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The Flirt's Tragedy

The Flirt's Tragedy: Desire without End in Victorian and Edwardian Fiction

Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 246
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  • Book Info
    The Flirt's Tragedy
    Book Description:

    In the flirtation plots of novels by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and W. M. Thackeray, heroines learn sociability through competition with naughty coquette-doubles. In the writing of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, flirting harbors potentially tragic consequences, a perilous game then adapted by male flirts in the novels of Oscar Wilde and Henry James. In revising Gustave Flaubert'sSentimental Education in The Age of Innocence,Edith Wharton critiques the nineteenth-century European novel as morbidly obsessed with deferred desires. Finally, in works by D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster, flirtation comes to reshape the modernist representation of homoerotic relations.

    InThe Flirt's Tragedy: Desire without End in Victorian and Edwardian Fiction, Richard Kaye makes a case for flirtation as a unique, neglected species of eros that finds its deepest, most elaborately sustained fulfillment in the nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century novel. The author examines flirtation in major British, French, and American texts to demonstrate how the changing aesthetic of such fiction fastened on flirtatious desire as a paramount subject for distinctly novelistic inquiry. The novel, he argues, accentuated questions of ambiguity and ambivalence on which an erotics of deliberate imprecision thrived. But the impact of flirtation was not only formal. Kaye views coquetry as an arena of freedom built on a dialectic of simultaneous consent and refusal, as well as an expression of "managed desire," a risky display of female power, and a cagey avenue for the expression of dissident sexualities. Through coquetry, novelists offered their response to important scientific and social changes and to the rise of the metropolis as a realm of increasingly transient amorous relations.

    Challenging current trends in gender, post-gender, and queer-theory criticism, and considering texts as diverse as Darwin'sThe Descent of Manand Gilbert and Sullivan'sThe Mikado, Kaye insists that critical appraisals of Victorian and Edwardian fiction must move beyond existing paradigms defining considerations of flirtation in the novel.The Flirt's Tragedyoffers a lively, revisionary, often startling assessment of nineteenth-century fiction that will alter our understanding of the history of the novel.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-2200-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction: Fiction and the Poetics of Flirtation
    (pp. 1-50)

    “All the great European love stories take place in an extra-coital setting,” observes the narrator of Milan Kundera’s novelImmortality(1991), noting the stories of Madame de Lafayette’sPrincess of Clèves, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’sPaul and Virginia, Eugène Fromentin’sDominique, Goethe’sThe Sorrows of YoungWerther, Knut Hamsun’sVictoria, Romain Rolland’sPeter and Luce, and Nastassia Fillipovna’s unrequited love for Prince Myshkin in Fyodor Dostoevsky’sThe Idiot. Concludes Kundera’s speaker: “The love of Anna Karenina and Vronski ended with their first sexual encounter, after which it became nothing but a story of its own disintegration.”¹ AsImmortalityimplies, it was not...

  5. 1 Dialectical Desires: The Eighteenth-Century Coquette and the Invention of Nineteenth-Century Fictional Character
    (pp. 51-83)

    Despite her ubiquity in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century French and British literary narrative, the figure of the coquette has eluded a sustained critical consideration in discussions of the novel. Although both men and women may play at flirtatious games, it is largely the coquette who in the novel of realism becomes the living symbol of a dangerous form of eros, as well as an enduring exemplum of a French aristocratic class so given over to glittering effects that it has lost its purpose. As we shall see, by importing the eighteenth-century coquette to nineteenthcentury fiction, Victorian novelists come to highlight problems of...

  6. 2 The Flirtation of Species: Darwinian Sexual Selection and Victorian Narrative
    (pp. 84-117)

    Of the many propositions advanced by Charles Darwin, that which has endured as the most controversial, although until recently the least explored by literary critics and cultural theorists, addresses the question of “sexual selection” in the natural world. First presented at length in The Descent ofMan and Selection in Relationto Sex (1871), Darwin’s theory of sexual selection (a term he initially introduced in his 1859The Origin of Species) detailed how throughout the animal kingdom, such features as

    The Flirtation of Species: the antlers of a buck, the spurs of a cock, or the pincers of a...

  7. 3 George Eliot and Thomas Hardy: Flirtation, Female Choice, and the Revision of Darwinian Belief
    (pp. 118-150)

    The two major Victorian novelists who consciously acknowledge and assimilate Darwinian structures of thought throughout their writing, George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, had long been absorbed by the latent, prickly subtextual predicament raised byThe Descent of Man: what might occur if the female grew to relish too greatly the initial stages of sexual selection, protracting choice and thus perversely honoring, but also disturbing, the “rules” of nature? Given that Eliot (as Sally Shuttleworth has illustrated) was a supporter of Darwin’sThe Origin of Speciesbut resistant to the equation of “evolution” with human progress, it is likely that the...

  8. 4 Deadly Deferrals: Henry James, Edith Wharton, Gustave Flaubert, and the Exhaustion of Flirtatious Desire
    (pp. 151-176)

    By the end of the nineteenth century, in works as different in tone, style, and subject matter as James’sDaisy Miller, Hardy’sJude the Obscure, and Bram Stoker’sDracula, novelists increasingly represent the female flirt as a social menace, her strategies not only perniciously insincere, a threat to customary methods of unraveling identity, but unnatural as well. The coquette looms large as an individual whose connotations of danger—an admixture of theatricality and power—coupled with her status as a connoisseur of male beauty, shape her as an insurgent who wreaks havoc with nature’s courtship plot and its aim of...

  9. 5 “Acceptable Hints of Infinity”: Dissident Desires and the Erotics of Countermodernism
    (pp. 177-206)

    In 1882, at a reception at the Washington home of Judge Edward G. Loring, Oscar Wilde met Henry James, then the toast of literary salons in America for recently having published bothWashington SquareandPortrait of a Lady.¹ There began the end of one of the most unlikely friendships in international letters. Wilde, appearing in knee breeches and adorned with a large, yellow silk handkerchief, introduced himself to, among other dignitaries, an American general and a United States senator. James later wrote to Isabella Gardner that Wilde, whom he termed “fatuous” and “repulsive,” was ignored by everyone, although, if...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 207-234)
  11. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 235-240)
  12. Index
    (pp. 241-246)