In this essay, novels by Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton serve to elucidate more widely resonant value-laden distinctions between publicly embodied and quietly internalized responses to pain and pleasure. This fictional archive denigrates the demonstrativeness it associates with people marginalized by ascriptive identities of race and class while endorsing the uncommonly vibrant inner lives of particular elite white subjects. Pain and pleasure are valued for arousing hidden depths of feeling that distinguish a singular subject’s affective life from purportedly commonplace and conformist incarnations. Conceptions of selfhood and otherness hinge on distinctions between a subject afforded a purportedly uncommon, deeply vibrant affect molded by an equally uncommon responsiveness to hedonic stimuli and a person or set of persons whose discernable, often simulated or conventional hedonic feelings are represented as typifying a comparatively depreciated racialized, classed, or gendered norm, or some combination of the three. This high-cultural literary investment in a nonnormative, nonreproducible affective interiority strengthened amid debates about privacy rights, an increasing cultural preference for performative self-presentations, and efforts to standardize the US population into types. Drawing on this context along with both affect theory and affective science, the essay demonstrates these novels’ importance to understanding how an unexpressed inner vitality emerged as distinction’s volitionally unattainable vital sign.

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