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  • Constrained Realism:Representing Social Facts in George Gissing's Fiction
  • Maria Su Wang (bio)

over the past fifteen years, studies of the nineteenth-century novel and the rise of the social sciences have proliferated. These studies have revealed the confluence of ideas and shared discourse between Victorian fiction and developments in the emerging fields of anthropology (Buzard 2015), economics (Jaffe 2010), political economy (Gallagher 2006; Steinlight 2018), and sociology (McWeeny 2016). These accounts often describe narrative form and social scientific ideas as mutually shaping or overlapping, productively elucidating one another in their juxtaposition. Writing on the significant intersection of the social mistake and the literary, Kent Puckett has argued that "if worked properly, narratology might emerge as a productive kind of sociology" (10). In this essay, I would like to amend Puckett's claim as follows: expanding our contexts for the Victorian novel beyond immediate materialist or cultural registers, beyond even the periodicity of "Victorian" itself, reveals how early sociology—as founded by Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber—might emerge as a productive kind of narratology. That is to say, reading social theory as a type of narrative thinking, similar to Victorian realism, can reveal broader, unexpected histories and disciplinary convergences.

This essay thus takes as its starting point the urgency of reading the Victorian novel form alongside and against early sociological theory in order to show how both reflect an interrelated interest in the fact that emerges over the nineteenth century. Today we use "fact" to mean a singular epistemological unit that transcends belief or opinion and corresponds with reality, but that was not always the case. As Mary Poovey has shown in A History of the Modern Fact, it has been a contested term contingent upon epistemological and disciplinary shifts at various historical junctures. Yet while Poovey focuses on the natural and social sciences generally, she glosses over how early sociologists attempted to work through their disciplinary understanding of facticity; this was especially true of Durkheim, who sought to define the "social fact" as a distinguishing methodological concept for sociology. At a parallel moment at the fin de siècle, Victorian novelist George Gissing addresses similar concerns, trying to enact in his narration the constraining [End Page 97] power of social structures and their affective impact on individual subjects. By looking at Gissing and Durkheim together, this essay reinscribes them into their respective traditions and asks what this comparison reveals about Victorian narrative realism and the development of sociology at the fin de siècle.

Both the fiction of Gissing and the social theory of Durkheim converge around the idea of constraint—specifically, how social structures impinge on individuals. While Gissing asks what this means for character and narration, Durkheim explores its meaning for understanding the collective dimensions of social life. This comparison reveals fin de siècle realism and early sociology as congruent attempts at grappling with and accounting for the constricting material and affective realities of social existence, what Durkheim has named the social fact. Social facts, according to Durkheim, transcend the individual yet play a crucial determining role in the individual's life. Focusing on social facts enables Durkheim to document both social norms and values (e.g., rules governing etiquette) and structures (e.g., the institution of kinship and marriage). By reading Gissing's fiction as an attempt to translate the constraining social facts of urban life into realist narrative practice, this essay clarifies his place within the history of the novel: as a later realist writer whose narrative mode adopts a Durkheimian realism.1

More broadly, reading Gissing's narrative form alongside and against Durkheim's concept of the social fact shifts us away from considering his novels as primarily documents of fin de siècle social history, whether indexing the changing publishing landscape of the period, in New Grub Street (1891), or annotating debates over gender, in the case of The Odd Women (1893).2 As valuable and insightful as such accounts are, they overlook the longer histories in which Gissing's work partakes, both as a contribution to realism and as part of the longer process of knowledge reorganization that led to our modern understanding of the fact. By...