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Reframing the Luddites: Materialist and Idealist Models of Self in Charlotte Bronte's Shirley Albert D. Piottke Early in Charlotte Bronte's Shirley, heroine Caroline Helstone criticizes her cousin, mill-owner Robert Moore, for behaving as "if your living cloth-dressers were all machines like your frames and shears" (72). Coming on the heels of her declaration to him, "that there is something wrong in your notions of the best means of attaining happiness" (72), Caroline's analysis of Robert's "faults of manner" resonates with the larger debate in the 1 840s over the sufficiency of utilitarianism, and materialism more generally, to ensure "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" of British men and women. Central to this debate were the materialist and idealist conceptions of individual character and its formation: for materialists, character was at once determined by circumstances and devoid of any metaphysical dimension; for idealists, by contrast, character was the product of individual choice and could not be fully understood apart from ineffable spiritual ends. From Caroline's idealist perspective, her cousin's materialist attitude towards his workers - he neither expects nor wishes for them to love him — signifies "a screw to be loose somewhere . . . out of her reach to set it right" (73). However, there is a double irony in her critique: first, her disapproval is, itself, registered in mechanistic terms - she thinks he has a screw loose; and second, if Robert devoted to his workers even half of the fierce protectiveness that he reserves for his "grim, metal darlings" (384), if, in other words, he treated his workers more like his machines, then Caroline would have significandy less ground for her disapprobation. The vulnerability of Caroline's idealist position to materialist tropes Victorian Review (2004)81 A. Pionke and standards of judgment reflects a central problem with die novel's oblique attempt to simultaneously respond to the demands of Chartism and articulate the frustration of so-called "surplus women." By representing the Chartists through the figure of Luddism and proposing an idealist argument for individual acts of charity towards select, spiritually deserving members of the working class, the novel eschews the possibility of systemic reform and ignores the nexus of material and political circumstances pressing upon the workers. That the novel divests its workers of the capacity for social and political independence in order to foster just such independence for unmarried middle-class women only further enmeshes Brontë in a version of mechanism very similar to that of her male protagonist. Ultimately, even the novel's argument on behalf of mid-century "surplus women" oscillates between materialism and idealism before settling for the convenient elision of the issue altogether through marriage. This essay will trace Bronte's conflicted navigation of the materialism/idealism debate by re-examining her historically questionable presentation of the Luddite disturbances of 1811-12 and the ways in which this presentation underwrites and undermines her discussion of single middle-class women. Before turning to the text of Shirley I would like to briefly outline the terms of the materialist/idealist debate over individual character that informs Bronte's novel. Represented most prominendy in die nineteendi century byJeremy Bentham andJames Mill, the materialists offered two related accounts of character formation: 1) geneticism, a form of indrviduahstic determinism in which past experiences and present circumstances mold a person's future thoughts and actions; and 2) organicism, a broader societal determinism in which the formative role of individual past experiences is replaced by the more complex pressures of the larger culture to which an individual belongs. Grounded in the British associationist tradition of Locke, Hume, Hardey and Priesdy, both versions of materialism remained firmly opposed to any form of nativism, or the belief that some aspects of diought are inherent in individuals prior to their enculturation . The materialists' essentially passive understanding of character 82volume 30 number 2 Reframing the Luddites could lead them to one of two opposing attitudes towards human relations and the possibility of social reform: on the one hand, the idea that individuals are determined by external forces could prompt various manifestations of fatalism, ranging from individual indifference to the social and economic doctrine of laisse^Jdire, on the other...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 81-102
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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