Disobedient Bodies: The Intersection of Class and Sensation in the Victorian Novel



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At once stable and permeable, tangible and capable of sensation, the body holds a unique position in Victorian novels. It navigates social structures which can control or entangle the body. It also asserts a physical reality that cannot be elided or erased. The body has needs. The body falls ill. Unlike machines, bodies can grow tired. By running imperfectly, by misbehaving, the body becomes a means of asserting an intensely physical and human need for nourishment, respite, and connection during a time when the worker was increasingly viewed as a laboring extension of the factory. In specific Victorian novels that have an emphasis on social criticism and reform, the body becomes at once a theoretical and tangible narrative space, capable of holding multiple social labels while uniting reader and character in the shared physical experience of navigating the world as embodied creatures. I present my investigation and argument surrounding the body by bringing two novels of Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854) and Bleak House (1852-53) into conversation with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854-1855). My research focuses on the reading and articulating of the body in its roles as signifier and subject through the notion of disobedience. This is framed by a discussion of illness, sensation, spectacle, and maternal sexuality. I trace how, through these lenses, the body becomes central to our understanding of these texts and refutes essentializing and reductive constructions of identity. By extension, the body becomes essential, not only to these works, but to the experience of living and operating within a world that is at once socially constructed and physically tangible.



Victorian Novel, Bodies, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell