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Liberalism in the Age of High Realism

Liberalism in the Age of High Realism

(p.46) Chapter Two Liberalism in the Age of High Realism
Bleak Liberalism
Amanda Anderson
University of Chicago Press

This chapter considers the influence of liberalism, both conceptually and formally, on the high realist tradition. Coming at the same historical juncture, liberalism and realism explore many of the same issues: imagining the critique of custom and convention as a way of life; mediating between the moral life of individuals and a long sociological or historical view of communities and societies; and finding a way to acknowledge violence and suffering, both natural and social. This chapter analyzes three major realist texts of the nineteenth century—Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch—showing how they use distinctive formal strategies to reflect the competing claims of individual virtue, on the one hand, and political principles and social reform, on the other. Each novel reflects a distinctive liberal concern: Bleak House explores the relation between moral aspiration and systemic critique, The Way We Live Now reflects the tension between liberal critique and embedded custom, and Middlemarch shows the gap between ethics and politics. Throughout, transpersonal or impersonal forms and practices make their force felt alongside the individualism so familiar from those strands of liberalism that have influenced literary studies heretofore.

Keywords:   liberalism, realism, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot, critique, custom, ethics, politics, individualism

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