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ELH 70.4 (2003) 1107-1135

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The Trouble with Ghost-Seeing:
Vision, Ideology, and Genre in the Victorian Ghost Story

Srdjan Smajic

Despite the immense popularity of ghost stories in the nineteenth century and their pervasiveness in the literary periodicals of the time, it appears we are today as unlikely to see new scholarship on the subject as we are to see an actual ghost. 1 This curious and persistent lack of scholarly interest, according to Julia Briggs, may in part be attributed to the elusive character of ghost fiction itself, a genre widely infamous for being "at once vast, amorphous, and notoriously difficult to define." 2 That the generic boundaries of ghost fiction, as Briggs finds, inevitably collapse upon closer scrutiny is, however, something that may equally be said about any literary genre—the nineteenth-century realist novel is arguably even more vast and amorphous than the ghost story, even more difficult to grasp as a unified textual body—nor has the increasingly prevalent argument for the fluidity of generic markers and arbitrariness of generic classification sufficed to discredit terminally the usefulness of genre theory, which has over the past couple of decades demonstrated its compatibility with the methods and practices of historically and culturally focused literary criticism. 3

It seems that a more daunting and discouraging obstacle for negotiating the ghost story's relation to nineteenth-century literature and culture has been the conspicuous omnipresence of the specter in Western literature. As Dorothy Scarborough remarked as early as 1917, the literary ghost "is absolutely indestructible. . . . He appears as unapologetically at home in twentieth-century fiction as in classical mythology, Christian hagiology, medieval legend, or Gothic romance. He changes with the styles in fiction but he never goes out of fashion." 4 Since ghosts evidently belong everywhere in literature—and consequently, one might say, nowhere in particular—the ghost story appears better adapted to the climate of formalist or psychoanalytic, rather than historicist, readings. In fact, the genre as such seems to validate precisely the type of criticism that downplays the significance [End Page 1107] of cultural and historical context and, instead, emphasizes the immutability of certain mythic structures or psychological constants (the ghost as a classic mythic figure, the ghost as a haunting reflection of the Unconscious). 5 Compared to other genres of nineteenth-century literature, and especially the realist novel, the ghost story's ethos appears not only anachronistic for its time but even fundamentally ahistorical; ghost stories are probably the last place one would think to look for evidence of how industrialization, Darwinism, or colonial expansion affected Victorian society and culture. It is as if the figure of the ghost demarcates the borders of an inhospitable, alien territory where social and political consciousness, the sense of literature's historical and cultural embeddedness, the intricate network of ties that bind literary to nonliterary practices and discourses, are somehow mysteriously effaced—temporarily suppressed or forgotten—or, at best, are just barely visible, themselves made insubstantial and spectral. 6

That the nineteenth-century ghost story was "as typically part of the cultural and literary fabric of the age as imperial confidence or the novel of social realism," and that it is motivated by the impulse to orchestrate a particular kind of spectral narrative—one substantially different from late eighteenth-century Gothic romances, and in which representations of the spectral are directly informed by contemporary philosophical and scientific debates about vision and knowledge—become more apparent if we shift our attention from the ghost to the ghost-seer, from the spectral object of ghost-seeing to its human subject. 7 For if the specter is in some sense timeless, changing its appearance just enough to suit the sartorial fashion of the times, it bears repeating that theories of vision and ways of seeing are invariably contingent upon historical and cultural determinants. 8 Michel Foucault's observations on the role of institutional surveillance in modern disciplinary regimes, Martin Jay's analysis of distinct and historically successive "scopic regimes" in Western culture, and Jonathan Crary's description of the...