The Bourgeois Interior

The Bourgeois Interior

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    The Bourgeois Interior
    Book Description:

    From Robinson Crusoe's cave to Henry Selwyn's hermitage, the domestic interior tells a story about "things" and their relation to character and identity. Beginning with a description of a typical middle-class interior in America today-noting how its contents echo interiors described in literatures of the past-Julia Prewitt Brown asks why certain features persist, despite radical changes in domestic life over the past three hundred years. The answer lies, Brown argues, in the way the bourgeois interior functions as a medium, a many-layered fabric across which different energies travel, be they psychological, political, or aesthetic. In this way, objects are not symbols but rather the materials out of which symbols are made--symbols that constitute the very soul of the bourgeois.

    In a wide-ranging analysis, moving from works by Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Henry James to those by Virginia Woolf, Ingmar Bergman, John Updike, and W. G. Sebald, Brown shows that what is at issue is less the economic basis of class than the bourgeoisie's imagination of itself. The themes explored include the middle class's ever-increasing desire for more wealth, as well as Victorian women's identification with the domestic interior and the changes that took place when they began working outside the home. Brown also examines the ambivalence of economically determined objects both as repositories of memory and dreams and as fetishized commodities that become detached from everyday reality. Does the bourgeois possess the interior and its objects, or do the interior and its objects possess the bourgeois?

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3428-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    Look around this room of yours, and what do you see? John Ruskin posed this question to bourgeois readers in 1853. How would middle-class readers answer it today?

    Standing at the outside of a typical bourgeois residence in suburban Boston in 2006, we are likely to see evidence of a security system, perhaps in the form of a small red light near the entrance, and a plaque identifying the company that designed the system. A peephole in the door makes it possible for the dweller to view the outside world through a distorting lens. As in Robinson Crusoe’s island fortress...

  6. 1 Robinson Crusoe’s Cave
    (pp. 25-39)

    The first bourgeois interior in English fiction is located in a cave. Every reader remembers Robinson Crusoe’s carefully constructed domestic enclosure, with its handcrafted table and chair and its inventory of useful objects arranged on shelves. Published in 1719,Robinson Crusoeis regarded by many as the first English novel. Not least among its achievements is its prophecy of the radical alteration our relations to domestic space would undergo with the rise of capitalist enterprise and ownership. Crusoe’s inventory of domestic objects is the first in a line of such inventories that extends through many nineteenth-century novels to the Ithaca...

  7. 2 Fanny’s Room
    (pp. 40-59)

    Many writers who lived before Jane Austen, Defoe among them, register the rise of the spirit of capitalist enterprise in England, but Austen was the greatest novelist to have lived during the first stage of the Industrial Revolution. The England of her childhood was not wholly preindustrial, and the England of the last years of her life was not wholly industrialized, but contrasting the social contexts into which she was born and died may help us to understand some of the concrete particulars of the transition from agrarian to industrial society. With this transition came a new relation to the...

  8. 3 Charles Dickens and the Victorian Addiction to Dwelling
    (pp. 60-83)

    A dialectic of growth and decay is rooted in bourgeois history.¹ The Industrial Revolution, which entered its first stage in the late eighteenth century, granted the bourgeois class unprecedented power at the same time that it steadily eroded bourgeois domestic traditions that had been in place for centuries. The sense of enclosure, the comfortable distance from a public world, the equilibrium within the privacy of the agrarian home, in which activities and rituals were tied to the natural cycle: all were disrupted by industrialization. In the portrait of Fanny Price at Portsmouth, Austen shows the homesick response to this upheaval;...

  9. 4 The Smell and Spell of “Things” in Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton
    (pp. 84-102)

    “I’ve a great respect forthings!” exclaims the dubious Madame Merle in Henry James’sThe Portrait of a Lady(1881). “[W]e’re each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances.” As for the “self,” she continues, “Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us—and then it flows back again. . . . One’s self—for other people—is one’s expression of one’s self; and one’s house, one’s furniture, one’s garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps—these things are all expressive.”¹

    It would be difficult to find a...

  10. 5 Virginia Woolf and the Passing of Victorian Domesticity
    (pp. 103-118)

    The fate of Poynton in James’s story suggests the imperiled state of the Victorian home. It is almost as if Poynton were “unable to survive the passage to Modernity,”¹ so rooted is it in what James called the “Old Things” of the past. Howards End, in E. M. Forster’s novel by that name, also has difficulty making the transition to modernity and does so only after sacrificing its bourgeois character. At the end ofHowards End(1910) an unconventional family—an illegitimate child its heir—has replaced the traditional family that once occupied the domestic interior. InTo the Lighthouse,...

  11. 6 Bourgeois Memory and Dream in the Domestic Interiors of Ingmar Bergman
    (pp. 119-136)

    To move from the authors discussed in this book to the auteur Ingmar Bergman is to embrace a different medium, but one with a strong—some would argue inherent—literary component. Despite the various claims that have been made for a “pure cinema” since the subject was debated in Paris in the 1920s, mainstream or commercial films have always told stories, stories that were often derived from works of literature. This is especially true of Bergman’s films. Throughout his career, Bergman has sought to incorporate in his images the inwardness that words, not limited by the materiality and specificity of...

  12. Conclusion: John Updike, W. G. Sebald, and the Afterlife of the Bourgeoisie
    (pp. 137-150)

    In the course of writing this book, I was frequently reminded of a passage inGerman Men and Women,Walter Benjamin’s edition of letters written by “the great exemplars” of the preindustrial German middle class.¹ In this collection, Benjamin pays homage to the spirit of an earlier bourgeoisie, one that existed before “wealth and speed [became] what the world admires.”² The letters reach deeply into daily life in their references to the weather, to family, and to the domestic interior. Commenting on a letter written by a visitor to Immanuel Kant’s dwelling in Königsberg, Benjamin points to the unpretentiousness of...

  13. Appendix
    (pp. 151-154)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 155-172)
  15. Works Cited
    (pp. 173-182)
  16. Index
    (pp. 183-188)