Populating the Novel: Literary Form and the Politics of Surplus Life

Populating the Novel: Literary Form and the Politics of Surplus Life

by Emily Steinlight


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From the teeming streets of Dickens’s London to the households of domestic fiction, nineteenth-century British writers constructed worlds crammed beyond capacity with human life. In Populating the Novel, Emily Steinlight contends that rather than simply reflecting demographic growth, such pervasive literary crowding contributed to a seismic shift in British political thought. She shows how the nineteenth-century novel in particular claimed a new cultural role as it took on the task of narrating human aggregation at a moment when the Malthusian specter of surplus population suddenly and quite unexpectedly became a central premise of modern politics.

In readings of novels by Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Mary Braddon, Thomas Hardy, and Joseph Conrad that link fiction and biopolitics, Steinlight brings the crowds that pervade nineteenth-century fiction into the foreground. In so doing, she transforms the subject and political stakes of the Victorian novel, dislodging the longstanding idea that its central category is the individual by demonstrating how fiction is altered by its emerging concern with population. By overpopulating narrative space and imagining the human species perpetually in excess of the existing social order, she shows, fiction made it necessary to radically reimagine life in the aggregate.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501710704
Publisher: Cornell University Press
Publication date: 03/15/2018
Pages: 292
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.06(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Emily Steinlight is the Stephen M. Gorn Family Assistant Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania.

What People are Saying About This

Jules Law

"This is a magnificent book, elegantly conceived and luminously executed. Steinlight identifies an original, striking, multifaceted thematic thread uniting the major works of the period: the figure of excess population.Populating the Novel is an enormously important, fruitful, and relevant book, and Steinlight meticulously turns every stone in pursuing it."

David Kurnick

"Populating the Novel is a tremendously impressive book. Steinlight expertly demonstrates how thoroughly the Victorians—famous for their ‘individualism’—conceived of human life in the aggregate. Her book will quickly become a touchstone in nineteenth-century literary studies and the definitive study of biopolitics in Victorian fiction."

Audrey Jaffe

"Analyzing the politics and form of nineteenth-century crowds, masses, aggregates, and novels, Emily Steinlight shows how the period responded to the idea of an increasing—and increasingly difficult to conceptualize—population. Her book deftly reveals the many ways in which poets, theorists, and novelists, from Wordsworth to Hardy, sought to accommodate an ostensible surplus of life, at the same time enfolding numerous readers in their representations."

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