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Victorian Interpretation

Suzy Anger

Publication Year: 2006

Suzy Anger investigates the relationship of Victorian interpretation to the ways in which literary criticism is practiced today. Her primary focus is literary interpretation, but she also considers fields such as legal theory, psychology, history, and the natural sciences in order to establish the pervasiveness of hermeneutic thought in Victorian culture. Anger's book demonstrates that much current thought on interpretation has its antecedents in the Victorians, who were already deeply engaged with the problems of interpretation that concern literary theorists today.

Anger traces the development and transformation of interpretive theory from a religious to a secular (and particularly literary) context. She argues that even as hermeneutic theory was secularized in literary interpretation it carried in its practice some of the religious implications with which the tradition began. She further maintains that, for the Victorians, theories of interpretation are often connected to ethical principles and suggests that all theories of interpretation may ultimately be grounded in ethical theories.

Beginning with an examination of Victorian biblical exegesis, in the work of figures such as Benjamin Jowett, John Henry Newman, and Matthew Arnold, the book moves to studies of Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, and Oscar Wilde. Emphasizing the extent to which these important writers are preoccupied with hermeneutics, Anger also shows that consideration of their thought brings to light questions and qualifications of some of the assumptions of contemporary criticism.

Published by: Cornell University Press


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pp. 1-2

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 3-10


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pp. xi-12

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pp. xi-16

This project was supported in its early stages by a fellowship at the University of Washington. I am also grateful to the American Council of Learned Societies for a fellowship grant, to the University of Maryland for a faculty research fellowship, and to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a Summer Stipend. An earlier version...

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An Overview

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pp. 1-21

It is one of the characteristics of recent thought that it distrusts its own activity,” wrote Henry Jones, a professor of philosophy at University College, in 1891. “Thought,” he continued, “has become aware of its own activity; men realize more clearly than they did in former times that the apparent constitution of things depends directly on the character of the...

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Victorian Scriptural Hermeneutics

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pp. 22-48

First, it may be laid down that Scripture has one meaning—the meaning which it had to the mind of the prophet or evangelist who first uttered. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and Critics no longer insist upon “a dogmatic faith in the plenary verbal inspiration of every one of Shakespeare’s clowns,” quipped Pater in an...

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Victorian Legal Interpretation

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pp. 49-60

Would you some day inform them that in a legal document words have to be interpreted in a legal sense: and not by private feelings of whatever kind they may be. . . . They do not understand that legal documents are Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, as critics have often noted, is concerned with the problems of interpretation in many ways, with Chancery’s...

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pp. 61-84

In a review article of 1891 Wilhelm Dilthey describes Carlyle as “the greatest English writer of our century.”1 It is not surprising that Dilthey, the transitional figure between nineteenth-century Romantic hermeneutics and twentieth-century philosophical hermeneutics, greatly admired Carlyle, since he would have found in Carlyle’s work a preoccupation with the same hermeneutical...

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Victorian Science and Hermeneutics

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pp. 85-94

Carlyle, as we have seen, regarded all human knowledge as symbolic “interpretation” of the absolute. Notwithstanding his early training in the sciences and onetime aspiration to pursue a scientific career, he did not believe that science yielded absolute truths. Science should recognize that it provides knowledge only of phenomena, or, as Carlyle understands that idea, that it is interpretation....

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George Eliot’s Hermeneutics of Sympathy

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pp. 95-130

If Carlyle offered a hermeneutic theory that was transitional, located somewhere in between the theological and the secular, George Eliot’s thought on interpretation moved hermeneutics fully into the secular realm. As with Carlyle, hermeneutics was crucially important to all of her writing. Again like Carlyle, she was interested in large epistemological questions about the relationship between human knowledge and the act of interpretation. But whereas the....

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Victorian Literary Criticism

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pp. 131-140

Victorian literary criticism, a much richer and more complex activity than has sometimes been allowed, is a subject that deserves at least several books of its own. I want here to discuss briefly a few of the key issues that arose when in the late nineteenth century the focus of criticism began to shift from evaluation and judgment to the principles of interpreting literature. I will not be attending to the interesting varieties of criticism whose primary concern is merit or appreciation...

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Subjectivism, Intersubjectivity, and Intention

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pp. 141-165

Unlike most of the earlier commentators on hermeneutics that this book has discussed, Oscar Wilde comes to interpretation from an early background in literary studies. He was introduced to literary interpretation at Trinity College in Ireland and at Oxford University, where he studied...

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Hermeneutics and the Self

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pp. 166-172

By the end of the nineteenth century, the hermeneutic strategies borrowed from biblical exegesis had made the move into secular literary criticism, but also into a wide range of Victorian disciplines. In this epilogue, I conclude by looking briefly at a Victorian phenomenon in which hermeneutics plays a crucial role without any direct allusion to its biblical ancestry: the new field of psychology and...


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pp. 173-198


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pp. 199-207

E-ISBN-13: 9780801464799
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801442018

Page Count: 222
Publication Year: 2006

Edition: 1

OCLC Number: 769190455
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Victorian Interpretation

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Subject Headings

  • Interpretation (Philosophy) -- History -- 19th century.
  • Hermeneutics -- History -- 19th century.
  • English literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism
  • Philosophy, English -- 19th century.
  • Great Britain -- Intellectual life -- 19th century.
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