"Only Connect": The Coming Together of Social Classes in Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Century British Fiction

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2004-03-29

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My dissertation examines the frequent portrayal of substantive interactions between characters from widely separated socio-economic backgrounds in British fiction written between 1890 and 1925. I designate these scenes as moments of "inter-class connection," and through them, I argue that the rise of professional society and the burgeoning of commodity culture in the 1880's transformed the way that texts portray class relations. Works written after 1890 seek to ameliorate the cultural anxieties that accompany inter-class connection by erasing the individualized identity of one of the characters involved. Because it entails a removal of subjectivity, I label this practice "objectification." It represents a significant departure from Victorian fiction where texts assimilate those same cultural anxieties through elaborate plot manipulations, such as the sudden revelation that a character thought to be from the lower classes actually possesses a hidden noble heritage. My study examines both the formal and thematic implications of this change. In most cases, objectification emerges as only a partially realized fictional practice that cannot be sustained over the course of an entire narrative, and when it does collapse, these works return to the example of their Victorian predecessors and resolve class interaction through plot machinations. Overwhelmingly, those reversions in formal practice mark works as rhetorically reactionary because they signal a staunch commitment to maintaining elements of low culture excluded from the insular domain of high culture.

The introduction delineates the basic criteria for inter-class connection and presents numerous examples of it in a wide variety of texts.  It also examines the historical, social and economic factors that fostered the emergence of objectification as a narrative practice.  Subsequent chapters provide a detailed analysis of specific cases of inter-class connection and their accompanying strategies of objectification found in the following turn-of-the-century texts: Thomas Hardy's TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES (1891), Oscar Wilde's THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1891), George Gissing's NEW GRUB STREET (1891), and Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party" (1922).

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