- Realism: Fantasy’s Fulfillment
IN THIS COMPACT and bracingly polemical book, Audrey Jaffe argues that realism is “not fantasy’s alternative but rather its fulfillment”: that we err in presuming that the literary realism of such authors as Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, Collins, and Hardy can even provisionally leads us towards any better understanding of an actually existing Victorian “reality.” Instead, “[r]ealist novels … represent not the real but the desire for it, and in doing so render it desirable for readers as well”; producing “fantasies” of “solidity,” “uniqueness,” “specialness,” “continuity,” and singularity of identity, “affective individualism,” “clear vision,” and other such effects, literary realism conjures a powerful fantasy of access to a “real” in which we, as contemporary readers and scholars of Victorian realist novels, continue to indulge.
Jaffe’s skeptical scrutiny of “realist fantasy” leads her to many striking, smart insights about those “conventions and ideologies” that she dissects, especially, for instance, the analysis of the ways Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge “renders the issue of secondariness both structural and thematic,” thereby defining the role of any character as “fill[ing] an already existing slot or position.” The shock of the novel’s famous opening, in which a drunken, despairing Michael Henshard sells his wife, thus “brings the structure of realism into view as a series of conventions and a filling in of gaps or blanks: the fulfillment of preexisting forms (such as marriage) with specific but interchangeable individuals.” Here and elsewhere, Jaffe trains a suspicious critical gaze on realism’s procedures, revealing ideological effects that we may have been lulled into overlooking. Along similar lines, she has interesting things to say about the ways Trollope at once represents, induces, and prohibits “day-dreaming” and “fantasizing,” and about Dickens’s strategies for insisting through narrative coincidence that every “nobody” in fact possesses a “uniqueness and individuality” that is, in a sense, also offered as a reward to the reader of his fiction.
Jaffe’s willingness to disagree pointedly with respected critics is admirable (a quality seen too rarely in contemporary, risk-averse scholarship!), and The Victorian Novel Dreams of the Real is consistently provocative and thought-provoking, full of rewarding sections of sophisticated analysis of particular novels. In the forthright spirit of Jaffe herself, however, I will admit that I often found myself either disagreeing with the book’s larger claims or feeling uncertain about the degree [End Page 551] to which they move us to any truly new sense of how realism operates. I remain a fan of George Levine’s The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterly, and in reading Jaffe’s book I had a curious sense that criticism had circled backwards, such that Jaffe—who draws heavily on Louis Althusser’s arguments about ideological interpellation, and Jacques Lacan’s about the alignment of the “real” with fantasy—is now making new versions of precisely the kinds of post-structuralist arguments about realism and reference that Levine felt that he needed to revise in 1981.
“As we may by now be tired of hearing,” Levine wrote over twenty-five years ago, “language, in representing reality, most forcefully demonstrates reality’s absence. At best, language creates the illusion of reality”; “semiotic theories” have shown us that a sign is “significant only of [other] signs within an arbitrary code” and have demonstrated the “impossibility of external reference.” Expressing some exasperation with such sweeping dismissals of any actual signifieds lying behind our signifiers, Levine developed a powerful defense of Victorian realist novelists as something other than naïvely credulous, faithful devotees of simple referentiality. “No major Victorian novelists were deluded into believing that they were in fact offering an unmediated reality,” Levine argued; “but all of them struggled to make contact with the world out there … and to break from the threatening limits of solipsism, of convention, and of language” (The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterly [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981, 8]).
Jaffe mentions Levine only glancingly in a few footnotes as one of those...