Conclusion : Victorian Consumptions and the "Banquet of Abstemiousness" 183
Notes 193
Works Cited 219
Index 230
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