Victorian Interpretation

Victorian Interpretation

Copyright Date: 2005
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 222
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  • Book Info
    Victorian Interpretation
    Book Description:

    Suzy Anger investigates the relationship of Victorian interpretation to the ways in which literary criticism is practiced today. Her primary focus is literary interpretation, but she also considers fields such as legal theory, psychology, history, and the natural sciences in order to establish the pervasiveness of hermeneutic thought in Victorian culture. Anger's book demonstrates that much current thought on interpretation has its antecedents in the Victorians, who were already deeply engaged with the problems of interpretation that concern literary theorists today.

    Anger traces the development and transformation of interpretive theory from a religious to a secular (and particularly literary) context. She argues that even as hermeneutic theory was secularized in literary interpretation it carried in its practice some of the religious implications with which the tradition began. She further maintains that, for the Victorians, theories of interpretation are often connected to ethical principles and suggests that all theories of interpretation may ultimately be grounded in ethical theories.

    Beginning with an examination of Victorian biblical exegesis, in the work of figures such as Benjamin Jowett, John Henry Newman, and Matthew Arnold, the book moves to studies of Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, and Oscar Wilde. Emphasizing the extent to which these important writers are preoccupied with hermeneutics, Anger also shows that consideration of their thought brings to light questions and qualifications of some of the assumptions of contemporary criticism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6479-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. An Overview
    (pp. 1-21)

    It is one of the characteristics of recent thought that it distrusts its own activity,” wrote Henry Jones, a professor of philosophy at University College, in 1891. “Thought,” he continued, “has become aware of its own activity; men realize more clearly than they did in former times that the apparent constitution of things depends directly on the character of the intelligence which apprehends them.”¹ We might almost take his words to be a description of current intellectual and cultural discourse rather than an account of Victorian thought. In contemporary debate, self-reflexivity about the processes of understanding is pervasive: knowledge is...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Victorian Scriptural Hermeneutics: History, Intention, and Evolution
    (pp. 22-48)

    Critics no longer insist upon “a dogmatic faith in the plenary verbal inspiration of every one of Shakespeare’s clowns,” quipped Pater in an essay on the history plays, satirizing the practices of literary critics, but showing at the same time that he recognized the close ties between literary interpretation and theological exegesis in his day.¹ Victorian speculation on literary interpretation is deeply indebted to nineteenth-century controversies over scriptural hermeneutics, and, indeed, current literary theory is unthinkable without nineteenth-century debates over biblical interpretation.

    This chapter examines the rethinking of the Bible as historical narrative in the Victorian period and traces the...

  6. INTERTEXT ONE Victorian Legal Interpretation
    (pp. 49-60)

    Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, as critics have often noted, is concerned with the problems of interpretation in many ways, with Chancery’s interminable delay in the interpretation of one particular legal document standing at the center of the novel’s world. Given the political, social, and individual consequences of legal judgment, it makes sense that Bleak House (and the Victorian novel is in general obsessed with the law) marks legal hermeneutics as the central site of interpretive anxiety. Moreover, the novel suggests that legal interpretation would be less confused—less foggy—if interpreters held the right morals. As Ada Clare says: “It...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Carlyle: Between Biblical Exegesis and Romantic Hermeneutics
    (pp. 61-84)

    In a review article of 1891 Wilhelm Dilthey describes Carlyle as “the greatest English writer of our century.”¹ It is not surprising that Dilthey, the transitional figure between nineteenth-century Romantic hermeneutics and twentieth-century philosophical hermeneutics, greatly admired Carlyle, since he would have found in Carlyle’s work a preoccupation with the same hermeneutical issues that absorbed him. Carlyle’s connections to German idealism and romanticism have been clear since his time, but the affinities of his thought with the Romantic hermeneutics which developed in the context of transcendental philosophy have not been sufficiently recognized.²

    Carlyle is not only deeply influenced by the...

  8. INTERTEXT TWO Victorian Science and Hermeneutics: The Interpretation of Nature
    (pp. 85-94)

    Carlyle, as we have seen, regarded all human knowledge as symbolic “interpretation” of the absolute. Notwithstanding his early training in the sciences and onetime aspiration to pursue a scientific career, he did not believe that science yielded absolute truths. Science should recognize that it provides knowledge only of phenomena, or, as Carlyle understands that idea, that it is interpretation. “Science,” he writes, “has done much for us; but it is a poor science that would hide from us the great deep sacred infinitude of Nescience, whither we can never penetrate, on which all science swims as a mere superficial film.”¹...

  9. CHAPTER THREE George Eliot’s Hermeneutics of Sympathy
    (pp. 95-130)

    If Carlyle offered a hermeneutic theory that was transitional, located somewhere in between the theological and the secular, George Eliot’s thought on interpretation moved hermeneutics fully into the secular realm. As with Carlyle, hermeneutics was crucially important to all of her writing. Again like Carlyle, she was interested in large epistemological questions about the relationship between human knowledge and the act of interpretation. But whereas the latter issue was Carlyle’s central problem, Eliot’s primary concern was understanding others, and, especially, linguistic interpretation. Like the German Romantic hermeneuts, she believed that meaning was grounded in a speaker’s intentions, although she was...

  10. INTERTEXT THREE Victorian Literary Criticism
    (pp. 131-140)

    Victorian literary criticism, a much richer and more complex activity than has sometimes been allowed, is a subject that deserves at least several books of its own. I want here to discuss briefly a few of the key issues that arose when in the late nineteenth century the focus of criticism began to shift from evaluation and judgment to the principles of interpreting literature. I will not be attending to the interesting varieties of criticism whose primary concern is merit or appreciation; nor will I treat criticism interested in formal, generic, and aesthetic properties, for example, J. A. Symonds’s important...

  11. CHAPTER FOUR Subjectivism, Intersubjectivity, and Intention: Oscar Wilde and Literary Hermeneutics
    (pp. 141-165)

    Unlike most of the earlier commentators on hermeneutics that this book has discussed, Oscar Wilde comes to interpretation from an early background in literary studies. He was introduced to literary interpretation at Trinity College in Ireland and at Oxford University, where he studied classics along with the philosophy that informs his theoretical writing. In a letter on his course of study, he wrote: “Greats is the only sphere of thought where one can be, simultaneously, brilliant and unreasonable, speculative and well-informed, creative as well as critical.”¹ Wilde carries these ideals into all of his insightful but unsettled writing on literary...

  12. EPILOGUE Hermeneutics and the Self
    (pp. 166-172)

    By the end of the nineteenth century, the hermeneutic strategies borrowed from biblical exegesis had made the move into secular literary criticism, but also into a wide range of Victorian disciplines. In this epilogue, I conclude by looking briefly at a Victorian phenomenon in which hermeneutics plays a crucial role without any direct allusion to its biblical ancestry: the new field of psychology and in particular the study of memory. The workings of the mind were understood as hermeneutic by many late Victorians. For interpretation, as we now can recognize, moved from texts into our very imaginations of ourselves, in...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 173-198)
  14. Index
    (pp. 199-208)