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  • From Working Classes to Working Class:The Nether World and the London Dock Strike
  • Michael Vignola

In the final scene of George Gissing's The Nether World, Jane Snowdon and Sidney Kirkwood meet in Abney Park Cemetery over the grave of Jane's grandfather, Michael. Looking at Michael's grave, the ordinary passerby would have no inkling of the outstanding fortune that Michael left at his death, nor would they know the vagaries of circumstance that brought him to that fortune, nor the sheer ill luck that saw him die in the days between destroying one will and composing another. All that remains in the churchyard is a "plain headstone," the inscription comprising "simply a name, with dates of birth and death."1 To those not acquainted with his unique story, the headstone inscribed Michael Snowdon is presumably but one of many instances of a type: "plain" in the sense of being undistinguished and undistinguishable.

Similarly, though the reader has come to know the particularities and peculiarities of their stories, Jane and Sidney, too, are beset by indistinction at the novel's close. The promise that they would grow into distinguished citizens has sadly not come to pass; thus Sidney is "neither an artist, nor a leader of men in the battle for justice" and Jane is "no savior of society by the force of a superb example; no daughter of the people, holding their wealth in trust for the people's needs" (N, 391–92). Both are, pointedly, "unmarked" (N, 392) in the same fashion that Michael's grave is "plain." And yet, just when they seem to collapse into the undifferentiated mass of the nether world, Gissing intimates that Jane and Sidney are, to some degree, unique: "Unmarked, unencouraged save by their love of uprightness and mercy, they stood by the side of those more hapless, brought some comfort to hearts less courageous than their own" (N, 392). In the rhetorical move from negations to comparatives, Gissing distinguishes Jane and Sidney from the mass of London poor, albeit ever so slightly. Gissing finally leaves Jane and Sidney with the assurance that "[s]orrow certainly awaited" them, as it awaits all the nether world, although for hearts as strong as theirs he allows that defeat in "the humble aims that they had set themselves" is not assured, only lurking "perchance" (N, 392). [End Page 199]

Michael's plan to raise Jane up as a leader of her class without differentiating her from that class both serves as the novel's main plot and, in the mode of characterization it licenses, supplies the novel's most pressing formal question: how to balance the demands of class representativeness or typicality with the individuality demanded of a protagonist? Jane and Sidney's divergence from the type of their class, and the circumscribed possibilities this divergence leaves open to them, is slight enough that generations of readers have passed it over. Jane and Sidney are often seen as types who exist in a profoundly deterministic space, but the novel's mode of characterization, I want to suggest, is more complicated than it has seemed.2 Rather than oppose individuals to crowds, as John Plotz's The Crowd (2000) shows was common across texts from an earlier period in the history of reform, or protagonists to minor characters, as Alex Woloch does in The One vs. the Many (2003), Gissing telescopes masses and individuals, minor and major characters, in The Nether World such that key properties from each accrue to the other. Jane and Sidney, as they represent the mass of the nether world, are bound by its average because to diverge too far—to actually become the "leader" or "savior" which had at one time seemed possible, or simply to make it out of the working class and into the bourgeoisie—would mean that the characters cease to be representative. And yet they do diverge, retaining their individual personhood in the mode of more or less. Crucially, the personhood that Jane and Sidney retain applies in turn to the class they represent. As they are bound by their class in their inflection toward the average, the class itself becomes more unified than ever...


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pp. 199-223
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