This article demonstrates both the formal logic and the political stakes of Dickens's refusal to solve the problem his narratives create: the condition of a vast multitude that the impersonal narrator of Bleak House only half-ironically terms “supernumeraries.” Applied to “the people” as a whole in what appears to be a throwaway line, this epithet expresses the theoretical crux of the novel's provocative engagement with a Victorian politics of population. Where recent critics approach the novel genre primarily as a vehicle for domestic ideology and a technology of individualism, the current essay argues that Dickens's fiction instead performs an ongoing and intentionally failed experiment in population management. The Dickensian novel generates an apparent surplus of biological life that allows its narratives to reconstitute the social body in new terms; rather than describing a conventionally realist totality of social relations among individuals, such texts as Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend imagine the human aggregate more paradoxically as a mass that exceeds any conceivable total. In emplotting the systematic failure of society to accommodate the quantity of life it produces—a problem that the disciplinary logic and contractual formations of earlier domestic fiction were never designed to solve—Dickens's novels of life and death in the city find a new impetus for literary production. We might call this the biopolitical imagination.
Emily Steinlight; Dickens's “Supernumeraries” And the Biopolitical Imagination of Victorian Fiction. Novel 1 August 2010; 43 (2): 227–250. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2010-002
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