This essay asks what the form of the long Victorian novel is peculiarly capable of accomplishing. It introduces the term affordance, from cognitive psychology and design, which refers to the range of potential actions and uses latent in objects and materials. What potentialities lie latent in the length itself of the triple-decker novel? A reading of Bleak House suggests that its expansive form specifically allowed Dickens to represent multiple social, economic, and institutional networks. Linking the many characters in Bleak House is a dense overlapping of networked relationships, some voluntary and some coercive, including the law, the space of the city, gossip, class, disease, philanthropy, and kinship. These various principles of interconnection are both separate and overlapping: each has its own logic, but each is also capable of connecting the same groups of characters as the others. Moreover, they are not homologous, so sometimes they derail and subvert one another. Dickens uses the capacious size of the novel, then, to imagine English society as a network of networks. In the process, this essay argues, Bleak House disrupts ideologies of individualism and domesticity that usually underpin the Victorian novel. The essay concludes by suggesting that the expansive length of Bleak House makes it more successful than many recent attempts at capturing the complexity and power of networked social experience, and it ends with the contention that Dickens merges narrative suspense with social networks in ways that unsettle conventional accounts of realism.
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Caroline Levine; Narrative Networks: Bleak House and the Affordances of Form. Novel 1 November 2009; 42 (3): 517–523. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2009-050
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