Presumptions—legal rules that assume a fact is true unless there is a greater weight of evidence that disproves it—mark the normal mode of things, the way things could be and most probably are. Like realist fiction, presumptions are but one of the ways in which Victorian culture addressed doubt and chose to know its reality. “Worlding” literary forms of knowing with legal/philosophical ones, through a reading of Anthony Trollope's Is He Popenjoy? (1878), I argue that realism knows by deciding to know. A focus on the presumptions—most prominently the presumption of legitimacy—that undergird Trollope's novel makes more explicit that which in his realism remains largely implicit: the complex relationship between the normative and the probabilistic that marks realism's relationship with the reality it purports to represent. After all, whatever else realism is, it is also always a historically contingent reflection of and on how we choose (knowingly or unknowingly but always communally) to know our world and make it known. Reading Is He Popenjoy? in this way allows us not only to discover surprising affinities between legal conventions and literary ones but also to understand the social and cultural work of conventionality itself, reconsidering knowing as a collective or communal endeavor. I thus suggest that the inherent commonality of epistemological structure—the way it is collectively and contingently “worlded”—offers an explanation for realism's persistence as a world phenomenon.
Is He Popenjoy? Deciding to Know and the Presumption of Realism
ayelet ben-yishai is senior lecturer in the English department of the University of Haifa, Israel, and author of Common Precedents: The Presentness of the Past in Victorian Fiction and Law (2013). She is currently working on a book she calls “Who ‘We’ Are: Epistemological Commonalities and the Realist Novel” that inquires into the communal modes of meaning that undergird realist fiction.
Ayelet Ben-Yishai; Is He Popenjoy? Deciding to Know and the Presumption of Realism. Novel 1 August 2016; 49 (2): 202–218. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-3508971
Download citation file: