THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS: SOCIAL LIFE AND LITERARY FORM by Gage McWeeny, Reviewed by Rachel Hollander
 

THE COMFORT OF STRANGERS: SOCIAL LIFE AND LITERARY FORM
By Gage McWeeny
(Oxford, 2016) 240 pp.
Reviewed by Rachel Hollander on 2016-11-10.

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As a chronicle of the everyday, Victorian literature is more often associated with the known than the unknown. But in directly addressing Sharon Marcus's characterization of the novel as a "machine that 'turns strangers into kin'" (24), Gage McWeeny argues for the significance of the stranger as such, for the everyday encounter with the unknown that marks modern life in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Through original readings of works by Mathew Arnold, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James, McWeeny reconsiders the relationship between literature and the emerging discipline of sociology. This ambitious study thus engages with recent interest in sympathy, ethics, literary character, ethnography, and new modes of literary analysis, in part to answer a deceptively simple question: "what does modernity feel like?" (10).

While introducing the book with an anecdote about Henry James and brief readings of passages from Wilkie Collins, William Wordsworth, and Charles Dickens (one early, one late), McWeeny makes particularly illuminating use of an episode from Dickens's Sketches by Boz: Dickens's portrayal of a crowd on an omnibus, he argues, shows how realist narrative treats the presence of multiple unknown yet significant strangers. While treating both the cultural/historical origins of sociology and the contemporary critical context, McWeeny aims not to examine the influence of particular social theorists on Victorian writers, but rather to "underscore how literature and sociology have converged to produce modern understandings of the shaping powers of the social" (6). Challenging the familiar understanding of Victorian realism as a study of interiority, both domestic and psychological, he foregrounds the effects of ephemeral and public "weak ties" and "impersonal intimacy" (7).

By doing so, he not only turns away from recent interest in sympathy and affect but also rejects an understanding of the stranger as "other." Instead, he credits realist narrative for subtly acknowledging the "invisible dark matter" of the social realm, and for the ways in which this matter "exerts a powerful gravitational effect upon [...] literature's sociological imagination" (4). To illuminate this effect, McWeeny draws on a range of social theorists including Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel, Erving Goffman, and Pierre Bourdieu, not just demonstrating how their theories are anticipated by literary content, but also arguing for a kind of formal competition between sociology and literature as methods of representing a new relationship between individual and society.

McWeeny also raises methodological questions about the study of literature itself, placing himself in dialogue with Franco Moretti, Heather Love, and others who have recently questioned close reading and analysis of individual texts as essential tools for literary criticism. While he obviously still values a detailed examination of particular novels and poems, McWeeny argues for the utility of a larger scale, more general understanding of the relationship between text and world: "In my investment," he writes, "in a macroscopic set of governing terms (modernity, the social) taken from sociology, and in my interest in the relation of formal features of literary works to social complexity, I argue for a departure in Victorian studies from the superfine focus of more materialist approaches" (29). He also associates his study with recent work on Victorian disinterest, distance, and identity by Amanda Anderson, James Buzard, and Andrew Miller, though I was surprised not to see credited as well the seminal work of George Levine on Victorian epistemology and realism.

Likewise, a passing reference to Zygmunt Bauman's work on displaced people and refugees raises a question about the politics of McWeeny's project. While I understand that, as he says, "[t]his book's interest in strangers generally [...] distinguishes the philosophical and ethical aims of Bauman's project from [his] own" (5), I expected a bit more engagement with recent work on strangers in the context of immigration, cosmopolitanism, colonialism, and hospitality. Leela Gandhi's important study of the fin-de-siècle anti-colonial politics of friendship, Affective Communities (2006), goes unmentioned, as does any of Derrida's late-career writing on the stranger as an occasion for hospitality. McWeeny does invoke queer theory, for its rethinking of relationality, the public sphere, and the centrality of the marriage plot helps him to contextualize the stakes of this project. But to help explain how this study challenges less benign (or less "comfortable") understandings of the stranger in this period, he could have more fully elaborated how the emergence of sociology affected the politics of class and colonialism in the late nineteenth century.

