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Embodied: Victorian Literature and the Senses

William A. Cohen
Copyright Date: 2009
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 200
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    William A. Cohen considers the meaning of sensory encounters in works by writers including Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Rather than regarding the bodily exterior as the primary location in which identity categories—such as gender, sexuality, race, and disability—are expressed, he focuses on the interior experience of sensation, whereby these politics come to be felt.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-6652-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xvi)

    What does it mean to be human? This old-fashioned humanist question received a strikingly antihumanist answer among a range of writers in Victorian Britain. What is human, these writers were excited and frightened to discover, is nothing more or less than the human body itself. Embodied experience was the solution that writers in a variety of styles and genres struck upon in response to contemporary questions about the nature, location, and plasticity of the human essence. This book is about the ways in which Victorian literary writers’ conceptions of such embodiment drew from and contributed to materialist theories of human...

  5. 1 Subject: Embodiment and the Senses
    (pp. 1-26)

    Why should Victorian writers have felt questions about a human essence to be so pressing? In this period, political, economic, and social forces put pressure on ideas about the self or soul in relation to the human body. Mass industrialism and urbanization provided new locations, such as factories, metropolises, and imperial colonies, in which conflicts over the relation between the body and its interior arose; mechanized labor produced one new kind of body, while conceptions of race and ethnicity as embodied states, indexed by science, generated others. Discoveries in evolutionary biology and geology challenged the notion of a soul that...

  6. 2 Self: Material Interiority in Dickens and Brontë
    (pp. 27-64)

    Writing about the body supplies Victorian authors a concrete means of giving form to intangible thoughts and feelings. In embodying subjective interiority, characters in works by Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë are open through their senses to incursions from outside. Interaction with other subjects and with the phenomenal world engenders emotional and intellectual changes in them, which are realized in physical form. Conceiving of characters as essentially embodied also has consequences for literary form itself. One of these consequences — often regarded as the great achievement of Victorian realism — is the effect of characterological psychology, consciousness, and inner depth that seem...

  7. 3 Skin: Surface and Sensation in Trollope’s “The Banks of the Jordan”
    (pp. 65-85)

    This chapter originates in a fundamental question about embodiment: what does the skin cover? Responses to this question are traditionally articulated in two different registers: the physical and the spiritual. The skin is the integument that encloses the visceral interior of the body, yet it is also the membrane within which, mysteriously and ethereally, the human essence is supposed to reside. The outside surface of the body and its first line of defense against the external world, the skin is also the psychically projected shield that contains the self within. Both tactile membrane and enclosure, the skin is a permeable...

  8. 4 Senses: Face and Feeling in Hardy’s The Return of the Native
    (pp. 86-107)

    Although it can never have been very tempting to read Thomas Hardy as a psychological realist, few critics have gone so far in the other direction as Gilles Deleuze, who states that Hardy’s characters “are not people or subjects, they are collections of intensive sensations.”¹ Deleuze identifies in Hardy what he calls “individuation without a subject,” which might be thought of as depsychologized character. This is to suggest not that Hardy is uninterested in people but that he is interested in them as material objects, as agents of sensory interaction with the world rather than as beings that transcend it....

  9. 5 Soul: Inside Hopkins
    (pp. 108-130)

    Like the other writers I have discussed, the poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins posits a continuity between the external form of natural objects and their effects on human subjects’ interiors. Like them too, Hopkins extends this continuity so far as to muddy the boundaries of agency and existence between subject and object, a proposition summarized epigrammatically in a phrase from his journals: “What you look hard at seems to look hard at you.”¹ While Hopkins emphasizes sensory experience in ways akin to his contemporaries, however, he, unlike the others, believes that the external world possesses a divinely ordained...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 131-136)

    Breath through a keyhole, water-defiled skin, rain on the face, a pencil in the eye: let these events serve as emblems for the type of embodiment from which the argument of this book has proceeded. They are some of the fractured moments that provide glimpses of the body unmaking any abstract idea of the human. They do so by highlighting the contiguous and reciprocal contact between body and world and by focusing on sensory influx and corporeal outflow; in short, they draw attention to the conditions of embodiment itself. When the body obtrudes on the self and cannot be regarded...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 137-174)
  12. Index
    (pp. 175-182)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 183-183)