Strange LikenessDescription and the Modernist Novel

Strange LikenessDescription and the Modernist Novel

Dora Zhang

Print publication date: 2021

ISBN: 9780226722498

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Abstract

Description is a ubiquitous feature of novels, but it has typically been considered secondary (if not an obstacle) to the demands of narrative. This prejudice was especially pronounced in the early twentieth century among varied thinkers (from Virginia Woolf to Georg Lukács) who were reacting to the growth of descriptive details (especially of settings and objects) in nineteenth-century fiction. Strange Likeness seeks to vindicate description’s place in the novel, and to do so by examining the corpus of modernist fiction, centrally the works of Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Woolf. In spite of their criticisms, descriptive practices were in fact a crucial site of attention and experimentation for these writers, who maintained an empiricist commitment to the observation of experience but who turned their attention to intangible phenomena, such has the atmosphere of a room, similarities of relations, and affective states. They thus continued the realist project of describing the world, but uncoupled from its usual associations with a prose of things on the one hand and visualization on the other. Moreover, modernist experiments highlight the variety of descriptive functions: as a technology of social knowledge on the micro scale, as a generator of affective response, and as a means of marking linguistic community. Drawing on narrative theory, philosophy of language, and affect theory, among other discourses, Strange Likeness tracks modernist attempts to describe a common world that remained open to revision and change, while arguing that reading for description can reinvigorate our thinking about the novel more broadly.