Occasional Criticism: Elizabeth Gaskell, Edward Said, and some William Cohen

I have been drawn to Victorian literature even before I knew how to classify this genre.  Upon thinking about my interests in this period of time, I have come to the conclusion that I am attracted to Victorian literature as much of it raises questions about identity and the human experience. Of the novels I have read, most if not all have raised questions about gender, sexuality, race, and class. Furthermore, they explore how these elements of identity can intersect with one another to effect one’s experience within a society. The Victorian Era is situated against the backdrop of numerous social anxieties in response to political, economic, and social shifts. These include the rise of colonialism, industrialization, and overall fears towards acts considered immoral. For the purpose of my project, I plan to focus my scholarship on the intersections of race, gender, and class while paying close attention to the cultural and political backdrop (colonialism, industrialization, etc.,)

Ultimately, the occasion that I am looking at is the Victorian Era, largely due to the “coded” language used in many pieces of literature produced during this time. This coded language, as described by William Cohen in his book, Sex, Scandal, and the Novel, was used in many pieces of Victorian literature to have conversations that were deemed inappropriate to have within the public sphere. In fact, Cohen says “Sexual unspeakability…affords [Victorian writers] abundant opportunities to develop an elaborate discourse- richly ambiguous, subtly coded, prolix and polyvalent- that we now recognize and designate by the very term literary.”  I plan to use Cohen’s analysis of language within Victorian literature as means of performing my own analysis on sexuality within my primary texts. Although this chapter focuses on the Victorian novel, I argue that the same pattern emerges amongst short stories. When performing a close-reading, I pay close attention to the coded language Cohen addresses, using it as a means of uncovering deeper meanings on sex and sexuality in my short stories.

While I plan to use feminist and queer theory as lenses when analyzing my occasion, my intersectional analysis remains at the basis of my project. This means I must incorporate numerous lenses when writing about Victorian short stories. To account for the intense social anxieties that existed during this period, it is necessary for me to employ critical race theory to my project as well. Combining these seemingly separate lenses will allow me to perform an intersectional analysis on texts that will in-turn reveal dominant narratives, author biases, or even acts of resistance that manifest within the texts themselves.

To use critical race theory successfully, I must understand the discourse surrounding race during this period. Contrary to the dominant narrative of race within 19th century United States, conversations related to racial identity were grounded in colonial thought. The rise of colonialism during the Victorian era resulted in intense fear of and fascination with the exotic. In his book, Orientalism, Edward Said explains that studying European literature can expose certain patterns amongst discourses surrounding the geographic locations of “Africa, India, parts of the Far East, Australia, and the Caribbean,” (pg. 11). Said outlines the stereotypes and rhetorical figures used in European, which are based upon sentiments of ““the mysterious East”” and “the notions about bringing civilization to primitive or barbaric people,” (pg. 11). Furthermore, Said claims that anxieties towards the foreign man spread as a means of justifying colonialism. He explains that white men often argued that colonialism was a means of not only protecting European women, but women of the East as well.

These attitudes and anxieties contribute to an othering of those who are non-white, as seen in Elizabeth Gaskell’s,“The Great Cranford Panic.” The dynamic between the high society white women and the non-European foreign male exemplify the anxieties Said explores in his own book. The story expertly sets up a dynamic in which the white women are depicted as shallow, interested only in fashion and the social scene. Ironically, their fashion is inspired by the turban which originated in the Middle-East. This is a clear mode of mockery employed by the author who allows her characters to simultaneously exclude someone marked as other while borrowing foreign items of clothing and claiming these articles as high fashion. In this case, Elizabeth Gaskell’s text uses different elements of identity including gender, race, and class to explore racial tension within high-brown Victorian society. She appears to be poking fun and even critiquing the white, upper-class women for their quick judgments and shallow interests.

My scholarly research hinges upon intersectionality. I will use lenses such as gender and queer theory, feminist criticism, and critical race theory to explore my chosen occasion (19th-century British literature.) This analysis will expose the ways in which certain Victorian short stories may play into a dominant narrative or act as a resistant to it. As I continue my research, this dominant narrative will become more explicate. Furthermore, my continued reading of my primary texts will further illuminate what exactly I am looking for and what my intersectional lens can expose.

 

Citations:

Cohen, William A. “‘Sex, Scandal, and the Novel.’” Sex, Scandal, and the Novel, The Victorian Web, 4 Dec. 2003.

Denisoff, Dennis. “The Great Cranford Panic.” The Broadview Anthology of Victorian Short Stories. Broadview, 2004.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York : Pantheon Books, [1978], 1978.

Tucker, Herbert F. A New Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture. Hoboken : Wiley, 2014., 2014. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture.

 

3 thoughts on “Occasional Criticism: Elizabeth Gaskell, Edward Said, and some William Cohen”

  1. I didn’t realize how popular the Victorian era was with our class until this week. It sounds as if you have the most straightforward approach: examining how social attitudes are reflected in literature (may God have mercy on you as you try to conduct a field report). Great close reading and best of luck as you try to refine your scope going forward!

  2. Leah, I really appreciated reading your analysis about how to approach Victorian Era literature from an intersectional lens, and how important it is for feminist readings of a text to intersect with understandings of the wider context at hand. Said’s a great critic to look at, so I’m super glad you’ve found his work useful. I thought I might recommend some other critics that I’ve found useful in the broader fields of critical race theory/postcolonialism (that you may have already come across, but just in case): Omi and Winant’s _Racial Formation in the United States_, Ania Loomba’s _Colonialism/Postcolonialism_, and (maybe most relevant to you, since it includes analysis of Jane Eyre) Gayatri Spivak’s “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” article. I can’t personally vouch for this book but a friend was telling me about a book called _The Victorians and Race_ so that might be especially useful and specific to your topic.

  3. I really like the way your thesis is developing and your idea to use an intersectional approach that utilizes your skills. I think that race theory will be a really useful lens to reveal the anxieties you touch on. Are there specific ones you might hone in on? As you said, there are so many, so I’m interested to see whether you do a general overview or dive deep on one.

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