- Curious Subjects: Women and the Trials of Realism by Hilary M. SCHOR
At the start of Curious Subjects, Hilary M. Schor states: “My argument is not only that without curiosity there would never be any such thing as the realist novel, but that it was the novel that brought the modern feminist subject into being” (2). What might seem a straightforward claim becomes an interpretive curiosity cabinet, a rich collection of ideas and objects that intersect in unexpected, enlightening ways. To explore “the story of the realist heroine and her transgressive curiosity,” Schor examines the realist novel, the Victorian social and intellectual context that fertilized it, the concept of curiosity, and the cultural role of fiction, past and future—while producing compelling readings of a multitude of Victorian novels, including Clarissa, Alice in Wonderland, Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda, Vanity Fair, Bleak House, The Old Curiosity Shop, and The Portrait of a Lady, alongside contemporary fictions, graphic novels, and films.
“Curiosity, like love and pretzels, has a history,” Schor writes, and in her capacious and witty account curiosity becomes “both a way of starting things and a potentially dangerous force” (18). Showing how the realist novel inherently involves a paradox between representation and invention (“what Ian Watt referred to as the realism of referentiality, a ‘full and authentic report of human experience,’ but one that gets beyond the mere world of stuff” ), Schor cites the work of scholars including Watt, George Levine, Elizabeth Ermath, Robert Newsom, Nancy Armstrong, Catherine Gallagher, Roland Barthes, and Franco Moretti to define and test realistic fiction. Schor claims that the “trickery of realism…offers us both the curios of the real world and the curiosity of knowing we are in a fiction” (70), so the novel becomes an essential element in explaining the trials involved in women’s acquisition of knowledge: what heroines want to know, and how they act on their knowledge. “These are questions that matter as much for readers as they do for heroines” (26), Schor notes, as she connects fiction, philosophy, history, law, and experience. Each chapter details the ways in which “the heroine tests the world by testing the maxim” (45) but also creates the narrative: “without her curiosity, no story, no enigma, no contract” (26). The book is framed by the political writings of John Stuart Mill, as well as the fictional figures of Bluebeard, Pandora, and Eve, each representing the tension between curiosity and the law, interdictions, and fictions as they affect female liberty and center on the marriage plot. “Marriage, curiously, offers in the realist novel exactly what John Stuart Mill [End Page 137] imagined for the liberal subject: persistent exposure to that which is most alien” (7), for “marriage exists not as an answer to a question, but as an opportunity to pose a question” (12). “What the laws of genre and the laws of marriage share is an interest in singular answers,” Schor writes, even as they are categorized into general rules that limit the curious heroine’s quest. “Curiosity is precisely a moment of hesitation in the imposition of law, a kind of gap that breaches those laws” (6).
Schor concludes: “That we can never quite be curious enough was the one thing our tradition taught us; but that curiosity is a spark of life, a lightning strike, a match to the heart, is something we forget at our peril” (247). In a time when we fret about the future of the novel, she connects the realist Victorian novel to contemporary narrative forms (including a superb reading of the character River in Joss Whedon’s sci-fi film, Serenity). Schor’s book insists that the novel matters: by foregrounding curiosity, novels teach us to ask questions. Indeed, the forces that Schor celebrates in the realist novel are relevant, for the very certainties and constraints of the female gender (as Victorians understood it) now apply to every gender, and we are all the curious heroine embarking on a plot. Isn’t the definition of gender itself, and its relation to...