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ELH 70.1 (2003) 171-195

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The Clerks' Tale:
Liberalism, Accountability, and Mimesis in David Copperfield

Matthew Titolo

I. Introduction: the Novel as the Police

David Copperfield, Charles Dickens's first aesthetically grown-up novel, ironically signals its maturity by linking novel-writing itself with the vicissitudes of childhood. Already at a remove from its own origin, David's first memory occupies a level of double mediation familiar to readers of William Wordsworth's Prelude. Related secondhand to the narrator through rumor, newspaper advertisement, and gossip, David's is no ordinary birth. Ushered into the world by a midwife, bearing a "caul" (that is, with his afterbirth partly intact), David is prophesied both to be "unlucky in life" and to "see ghosts and spirits." 1 Sensing the importance of the caul as a trope for his life history, David does indeed see ghosts and spirits; for when he witnesses his caul being raffled—it is eventually bought at the bargain price of five shillings—he is haunted by the sight, "quite uncomfortable and confused, at a part of [himself] being disposed of in this way" (50). Reputed to possess talismanic powers, David's caul is both a crudely fungible and inalienably authentic thing; as such, it is a fitting object-metaphor for a novel obsessed with whether authentic accountability (trailing along all its economic associations) can be distinguished from the framework of liberal capitalism that gave birth to the accountable individual in the first place.

David's intuition that a price tag may be attached to even the most private aspects of the self bears more than a passing resemblance to the New Historicism typical of Victorian studies since the 1980s. Broadly conceived, historicism in the context of the Victorian novel seems to be premised on the assumption that realism reinforces the very coercive normativity that its commitment to independence and autonomy would seem to challenge. It is therefore the task of the disciplinary critic to render these coercive mechanisms visible. Some of these forms of power include: the imperial desire for mastery achieved through exclusionary narrative closure; an uncritical commitment [End Page 171] to fixed epistemologies and ontologies; the infection of culture by economics; textual homologies between freedom and discipline; and a reification of the real that forecloses possible other ways of being and channels the reader into normative modes of conduct. 2 There is not space here to rehearse each of these literary-critical variants in detail, so I would like to propose instead one groundbreaking analysis of the Victorian novel as representative of a more common mode of interpretation that I will call disciplinary reading. Brushing against the grain of nineteenth-century realism, D. A. Miller's The Novel and the Police (1988) neatly exemplifies a disciplinary investigation of Victorian culture. Miller's book advances the thesis that the Victorian novel tacitly endorses a liberal ideology: "the point of the exercise, relentlessly and often literally brought home as much in the novel's characteristic forms and conditions of reception as in its themes, is to confirm the novel-reader in his identity as 'liberal subject,' a term with which I allude not just to the subject whose private life, mental or domestic, is felt to provide constant inarguable evidence of his constitutive 'freedom,' but also to, broadly speaking, the political regime that sets store by this subject." 3 The Novel and the Police brilliantly exposes the narrative ruses through which the novel's liberal idealizations—family, career, and the imagination—mimic (and thus, we are led to believe, reinforce) the very structures of coercive normativity that they claim to condemn. On Miller's view, literary realism reinforces a false distinction between freedom and imprisonment by validating the norms of middle-class culture. But, Miller asks, "faced with the abundance of resemblances between the liberal subject and his carceral double, the home and the prison-house, how can we significantly differentiate them?" 4 The disciplinary reader, armed with Foucauldian discourse analysis, sees through this illusion, and thereby shows how the novel's liberal ethos of integrity, autonomy, and accountability...


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