- Envisioning Reform in Gissing’s The Nether World
Public opinion no longer constrains a novelist to be false to himself.… it is purely a matter for his private decision whether he will write as the old law dictates or show life its image as he beholds it.—George Gissing, “The Place of Realism in Fiction”1
In his 1895 essay “The Place of Realism in Fiction,” George Gissing notes with regret that the realism of the day tends too much towards sensation; it only represents things that are “painful or revolting.” Gissing calls for a sincere yet not pessimistic form of fiction writing. Here he links sincerity to a mediated visuality—a personal vision of life. In his 1889 novel The Nether World this visual impulse—one towards perceptive precision that is simultaneously personal and mediated—can be read as part of a realist project as well as a meditation on more fluid forms of representation. Vision in the novel is deterministic, taxonomic, and socially pessimistic: what you “see” is, quite unfortunately, the only thing you will ever get. Described in visual terms, individuals come to represent social categories. Vision is photographic in this novel; more specifically, it is at times photorealistic.2 Even as he offers us this form of vision, however, Gissing undermines it. In counterpoint to this deterministic vision, he also infuses his novel with a more theatrical, spectacular visuality and finally a more performative, metaphoric social vision. It is the play of these three visual registers—photorealistic taxonomy, theatrical spectacle, and performative self-revision—that enables Gissing’s sincere vision of both social determinism and social reform.
The Performative & “Dynamic Determinism”
The Nether World, Gissing’s early social protest novel about the impoverished workers of London’s Clerkenwell district, brings us the interrelated [End Page 458] stories of Jane, her secretly wealthy and philanthropic grandfather Michael, her scheming father Joseph, her beloved friend Sidney Kirkwood, Sidney’s friend John Hewett, and John’s daughter Clara, the actress who rivals Jane for Sidney’s heart. Through descriptive precision and character typing conveyed in predominantly visual terms, the novel follows several side stories where we encounter numerous other characters; however, the central plot develops along two lines: Jane’s story and Clara’s story. Jane’s grandfather wants her to disburse his wealth to charity and help the inhabitants of the Clerkenwell nether world, but if she agrees to do this she must live the life of a celibate charity worker and give up any hope of marrying Sidney. Clara—the primary representative of the theatre in this novel—dreams of acting her way out of her determined position in the nether world and becoming, through fame, a photograph “seen some day in the windows.”3 In this context, visuality is transformed into a more theatrical vehicle for social mobility rather than fixity. Yet Clara’s dream of becoming a famous theatrical spectacle is foreclosed when a rival actress attacks her by throwing vitriol in her face, thus ending her career. Clara aspires towards a more personal solution to the nether world’s problems, but her attempts to actively break out of her social role end up binding her deterministically to the very type she resists.
Gissing is frequently read as antitheatrical, and Clara’s ultimate failure as an actress supports this argument. Instead of a creative release from social confines, Gissing’s detour into the world of the theatre via the actress Clara is ultimately subsumed into this deterministic social vision. But the theatrical reemerges in this novel through another, albeit unlikely, female character: dutiful Jane Snowdon, who rather than performing a role overtly, instead performatively embodies it. As Judith Butler writes, the performative is a kind of act of the self that in fact establishes that very self.4 Whereas the effectiveness of Clara’s performative potential is undercut by her deliberate theatricality, Jane’s “act” is sincere and her performance performative. The novel locates its social vision in Jane’s performative self-creation as a charity worker. She begins as an observer of “spectacles” of poverty and one of the novel’s several conduits for objective visual reporting.5 When she learns...