Eavesdropping in the Novel from Austen to Proust

Eavesdropping in the Novel from Austen to Proust

Eavesdropping in the Novel from Austen to Proust

Eavesdropping in the Novel from Austen to Proust

Synopsis

This study investigates human curiosity and its depiction in eavesdropping scenes in nineteenth-century English and French novels. Ann Gaylin sheds light on the social and psychological effects of the nineteenth-century rise of information technology and accelerated flow of information, as manifested in the anxieties about (and delight in) displays of private life and its secrets. She analyzes eavesdropping in Austen, Balzac, Collins, and Proust. This innovative study is of interest to scholars of nineteenth-century English and European literature.

Excerpt

We all do it, although we deny it. We eavesdrop. Sometimes we listen in on others deliberately, more often inadvertently. Once hooked, we have trouble resisting the urge to listen, particularly if the conversation is interesting. Will she leave her husband? Will he take over the company? Whom does she really love? We try to make sense of what we have heard: we imagine, we plot, we interpret. We continue to eavesdrop.

This book aims to make sense of an activity to which we rarely admit, about which we hardly speculate, yet which has long been represented in fiction. Eavesdropping has existed in the novel as long as the novel has existed. Trained to think, to articulate, and to represent our ideas in visual terms, we tend to ignore the significance of hearing, and overhearing, in narrative. It has been largely overlooked, or, if you will, underheard. Appearing intermittently, eavesdropping dramatizes some of the fundamental issues that inform our hermeneutic and epistemological efforts. A nonconsensual, deceptive activity, it introduces intriguing moral questions about human interaction and subjectivity, since eavesdropping always depends on discovering connections among other people. A secret witness deliberately or unintentionally acquires information about others that may be used to villainous ends or may be kept benignly private. Overhearing affords ample opportunity for private information to become public or for secrets to fall into the wrong hands. Eavesdropping raises issues of privacy, publicity, and their spatial and psychological relations; it represents a process of acquiring secret knowledge about self and other. This study comprises not just a thematics of eavesdropping in the nineteenth-century novel, but an examination of a structural dynamic that underlies the motivation and reception of narrative in Austen, Balzac, Dickens, Collins, and Proust.

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