Can the novel, so adept at making sociopolitical cohesiveness legible, help us understand society's dissolution? If novelistic writing makes national unity conceivable, often in conjunction with the institutions of national literature, language, and region, can this same literary form “obliterate” social cohesion or at least make its incoherence legible? This essay turns to Charles Dickens's Bleak House to think about the negative aspect of the novel's involvement in the horizon of legibility of social relations. It focuses on the novel's representation of mud—both as the abject material that saturated the streets of Victorian London and as a metaphor for Chancery's waste and dysfunction. Dickens's novel turns to the figure of mud to dramatize how the very institutions that are meant to ground and give shape to English society turn out to be the very apparatuses by which this social body is de-formed. Although mud stages a crisis for the English social body in a domestic framework, the essay concludes by looking at how the crisis that mud names is actually the occasion to reconstitute England in an imperial register.
Walking in Bleak House
nasser mufti is assistant professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has published on Nadine Gordimer and Rudyard Kipling and is completing a book manuscript titled “Civilizing War: Imperial Politics and the Poetics of National Rupture.”
Nasser Mufti; Walking in Bleak House. Novel 1 May 2016; 49 (1): 65–81. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-3458229
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