The Comfort of Strangers: Social Life and Literary Form by Gage McWeeny

By Gage McWeeny

Within the ordinary debts, literature of the 19th century compulsively tells the tale of the person and interiority. yet amidst the newly dense social landscapes of modernity, with London because the first urban of 1 million population, this literature additionally sought to symbolize these unknown and unmet: strangers. targeting the ways in which either Victorian literature and smooth social proposal spoke back to an emergent "society of strangers," the relief of Strangers argues for a brand new relation among literary shape and the socially dense environments of modernity, insisting upon strangers in those works now not as alienating, fearsome others, yet a comparatively banal but transformative truth of way of life, the darkish subject of the nineteenth-century social universe.

Taking up "the literature of social density," Gage McWeeny engages with more than a few generically different works from the age of Victorian sympathy to light up excellent investments in ephemeral kinfolk, anonymity, and social distance. existence amidst strangers on city streets and markets produced new social reports, either pleasing and fearsome, and McWeeny indicates how realist literary shape is remade by means of the relational probabilities provided by means of the impersonal intimacy of existence between these unknown and the ability of susceptible social ties. examining works through Charles Dickens, Matthew Arnold, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James, he discovers a species of Victorian sociality no longer imagined less than J.S. Mill's description in On Liberty of society as a crowd impinging upon the person. as a substitute, McWeeny mines nineteenth-century literature's sociological mind's eye to bare a suite of works diverted through and into intensities positioned in strangers and the fashionable sorts of sociality they emblematize.

Treating heavily the choice for the various over the few, the impersonal intimacy of strangers over those who find themselves acquaintances and buddies, the relaxation of Strangers indicates how literature and sociology jointly produced glossy understandings of the social, starting up canonical works of the 19th century to a bunch of odd, new meanings.

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Extra resources for The Comfort of Strangers: Social Life and Literary Form

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If the critical works just mentioned each give the systems-loving Victorians their due in reconstructing and articulating the “powers of distance” or cultivated detachment as projects, as at least plausibly consistent, even systematic approaches, the transient or collective forms of social life I find here necessarily fall to the side of such systemic understandings. Instead, they suggest such aspirations might also find complementary articulation or figuration in less codified, less recognizable or enduring, sites and moments.

50 In Goffman’s terms, such minimal forms of speech are “face work,” the “tact” and “savoir-faire” by which those in public places signal appropriate levels of attention and a readiness to be engaged, neither too much nor too little, to the surrounding social group. While the forms of the Neutral are many, a number condense around affects or modes of sociality recognizably of a piece with the forms of stranger intimacy that are emblematic of modern life. ”51 This state of unsocial sociability described by Barthes in the Neutral is one that becomes an important, if hard-to-place, feature of social experience and literary form in many of the works of the literature of social density in this study.

Even as the crowd is to be banished, Arnold acknowledges its governing power as a figure for the social realm generally, the vast “fermenting mind” of the nation. Occupying a “centre of movement” that cannot be ignored, the crowd’s status as both anarchy and the future of power for years to come impels in Arnold’s work figurative efflorescences of a social force that can be acknowledged officially only in its suppression. While we will see the representational challenges and opportunities that figuring the crowd presented for Arnold, the thickly populated Victorian social imaginary of a society of strangers appears in his work initially and vividly as a political and social problem.

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