- Affecting Fictions: Mind, Body, and Emotion in American Literary Realism
Is reading a cerebral or corporeal activity? Do thoughts lead to feelings, or vice versa? Can realism's legendary objectivity accommodate and evoke bodily feelings? These are among the questions Jane F. Thrailkill convincingly answers in her wide-ranging study. Affecting Fictions juxtaposes late-nineteenth century literary works by authors including Oliver Wendell Holmes, S. Weir Mitchell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Mark Twain, Henry James, Stephen Crane, Harold Frederic, and Kate Chopin with contemporaneous writings by neuroscientists and pragmatists—key figures including William James and John Dewey—to elucidate the central role of affect not only in emergent theories of subjectivity but also in the creation and reception of works of art.
Repudiating both the New Critics' aversion for the Affective Fallacy and their emotionless hermeneutics, Thrailkill seeks to recover the full-bodied emotional and neurological experiences that texts both enact and inspire. Through multi-layered close readings, contextualizing historical analyses, and clarifying exegeses of philosophical and scientific works, she demonstrates the instrumental value of texts, proving the indispensability of what they do to what they are. She makes a strong case for the necessity of mutually informative dialogues across existing divides between the humanities and the sciences. Perhaps because she wants to correct an array of diverse discourses that slight emotion—among them not only realism, but also New Historicism and other cultural materialist approaches, formalism and aesthetic criticism, reader response, and trauma studies—the realism of the subtitle sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. The term infrequently appears in the individual chapters and when it does emerge is usually presented as a given rather than explicitly theorized.
In her introduction and the first chapter, however, Thrailkill corrects interpretations of literary realism as "immune to affective concerns" and convincingly argues that what counted as real in the postbellum era was not simply seen but deeply felt (23). Each subsequent chapter is organized around one of the principal emotions mapped by Théodule Ribot in his 1897 The Psychology of the Emotions: pain, fear, excitability, agreeability, and wonder. Thrailkill has published earlier versions of some of these analyses in journals including American Literature, English Literary History, and Journal of Narrative Theory. Readers of Legacy may be particularly interested in Thrailkill's discussions of Gilman and Chopin. In chapter four, "Nervous Effort: Gilman, Crane, and the [End Page 175] Psychophysical Pathologies of Everyday Life," she attends to "the psychophysical elements of perceptual effort" (119) as they play out for both the narrator and readers of "The Yellow Wallpaper" (119). She finds affinities between Gilman's and Mitchell's takes on the home, although not between their understandings of women's place within it. She criticizes diagnostic interpretations of the story for emulating the doctors who serve as the narrator's adversaries (they even call to mind the narrator's own failed empiricism when she first tries to come to terms with the wallpaper). She also criticizes such interpretations for discounting the aesthetic dimensions of reading—this even as Gilman's story intimates the failure of aesthetic perception in the narrator's increasingly pathological response to her environment.
While Gilman's story documents the strain of living in an increasingly modern, urban, and industrial world, Chopin's The Awakening depicts "a range of culturally significant anodynes for the modern soul" (156). Religion and books, along with embodied feelings and processes—breathing in particular—all play a role here, but Thrailkill focuses especially on how music approximates the formal and thematic rhythms of the text and induces the transporting pleasures encoded therein and conveyed thereby. She argues that the novel seeks, through its formal and thematic evocation of musical structures, to offer readers the kinds of aesthetically pleasurable experiences music frequently affords. She also examines the novel's engagement, via Edna's varied responses to music, with ongoing debates about music's referentiality. Finally, Thrailkill resists reading the novel's ending as a suicide and instead compares the closing passages to the rhythmic resolution of...