The Tension of the Real: Visuality in Nineteenth Century British Realism
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This dissertation begins from the problem that is built into realism as a literary genre: its commitment to capturing the unfiltered circumstances of human life will always be at odds with the artifice of its representational constructs and its fiction. In this study, I consider visuality as a central, productive part of this problem and seek intensely visual moments within realist novels where realism wages its own struggle with itself as it attempts to navigate its limitations and push forward its possibilities. These moments pause the narrative as they prioritize picture over action. As descriptive moments work to render visual images through words on the printed page, they are fraught with realism’s struggle to use the artifice of fiction as a means for approximating an ostensible reality. Facing this difficulty, realist practitioners take up vastly different strategies. In this project, I investigate why and how visuality is deployed so differently by those who chose to write in this mode. I seek that which is piercing in the nineteenth-century realist novel by locating moments of crisis and tension, both within the plot and also within the strategies of the stories’ delivery. These are moments where the novel becomes troubled by the visual, revealing the potential and limit of the image. In realism, visuality encompasses a broad and varied array of strategies, including instances of enargeia and ekphrasis, passages that seek to evoke a sense of place or milieu through a rich catalog of visual detail, expressive self-renderings in the dialog and inner monologs of the characters, explorations of the embodied act of seeing, and moments where perception fails or visual description exposes itself as insufficient. I consider a small group of canonical authors: George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad, who are of critical importance to this genre and to nineteenth century realism, as it moves towards modernism. By examining moments in their novels where descriptive imagery is at its most acute, I seek to explain how moments of intense visuality are crucial nodes where each author, using unique and distinctive methods, negotiates the problem of realist representation.