Vital Signs: Medical Realism in Nineteenth-Century Fiction

Vital Signs: Medical Realism in Nineteenth-Century Fiction

Vital Signs: Medical Realism in Nineteenth-Century Fiction

Vital Signs: Medical Realism in Nineteenth-Century Fiction

Synopsis

Vital Signs offers both a compelling reinterpretation of the nineteenth-century novel and a methodological challenge to literary historians. Rejecting theories that equate realism with representation, Lawrence Rothfield argues that literary history forms a subset of the history of discourses and their attendant practices. He shows how clinical medicine provided Balzac, Flaubert, Eliot, and others with narrative strategies, epistemological assumptions, and models of professional authority. He also traces the linkages between medicine's eventual decline in scientific and social status and realism's displacement by naturalism, detective fiction, and modernism.

Excerpt

This book starts from a sense of the inadequacy of critical efforts to define that elusive yet indispensable category of nineteenth-centuryfiction, “realism.” Whether evaluated positively (as it is by Harry Levin and George Levine, as well as by Georg Lukacs and Fredric Jameson) or pejoratively (as it is by Roland Barthes and Stephen Heath), realism over the last half-century has generally been taken as a synonym for representation, that is, as a joining of—or for some critics, a split between—words and things, conventions and reality, signifier and signified, or soul and form. Consequently, arguments about realism have tended to trail off into the sterile question ofwhether realism goes beyond conventions, forms, or signifiers to represent reality “adequately”; or whether realism is merely the literary expression of a “naive” philosophical assumption that the words in a realistic novel are transparent to a reality they represent; or whether realism on the contrary is an effort to achieve a fresh, defamiliarized vision of reality by breaking down conventions through parody, dialogization, or the mixing of styles.

To go beyond this impasse without altogether abandoning realism as a category in literary history, we need to rethink the entire issue of realism in terms other than those of a problematic of representation, of the relation between words and things, signifiers and signifieds, conventions and reality. the way to do this, I believe, is to take seriously Bakhtin's assertion that the novel is woven out of discourses (rather than out of signifiers or conventions). If the novel is a texture woven out of discourse, then one ought to be able to describe particular novelistic genres (the realistic novel, the naturalist novel, the sensation novel, the modernist novel, the detective story, and so on) not by their implicit theories of representation—or of the impossibility of achieving representation, as is often said of modernist fiction—but by the kinds of discourses, and the relations between discourses, that predominate in each genre. the result of such a description will be to give a more local precision to the “real” of the realistic novel: a real that can then be aligned to the “real” offered by the specific discourses that novelists like Balzac, Flaubert, and Eliot adapt in distinctive ways.

This book has much in common with what has come to be called the “new historicism” in nineteenth-century studies. Like such critics as D. A. Miller, Mark Seltzer, Jonathan Arac, and Catherine Gallagher, I set out to show how fiction is linked to hitherto overlooked but none-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.