Darwin and Eliot and History*

My very smart academic friend, Sam Cohen, recently wrote at length about the difficulties of planning a course based on a particular historical moment in terms of the philosophical problems of making fiction stand for history. At least, that’s how I’m choosing to paraphrase a key point implicit in his great discussion of three things he wishes someone had told him a long time ago when he first started studying literature. In lieu of filling his comments section with a rambling diatribe, I figured I’d do that here in my own space.

His course-in-planning is on 1968. Victorianists have a penchant for doing this too–choosing a year and then planning a course (or even a whole conference) around it. 1859 seems to be the most common year of choice. After all, it was the year in which Charles Darwin published On the Origins of Species, and that alone, many argue, was enough to revolutionize the century. But, as even the most cursory glance suggests, 1859 was a banner year. It saw the publication of multiple, field-changing books on medical advances, of George Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede, and of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities in his newly-minted family periodical, All the Year Round. It was the year in which ground was broken for the Suez Canal; an enormous solar superstorm** was observed; multiple astronomical discoveries made headlines; and the first dog-show was held in England. (There are many other important things one might add to this list if including American history as well, not least of which was John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.)

Sam poses as a central issue the desire to “be wary of looking for texts with characters like people that capture 1968 in amber and have something to say about what happened then,” and it’s this hesitation on which I think I have the most to say. In short, I might ask: why the hesitation?

Not to be snarky, you understand, but really because I want to know.

First of all, I should say I agree with the unwritten premise here, that characters in fiction can’t necessarily freeze a particular moment in time for later careful scrutiny of all its most salient particulars. After all, as Sam points out, characters are not real people and thus do not have the ability to make choices that will reflect accurately on the social dynamics of their moments of creation. That is to say: every character in a novel makes only the choices that his or her author dictates. There are no other possible things a character could have done; there are only other possible choices the great and powerful authorial Oz could have made about where to move that character-puppet through the world Oz has constructed. This is why we cannot reasonably talk about actions characters “should have taken” in the same way that we can talk about choices our roommates “should have made” last Friday night when they undertook some bit of utter foolishness.

To extrapolate from this point, one might argue that the extent that they are not sentient beings, characters cannot be taken as “accurate” reflections of history. On the other hand, I would argue that to the extent that they are created by authors who ARE sentient beings, they might reasonably reflect at least one perspective on a given cultural moment.

This, of course, begs the question of whether characters were designed to reflect their author’s particular cultural moment or not. (Not to mention the far more complex question of whether characters “mean” what their authors “intended” them to mean–which is really another discussion entirely. In the spirit of full disclosure, I probably ought to admit that I think authors can have intentions in what they write–though texts might “mean” differently than authors envisioned, and certainly the project of trying to ferret out an author’s intentions is far less fruitful than simply exploring what a text actually manages to express or imply.)

It might seem that the two novels I’ve named perfectly make this point that fictional characters cannot be presumed to amber-ize the history of their moment of production for us. After all, A Tale of Two Cities, though published in 1859, is set primarily in France during the French Revolution. Adam Bede is set in England, but before the passage of the First Reform Bill in 1832, and thus might similarly be understood as unrelated to events of the post-railroad, scientifically-revolutionized, rights-for-women-politicized mid-century. And yet, I would argue that both novels, and the characters in them, have really useful “somethings to say about what happened” in 1859. Through the metaphor of a displaced time and national crisis, Dickens comments sometimes quite bitterly on the meaning of “progress” in his modern world. Adam Bede, despite the historical anachronism of this fact, reflects far more interestingly on the gender politics of 1859 than on those of 1830.

All of which is to say that while I completely agree that it’s important to get students to think about form and authorial sleight-of-hand and the very constructedness of both characters and texts, I also think that deliberately asking what a character–or a whole novel–might tell us about its historical moment can be enormously illuminating. What, for example, is the relationship between fiction and non-fiction? Can one think about the narrative elements in Darwin’s work–his stories of bird mating that are so often filtered through Victorian metaphors of ideal courtship–without placing them against the traditional marriage plot that informs Dickens’s work or Eliot’s? Can one read characters in Dickens or Eliot without considering how they comment upon the middle-class matrimonial imperatives that were oppressively normalized by 1859?

Another way of thinking about this is through a different line of questions, namely, why is it that so often, the books we like best are ones whose characters make us WISH they’d made “better” choices at certain points. Like the impulse to shout at the television screen “Slow down!” because it’s just so obvious that the blithely cheerful driver on the sunny day will inevitably get into a fatal car accident in about 1/2 mile, a book character in whom we’ve come to invest some emotional energy will cause us to pass judgment. I think what I’m trying to say is that we might well tap into this identification with characters as a means of getting students to see how authors uses words to manipulate emotions. And, by extension, how they construct books, even if unconsciously, as reflections of history.

It may seem a naive desire to read books as if they reveal history (where “reveal” is usually taken to mean “show us historical truths and events as they really happened”). But it is nonetheless perhaps useful to ask what “truths” narratives seem to reveal, and what counter-narratives might lie between the lines.

I think this is less a matter, then, of which texts we select, than it is a matter of the reading processes to which we subject them.

Indeed, the fact that characters cannot actually do or be what readers often want them to do or be is surely a reflection both of our reading practices and of our relationship to history. If we examine both more self-consciously, we could productively unpack the constructed nature of all sorts of narratives, both ones in fiction and ones that are culturally more pervasive. If we choose books for our syllabi in which characters would seem to have something to say about history, we ought to embrace the naive reader that identifies that something. And then we can ask ourselves, for example, why we desire certain kinds of resolution for certain characters. Is this a result of the way the author has manipulated the structure of the story, the way our own expectations of narrative closure work upon us as readers, the way that some character’s traits are ones we see in ourselves so that we project the choices we would have made onto the character? In all of these cases, there is a complex matrix of authorial process, cultural norms, and readerly bias in operation. I’d contend that it is useful to examine how the norms in operation at a moment of writing are similar to or different from our own, and that doing so will help us build a more nuanced picture of the relationship of text to history.

Also, on a less pedagogically sophisticated but perhaps more practical level, given that students often can stand some refreshers on the parameters of particular historical moments, I think there is a place for the apparently representative, sweetly congealed in amber, character–if only to sketch out a set of apparent “facts” against which to hang the more complex counter-reading that can only come when one has some grasp of history to start with.


* I considered ending the title of this post with “Oh, My!” in homage to Oz, but thought that might be a bit too twee even for me.

** Yes, I did just link to Wikipedia. As I tell my students all the time: it’s a bad place to go for interpretations of history, but a great place to go if you just want some basic details of events.

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One Response to Darwin and Eliot and History*

  1. cohenss says:

    Snark, shnark. (Also, smart, shmart.) It’s nice to have inspired something more thoughtful than I wrote. If i could revise my post (I have to get better at this fast-writing stuff), I would rephrase what you cite as a statement of my central issue, the idea of being wary about selecting what you call naively historical texts for this course. I think it implies that I won’t be picking any texts like that, because I will; I think I just want to be more conscious of what I’m saying if I assign texts that aren’t reflective about their representation of the past. I’ve taught courses on representations of history in the novel, and metafiction, and want to remember to be as conscious of these issues in thi s course as I am in those. But of course asking what these books *can* tell us about their moment is the whole point. Maybe it’s just a balancing act.

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