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Material morality: success, material culture and the realist novel, 1848 to 1883

Material morality: success, material culture and the realist novel, 1848 to 1883
Material morality: success, material culture and the realist novel, 1848 to 1883
This thesis explores how the Victorian concept of success – fundamental to Victorians’ understanding of themselves as such – was characterised and problematised by the demonstration of moral worth through material wealth. Critics, including David Trotter, ask ‘under what generic conditions have objects appeared as objects in a literary text?’ (Trotter 2008). I argue that between the 1840s and 1880s it is frequently the reflection of the discourse of success and failure in society, reflected through objects, that gives material things symbolic value within plot and form of realist novels, where success and failure are persistent themes.

I analyse gender roles and the circulation of objects to uncover the instabilities of Victorian characterisations of success. Focus within Victorian society on the material qualities of objects and the sense of permanence that they could create led, I argue, to the creation of a Victorian ‘Reality Effect’ (Barthes 1968). Things were emptied of meanings created through their production or circulation in order to signify the moral and material success of their current possessor through an ostensibly uncomplicated materiality which was nonetheless deeply unstable. I suggest that the exhibitionist, performative nature of this culture of success offered a potentially powerful role for middle-class women, which realist novelists challenged on moral and political grounds while making use of its aesthetic.

My three chapters trace reflections of this discourse in arenas from the triumphalist ‘public’ sphere of the Great Exhibition to the ostensibly ‘private’ sphere of the home. I evaluate Vanity Fair, Great Expectations, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Villette and The Portrait of a Lady in particular, but allude to other novels to prove the range and depth of the theme, as well as works by Thomas Carlyle, Karl Marx, and John Ruskin. Through their attitude to Victorian material culture, I attempt to see, as Dehn Gilmore puts it, ‘not what but rather how the Victorians saw’ in this culture of intensely moralised display. This reveals the conflicted attitudes of Victorian realist novelists to the culture of success and its role in the moral, economic and social challenges of Victorian culture.
Fernandez-Llorente, Esther
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Fernandez-Llorente, Esther
f5f321a3-501c-4dff-8729-43e41c2152ed
Hammond, Elizabeth
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HUNT, VERITY J
166f6e97-a3bf-4f61-843c-ea020d4105fd

(2015) Material morality: success, material culture and the realist novel, 1848 to 1883. University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities, Doctoral Thesis, 348pp.

Record type: Thesis (Doctoral)

Abstract

This thesis explores how the Victorian concept of success – fundamental to Victorians’ understanding of themselves as such – was characterised and problematised by the demonstration of moral worth through material wealth. Critics, including David Trotter, ask ‘under what generic conditions have objects appeared as objects in a literary text?’ (Trotter 2008). I argue that between the 1840s and 1880s it is frequently the reflection of the discourse of success and failure in society, reflected through objects, that gives material things symbolic value within plot and form of realist novels, where success and failure are persistent themes.

I analyse gender roles and the circulation of objects to uncover the instabilities of Victorian characterisations of success. Focus within Victorian society on the material qualities of objects and the sense of permanence that they could create led, I argue, to the creation of a Victorian ‘Reality Effect’ (Barthes 1968). Things were emptied of meanings created through their production or circulation in order to signify the moral and material success of their current possessor through an ostensibly uncomplicated materiality which was nonetheless deeply unstable. I suggest that the exhibitionist, performative nature of this culture of success offered a potentially powerful role for middle-class women, which realist novelists challenged on moral and political grounds while making use of its aesthetic.

My three chapters trace reflections of this discourse in arenas from the triumphalist ‘public’ sphere of the Great Exhibition to the ostensibly ‘private’ sphere of the home. I evaluate Vanity Fair, Great Expectations, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Villette and The Portrait of a Lady in particular, but allude to other novels to prove the range and depth of the theme, as well as works by Thomas Carlyle, Karl Marx, and John Ruskin. Through their attitude to Victorian material culture, I attempt to see, as Dehn Gilmore puts it, ‘not what but rather how the Victorians saw’ in this culture of intensely moralised display. This reveals the conflicted attitudes of Victorian realist novelists to the culture of success and its role in the moral, economic and social challenges of Victorian culture.

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Published date: September 2015
Organisations: University of Southampton, English

Identifiers

Local EPrints ID: 396524
URI: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/id/eprint/396524
PURE UUID: 67e05006-0ec0-4479-8a08-35392f38808c

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Date deposited: 11 Jul 2016 13:06
Last modified: 17 Jul 2017 18:48

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