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Why has the realist novel been persistently understood as promoting liberalism? Can this tendency be reconciled with an equally familiar tendency to see the novel as a national form? In A Probable State, Irene Tucker builds a revisionary argument about liberalism and the realist novel by shifting the focus from the rise of both in the eighteenth century to their breakdown at the end of the nineteenth. Through a series of intricate and absorbing readings, Tucker relates the decline of realism and the eroding logic...
Why has the realist novel been persistently understood as promoting liberalism? Can this tendency be reconciled with an equally familiar tendency to see the novel as a national form? In A Probable State, Irene Tucker builds a revisionary argument about liberalism and the realist novel by shifting the focus from the rise of both in the eighteenth century to their breakdown at the end of the nineteenth. Through a series of intricate and absorbing readings, Tucker relates the decline of realism and the eroding logic of liberalism to the question of Jewish characters and writers and to shifting ideas of community and nation.
Whereas previous critics have explored the relationship between liberalism and the novel by studying the novel's liberal characters, Tucker argues that the liberal subject is represented not merely within the novel, but in the experience of the novel's form as well. With special attention to George Eliot, Henry James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and S. Y. Abramovitch, Tucker shows how we can understand liberalism and the novel as modes of recognizing and negotiating with history.
Coal, like the English language, like freedom, general intelligence, or piety, is protestant.In 1856 Marian Evans, a translator and essayist of minor renown, took it upon herself to offer the world a theory of fiction. A year later "George Eliot" published her first work of fiction, a novella called "The Sad Fortunes of the Rev. Amos Barton." Its author insisted that the piece be presented in Blackwood's as the first installment of a series titled "Scenes of Clerical Life," even though in January 1857, when "Amos Barton" first appeared, the existence of the subsequent installments was little more than theoretical. If we can only speculate on how the theory might have provided its author the credit, both psychological and editorial, to believe in her fiction-making ability before she had written a fiction, we take a stand on firmer ground to note that the theory, "The Natural History of German Life," bears the marks of its anteriority to practice. Marian Evans need not have written any fiction herself to set rules for how it might be done because, according to "NaturalHistory," the best model for writing fiction is not to be found in existing works of fiction. The essay, first published in the Westminster Review, takes English pastoral writers and painters to task for the romantic excesses of their representation of "true peasantry" and calls for a fictional realism that adopts the methods of "direct observation" found in the sociological writings of German natural historian W. H. Riehl. "The Natural History of German Life" is striking in its bold assertions that rules might be made and that the truth value, and consequently the ethical and political force, of a writer or artist's realist fictions might be linked to their representational fidelity to the known.
hollis read, the hand of god in history, 1849
Those objects only which were most familiar to them, and which they had most frequent occasion to mention, would have particular names assigned to them. The particular cave whose covering sheltered them from the weather, the particular tree whose fruit relieved their hunger, the particular fountain whose water allayed their thirst, would first be denominated by the words cave, tree, fountain, or by whatever other appellations they might think proper, in that primitive jargon, to mark them. Afterwards, when the more enlarged experience of these savages had led them to observe and their necessary occasions obliged them to make mention of other caves and other trees, and other fountains, they would naturally bestow, upon each of those new objects, the same name by which they had been accustomed to express the similar object they were first acquainted with. The new objects had none of them any name of its own, but each of them exactly resembled another object, which had such an appellation.In Smith's story of the origins of language, the movement into (common) language is represented as the shedding of proper nouns; commonness is achieved as individuality--the wanderer's wholly private system of names (including, implicitly, his or her own)--is transmuted into the generalized particularity of common nouns. Insofar as he eliminates proper names entirely from the world he describes, Smith envisions a common culture created out of the absolute distinction of subjects and objects.
It was impossible that those savages could behold the new objects, without recollecting the old ones; and the name of the old ones, to which the new bore so close a resemblance. When they had occasion, therefore, to mention, or to point out to each other, any of the new objects, they would naturally utter the name of the correspondent old one, of which the idea could not fail, at that instant, to present itself to their memory in the strongest and liveliest manner. And thus, those words, which were originally the proper names of individuals, would each of them insensibly become the common name of a multitude. (204)As Smith narrates the process of substitution and resolution, the narration becomes the solution as the grammar of the passage transmutes the beholdings of individual savages into the collectivity that is "their" memory, the argument over possession waged by the syntactic fiat of the genitive. Language becomes common, ceasing to be the accumulation of the particular names an individual bestows on the objects encountered in random wanderings around the countryside, only by passing through a moment of "insensibility," a mysterious and seemingly unnarratable process following which language becomes at once immaterial and common. This moment of "insensibility" evacuates the commonness of any identifiable content by submerging the complex negotiations waged by competing and differently empowered experiencing subjects in a rush of mystically indescribable unity. Common language in this history is not the ground of political authority, or even the medium within which it might be established, but instead is the condition of politics' elimination.
There is confessedly a strong tendency in the modern world towards a democratic constitution of society, accompanied or not by popular political institutions. It is affirmed in the country where this tendency is most completely realized . . .--the United States--the feeling of the majority, to whom any appearances of a more showy or costly style of living than they can hope to rival is disagreeable, operates as a tolerably effectual sumptuary law, and that in many parts of the Union it is really difficult for a person possessing a very large income, to find any mode of spending it, which will not incur popular disapprobation....It is known that the bad workmen who form the majority of the operatives in many branches of industry are decidedly of the opinion that bad workmen ought to receive the same wages as good, and that no one ought to be allowed, through piecework or otherwise, to earn by superior skill or industry what others can earn without it.For Mill, the mere fact of the existence of common value moves from exerting a constraining ideological force on those who would exhibit their wealth to impelling the redistribution of property itself.
Excerpted from A Probable State: the Novel, the Contract, and the Jews by Irene Tucker Copyright © 2000 by Irene Tucker. Excerpted by permission.
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1. Writing a Place for History: Daniel Deronda and the Fictions of Belief
2. What Maisie Promised: Realism, Liberalism, and the Ends of Contract
3. Speaking Worlds: S. Y. Abramovitch and the Making of Hebrew Vernacular