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Upward Mobility and the Common Good

Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State

Bruce Robbins
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 330
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  • Book Info
    Upward Mobility and the Common Good
    Book Description:

    We think we know what upward mobility stories are about--virtuous striving justly rewarded, or unprincipled social climbing regrettably unpunished. Either way, these stories seem obviously concerned with the self-making of self-reliant individuals rather than with any collective interest. InUpward Mobility and the Common Good, Bruce Robbins completely overturns these assumptions to expose a hidden tradition of erotic social interdependence at the heart of the literary canon.

    Reinterpreting novels by figures such as Balzac, Stendhal, Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, Dreiser, Wells, Doctorow, and Ishiguro, along with a number of films, Robbins shows how deeply the material and erotic desires of upwardly mobile characters are intertwined with the aid they receive from some sort of benefactor or mentor. In his view, Hannibal Lecter ofThe Silence of the Lambsbecomes a key figure of social mobility in our time. Robbins argues that passionate and ambiguous relationships (like that between Lecter and Clarice Starling) carry the upward mobility story far from anyone's simple self-interest, whether the protagonist's or the mentor's. Robbins concludes that upward mobility stories have paradoxically helped American and European society make the transition from an ethic of individual responsibility to one of collective accountability, a shift that made the welfare state possible, but that also helps account for society's fascination with cases of sexual abuse and harassment by figures of authority.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2765-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Political Science, Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE Someone Else’s Life
    (pp. ix-xx)
  4. INTRODUCTION The Fairy Godmother
    (pp. 1-21)

    Early in Thomas Harris’s novelSilence of the Lambs(1988), Dr. Hannibal Lecter, psychiatrist, serial killer, and cannibal, makes a proposal to Clarice Starling, FBI trainee, through the bars of his cell.

    “I’ll give you what you love most, Clarice Starling.”

    “What’s that, Dr. Lecter?”

    “Advancement, of course.”¹

    As usual, Lecter is right.Silence of the Lambscould be described in various ways—as a Gothic horror story, a detective thriller, or an oblique argument for vegetarianism. But if what matters is what Starling wants most (which is also what she gets), then the novel should be classified as a...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Erotic Patronage: Rousseau, Constant, Balzac, Stendhal
    (pp. 22-54)

    The early books of Rousseau’sConfessionsdevote some of their most famous pages to the young Jean-Jacques’s singular relationship with Madame de Warens, a Swiss convert to Catholicism who had separated from her husband and moved to Annecy.² Some thirteen years older than Rousseau, Madame de Warens picks the fifteen-year-old runaway off the streets, gives him a home and a start in the world, and after some time makes him her lover.³ In the last of hisReveries of a Solitary Walker, Rousseau recalls that the happiest days of his life were those he spent with the woman who he...

  6. CHAPTER TWO How to Be a Benefactor without Any Money
    (pp. 55-85)

    On the first page of Gissing’sNew Grub Street(1891), the early and upwardly rising Jasper Milvain announces to his mother and sister over breakfast: “There’s a man being hanged in London at this moment.”¹ Looking back at this scene from the last page, when Milvain has realized his ambitions, his friend and fellow writer Reardon has fallen into poverty and died, and Milvain has married Reardon’s beautiful upper-class widow, the logic seems clear and zero-sum. Someone has to die in order for someone else to rise.

    This logic fills the upward mobility story with deaths just as it fills...

  7. CHAPTER THREE “It’s not your fault”: Therapy and Irresponsibility from Dreiser to Doctorow
    (pp. 86-126)

    A more democratic circulation of power, which the last chapter proposed as an effect of the reforms leading toward the welfare state, is the prime target of critique in D.A. Miller’s brilliant and influential essay onBleak House.¹ In Dickens’s early novels, Miller suggests, the walls of the prison, the workhouse, the factory, and the orphanage draw a line between an inside and an outside, positing a space of “freedom and domestic tranquillity” where these oppressive institutions could be escaped and from which they could be criticized—making possible, that is, an emancipatory politics. InBleak House, however, the intrusive,...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR A Portrait of the Artist as a Rentier
    (pp. 127-157)

    H. G. Wells’s novel Kipps:The Story of a Simple Soul(1905) describes a lowly young draper’s assistant (Wells’s own occupation at the same age) who receives an unexpected inheritance and suddenly finds himself rich.¹ As a result, he becomes engaged to the upper-class woman he has long adored from afar. However, his efforts to adapt to the conventions of the genteel world soon begin to weary and oppress him, and he goes back to his childhood sweetheart, who has meanwhile found work as a servant. He then loses most of the inheritance, swindled by the former fiancée’s brother. The...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE The Health Visitor
    (pp. 158-189)

    One page into her autobiographical memoirLandscape for a Good Woman(1986), in a short opening chapter about the death of her mother, Carolyn Steedman recalls a traumatic scene from her working-class childhood: “We both watched the dumpy retreating figure of the health visitor through the curtainless windows. The woman had said: ‘This house isn’t fit for a baby.’ And then she stopped crying, my mother, got by, the phrase that picks up after all difficulty (it says: it’s like this; it shouldn’t be like this; it’s unfair; I’ll manage).” Steedman herself draws an angrier conclusion: “And I? I will...

  10. CHAPTER SIX On the Persistence of Anger in the Institutions of Caring
    (pp. 190-231)

    Anger, Philip Fisher writes inThe Vehement Passions, “in its legitimate form has its source in the feeling and in the perception of injustice” (175).¹ Fisher resuscitates this Aristotelian account of anger in order to redeem the concept from its sad fate in “our therapeutic, post-Freudian culture” (172). In Aristotle’s view, feeling too little anger is no less of a problem than feeling too much. “The in-irascible man,” the one who “does not feel anger when he should” (173), has fallen away from Aristotle’s ideal of virtue. Our “therapeutic, post-Freudian culture” is of course very attentive to anger, but it...

  11. CONCLUSION The Luck of Birth and the International Division of Labor
    (pp. 232-244)

    On the last page ofNever Let Me Go, Kathy describes a landscape she has stopped to contemplate while driving in the country soon after Tommy’s death.

    I found I was standing before acres of ploughed earth. There was a fence keeping me from stepping into the field, with two lines of barbed wire, and I could see how this fence and the cluster of two or three trees above me were the only things breaking the wind for miles. All along the fence, especially along the lower line of wire, all sorts of rubbish had caught and tangled. It...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 245-288)
  13. Index
    (pp. 289-304)