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The Bourgeois Interior

Julia Prewitt Brown

Publication Year: 2012

From Robinson Crusoe’s cave to Henry Selwyn’s hermitage, the domestic interior tells a story about "things" and their relation to character and identity. Beginning with a description of a typical middle-class interior in America today—noting how its contents echo interiors described in literatures of the past—Julia Prewitt Brown asks why certain features persist, despite radical changes in domestic life over the past three hundred years. The answer lies, Brown argues, in the way the bourgeois interior functions as a medium, a many-layered fabric across which different energies travel, be they psychological, political, or aesthetic. In this way, objects are not symbols but rather the materials out of which symbols are made--symbols that constitute the very soul of the bourgeois.

In a wide-ranging analysis, moving from works by Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Henry James to those by Virginia Woolf, Ingmar Bergman, John Updike, and W. G. Sebald, Brown shows that what is at issue is less the economic basis of class than the bourgeoisie’s imagination of itself. The themes explored include the middle class’s ever-increasing desire for more wealth, as well as Victorian women’s identification with the domestic interior and the changes that took place when they began working outside the home. Brown also examines the ambivalence of economically determined objects both as repositories of memory and dreams and as fetishized commodities that become detached from everyday reality. Does the bourgeois possess the interior and its objects, or do the interior and its objects possess the bourgeois?

Published by: University of Virginia Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-6


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pp. vii-8


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pp. ix-10

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pp. xi-16

No one likes to think of himself as bourgeois. Yet the signs of bourgeois society are all around us. We have only to examine the array of “home magazines” on display in any drugstore, from bargain basement, do-it-yourself decorating magazines to catalogs of “luxury...

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pp. 1-24

Look around this room of yours, and what do you see? John Ruskin posed this question to bourgeois readers in 1853. How would middle-class readers answer it today? Standing at the outside of a typical bourgeois residence in suburban Boston in 2006, we are likely to see evidence of a security system, perhaps...

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1 Robinson Crusoe’s Cave

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pp. 25-39

The first bourgeois interior in English fiction is located in a cave. Every reader remembers Robinson Crusoe’s carefully constructed domestic enclosure, with its handcrafted table and chair and its inventory of useful objects arranged on shelves. Published in...

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2 Fanny’s Room

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pp. 40-59

Many writers who lived before Jane Austen, Defoe among them, register the rise of the spirit of capitalist enterprise in England, but Austen was the greatest novelist to have lived during the first stage of the Industrial Revolution. The England of her childhood was not wholly preindustrial, and the England of...

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3 Charles Dickens andthe Victorian Addictionto Dwelling

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pp. 60-83

A dialectic of growth and decay is rooted in bourgeois history. 1 The Industrial Revolution, which entered its first stage in the late eighteenth century, granted the bourgeois class unprecedented power at the same time that it steadily eroded bourgeois domestic...

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4 The Smell and Spell of“Things” in Henry James’s The Spoils of Poynton

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pp. 84-102

“I’ve a great respect for things!” exclaims the dubious Madame Merle in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881). “[W]e’re the “self,” she continues, “Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us—and then it flows back again. . . . One’s self—for other people—is one’s ...

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5 Virginia Woolf andthe Passing of VictorianDomesticity

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pp. 103-118

The fate of Poynton in James’s story suggests the imperiled state of the Victorian home. It is almost as if Poynton were “unable to survive the passage to Modernity,”1 so rooted is it in what James called the “Old Things” of the past. Howards End, in E. M. Forster’s novel..

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6 Bourgeois Memory andDream in the DomesticInteriors of Ingmar Bergman

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pp. 119-136

To move from the authors discussed in this book to the auteur Ingmar Bergman is to embrace a different medium, but one with a strong—some would argue inherent—literary component. Despite the various claims that have been made for a “pure cinema”...

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Conclusion: John Updike,W. G. Sebald, and theAfterlife of the Bourgeoisie

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pp. 137-150

In the course of writing this book, I was frequently reminded of a passage in German Men and Women, Walter Benjamin’s edition of letters written by “the great exemplars” of the preindustrial German...


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pp. 151-154


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pp. 155-172

Works Cited

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pp. 173-182


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pp. 183-188

E-ISBN-13: 9780813934280
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813927107

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2012