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Real Talk: Direct Discourse and the Victorian Novel



Real Talk: Direct Discourse and the Victorian Novel


Alexandra Irene Dumont

Doctor of Philosophy in English

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Kent Puckett, Chair

This dissertation proceeds from the idea that, although it is everywhere present and routinely discussed, we have nevertheless neglected to talk, thoroughly, about “talk” in the Victorian realist novel. It also proceeds from the idea that we have done this because it is precisely what such novels, and Victorian culture more generally, have taught us to do. Talk, I argue, both as a subject and a mode of novelistic representation, is cast as an other to the novel, one that is simultaneously alien to and containable within the realist text. As a verbal activity, talk suggests an orality that is quotidian and amorphous, a flow of words submerged in the social world that elicits it. This formlessness and sociality render talk an ideal figure for the vast, teeming “life” to which the realist novel refers, and whose heterogeneity is as much a model as a vexation for novelistic form. As a textual formation within the novel, I argue, talk as direct discourse functions as a “real fictional object”: a place in which the language of the novel shifts from a mode of representation to an object thereof, and consequently becomes at once more and less “real.” For authors like Harriet Martineau, George Eliot, and Henry James, such ambiguities provide a means of navigating realism’s competing imperatives of extra-textual reference and aesthetic self-sufficiency. Talk’s minor quality allows it to animate the novel’s rhetoric even as that rhetoric disavows talk as mere chatter, gossip, or report.

My focus on talk, then, is a way of getting at a larger and in many ways more elusive subject: Victorian realism and the critical discussions thereof. Though talk as dialect or idiolect has an important place in the critical history of realism, it has not been the defining marker of either the realist mode or the putative formal sophistication of the Victorian novel. I begin my project by considering the primacy accorded by novel theory to free indirect discourse, and suggest that literary criticism’s obsession with this form stems in part from the parallels between free indirect discourse itself and the methodology of those who have theorized it. Conversely, I argue, direct discourse has been read as a mere starting point, from which narrative complexity evolves. Yet it is because, not in spite, of this basic or minor quality that talk is fundamental to the realist novel. I examine the function of these minor forms of talk and direct discourse in the didactic stories and political essays of Harriet Martineau, the aphoristic “parables” and omniscient narration of George Eliot, and the “impressionizing” fictions and all-consuming style of Henry James. I trace the ways that Victorian realism casts talk as a foil for its more totalizing forms, arguing that in centering itself around this vanishing, minor object, realism centers itself around an absence. It is not, then, the presence of the world in the text that makes the realist novel possible, but rather the world’s absence that makes space for the novelistic real.

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