Working Fictions

A Genealogy of the Victorian Novel

Working Fictions

Post-Contemporary Interventions

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Book Pages: 288 Illustrations: Published: January 2007

Author: Carolyn Lesjak

Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Literary Theory

Working Fictions takes as its point of departure the common and painful truth that the vast majority of human beings toil for a wage and rarely for their own enjoyment or satisfaction. In this striking reconceptualization of Victorian literary history, Carolyn Lesjak interrogates the relationship between labor and pleasure, two concepts that were central to the Victorian imagination and the literary output of the era. Through the creation of a new genealogy of the “labor novel,” Lesjak challenges the prevailing assumption about the portrayal of work in Victorian fiction, namely that it disappears with the fall from prominence of the industrial novel. She proposes that the “problematic of labor” persists throughout the nineteenth century and continues to animate texts as diverse as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, George Eliot’s Felix Holt and Daniel Deronda, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, and the essays and literary work of William Morris and Oscar Wilde.

Lesjak demonstrates how the ideological work of the literature of the Victorian era, the “golden age of the novel,” revolved around separating the domains of labor and pleasure and emphasizing the latter as the proper realm of literary representation. She reveals how the utopian works of Morris and Wilde grapple with this divide and attempt to imagine new relationships between work and pleasure, relationships that might enable a future in which work is not the antithesis of pleasure. In Working Fictions, Lesjak argues for the contemporary relevance of the “labor novel,” suggesting that within its pages lie resources with which to confront the gulf between work and pleasure that continues to characterize our world today.


“[A]n ambitious rereading of the labour politics of nineteenth-century literature. . . . [R]efreshing, nuanced, and arresting.” — Gaskell Journal

“[Lesjak] has without doubt developed sophisticated analytical instruments for making the labor/pleasure problematic visible in a wide range of Victorian fiction, and her book will certainly reinvigorate scholarly attention to this tremendously important topic.” — John Kucich, Victorian Studies

“[Lesjak] offers careful, convincing readings of how capitalist labor practices are always already structuring presentations of pleasure, thus providing a new, incisive view of how Victorian novels capture the realities of the working class . . . . Lesjak presents a genealogy that is not only exhaustive and assorted but also vital to current conversations that reconceptualize the genre and methodology of realism.” — S. Mahato, Choice

“Lesjak’s clear and sophisticated style makes the work accessible across a wide audience to produce a significant contribution to nineteenth-century literary analysis.” — Jessica Webb, Rocky Mountain Review

“One of Lesjak’s aces . . . is that there is no disappearance of labor at the end of the industrial novel. . . . One of her finest analyses is of Great Expectations. . . . Lesjak works hard to convince us that Marx and Morris are not romantics but prophets who have seen the future. I hope she is right.” — Leila S. May, Victorians Institute Journal

"[A] valuable re-evaluation of the importance of the 'labour novel' and makes some genuinely convincing and interesting new connections between traditional texts." — Gemma Gaskell, Modern Language Review

"While Lesjak's readings include some familiar elements, they also make new and important connections between narrative and global economics, generating a suggestive rethinking of the relation between social change and the formal and generic problems of Victorian realism." — Cathy Shuman, Novel

Working Fictions compellingly reconfigures the literary history of the nineteenth century by exploring the complex ways in which concepts of labor and pleasure informed the realist novel and Victorian aestheticism. This is a rich renewal of Frankfurt School concerns and a powerful contribution to contemporary literary studies.” — Amanda Anderson, author of The Way We Argue Now: A Study in the Cultures of Theory

Working Fictions is a groundbreaking book on Victorian literature and culture. Carolyn Lesjak reads nineteenth-century novels together with the best of social historical and Marxist criticism to reveal how the novel separated labor from pleasure and, in doing so, changed the very definition of both. Hers is an argument whose time has come, one that will enable a new generation of work to be done.” — Nancy Armstrong, author of Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Carolyn Lesjak is Associate Professor of English at Swarthmore College.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknolwedgments ix

Introductions : A Genealogy of the Labor Novel 1

Part I. Realism Meets the Masses 21

1. “How Deep Might Be the Romance”: Representing Work and the working Class in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton 29

2. A Modern Odyssey: Felix Holt’s Education for the Masses 63

Part II. Coming of Age in a World Economy 85

3. Seeing the Invisible: The Bildungsroman and the Narration of a New Regime of Accumulation 89

Part III. Itineraries of the Utopian 137

4. William Morris and a People’s Art: Reimagining the Pleasures of Labor 141

5. Utopia, Use, and the Everyday: Oscar Wilde and a New Economy of Pleasure 181

Conclusion 205

Notes 215

Bibliography 251

Index 263
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3888-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3835-2
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