The first chapter, which discusses both Arnold's criticism and his poetry, illustrates the emergence of sociology by highlighting concepts of the public sphere and the crowd. Tracing a shift in Arnold's writing from the 1850s to Culture and Anarchy in 1866, McWeeny argues that the late essay can be read in part as a defense of the discipline of literary study as a locus for understanding society. On Arnold's theory of the crowd McWeeny writes: "In its various transformations, begun in the poetry, from anarchic figure to an image of the social order upon which culture will act, the crowd is thus recast as the proper object of control for the literary critic rather than the sociologist" (55). Re-reading this conservative figure as a protector of the arts of the humanities over the statistical methods of the emerging social sciences, McWeeny makes a convincing case for his larger argument about the territorial claims of literature against social theory in this period.

The longest chapter, and in many ways the heart of the book, is an original, varied, and enlightening discussion of Eliot's Middlemarch. No analysis of how Victorian realism treats the social would be complete without considering this novel's famously broad and deep "Study of Provincial Life," and McWeeny broadens and deepens his own study with this bold reassessment of Eliot's project. This chapter examines not only well-known passages (such as "Why always Dorothea" and "heartbeat of the squirrel") but also smaller moments and even extra-textual matter such as the character lists made by many early reviewers. In each case, McWeeny sheds new light on both the novel and on the larger question of representing the "weak ties" that accompany--and even enable--more familiar scenes of sympathy. Probing also questions of form, he considers at length the peculiar relationship between narrator and character that develops in free indirect discourse. Finally, in a new reading of the Lydgate-Rosamond plot, he perceptively explains how their relationship unfolds in public by means of gossip, flirtation, and social expectation. Overall, McWeeny persuasively shows how reading Middlemarch differently exposes new elements of realism and of its relation to social theory.

Chapter Three, on Oscar Wilde's drama, fiction, and essays, delves into the highly social London of the texts and extends the formal argument of the study to a consideration of the epigram. I found these readings convincing but less novel than other parts of the book; much of Wilde's explicitly non-realist oeuvre does not invite the questions of psychological depth that McWeeny pushes against, and, as he acknowledges, the individual's newly modern relation to the social has been taken up in many incisive queer readings of Wilde. Thus, while I agree that Wilde's oft-repeated epigrams "promiscuous[ly]" mark the "conditions of modernity," the chapter as a whole confirms--rather than challenging or extending--what we know of Wilde's relationship to the realism of late Victorian literature.

The final chapter brings the study full circle. Returning to Henry James, McWeeny illuminates his relationship to Eliot, his theory of the novel, and his rich and complex relationship to social thought. Interweaving James's reviews of Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, his accounts of meeting Eliot in person, and his prefaces and essays, McWeeny extends and deepens his own account of how attention to the social sphere complicates our understanding of literary form, especially the novel. As in the early chapter on Arnold, McWeeny also suggests that James's theory of the novel should be read as a plea for the value of literature as a means of knowing and representing the complexities of modern society. The strength of this chapter made me wish that the book had included readings of James's fiction, and I imagine that McWeeny could have profitably re-examined the theory of the realist novel by staging a dialogue between Eliot and James. As it stands, however, the chapter effectively surveys James's relationship to early sociology and indicates how that relationship shapes future theorizing about the novel.

A brief afterword considers how strangers are portrayed in contemporary art. But I would have welcomed some acknowledgement of their place in modernist literature. Both Virginia Woolf and James Joyce famously populate their urban novels with a large number of named strangers, and one might argue that the thinning out of social relations reaches its (absurd) peak in the drama and fiction of Samuel Beckett. Clearly, one study cannot do everything, but in the absence of any nod to James's modernist peers and successors, I found the sudden jump to contemporary art disorienting.

Overall, however, this is a timely, stimulating, and productive study. It represents the best of inter-disciplinary work, placing literary and sociological texts into a true dialogue with each other, and in the process shedding new light on both. By bringing questions of form and methodology to the fore, it also makes a subtle and persuasive case for the distinct and equally important functions of social science and humanities, thus echoing the quite different pleas of Arnold, Eliot, and James for the crucial role of art and literature in our own time.

Rachel Hollander is Associate Professor of English at St. John's University.


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