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Introduction: Reading Things

Introduction: Reading Things

(p.1) Introduction: Reading Things
The Ideas in Things
Elaine Freedgood
University of Chicago Press

Victorian novels describe, catalog, quantify, and in general shower us with things that threaten to crowd the narrative right off the page. These things do not get taken seriously—that is to say, they do not get interpreted—much of the time. This book assumes that critical cultural archives have been preserved, unsuspected, in the things of realism that have been so little or so lightly read. It “reads” objects with obvious imperial and industrial histories in three well-known Victorian novels: mahogany furniture in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, calico curtains in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, and “Negro head” tobacco in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. It also examines Middlemarch by George Eliot, using it as an early example of the way in which the “literary” novel works to refigure, and stabilize, our perception of the symbolic ground of fiction. This introductory chapter examines the reality effect in the Victorian novel, metonymy and its convention and contingency, the possible “evidence” the novel provides, the metonymic imagination, and social hieroglyphics.

Keywords:   contingency, Victorian novels, Jane Eyre, Mary Barton, fiction, reality effect, realism, metonymy, evidence, social hieroglyphics

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