Consuming Fictions: Gender, Class, and Hunger in Dickens's Novels


In this remarkable study, Gail Turley Houston examines the rich interplay of consumption as alimental process, medical entity, psychological construct, and economic practice in order to explore Charles Dickens's fictional representations of Victorian culture as he presents it in his novels. Drawing from medical, historical, economic, psychoanalytic, and biographical materials from the Victorian period, Houston anchors her work in the belief that if class and gender are fictional constructions, real people's lives are affected in complex and coercive ways by such constructions.

Proceeding chronologically, Houston traces particular patterns throughout ten of Dickens's major novels: The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend. Houston maintains that Victorian codes ofbehavior prescribed for gender and class regarding sexual and alimental appetites were so extreme and complicated that numerous consequent eating disorders and related diseases developed. Ideologies about consumption translated into medically defined consumptions, such as anorexia. Using anorexia and its etiology as representative of an underlying cultural dynamics of consumption, Houston examines anorexia as a deep structure of the Victorian period.

Further, consumption as economic process is reflected in the expansion of individual material desires at the expense of the designated body politic. In other words, extravagant consumption occurs in society only if certain groups- usually consisting of lower-class men and women and, in Dickens's novels, women in general- are severely limited in their consumption.

To support her approach, Houston turns to Rita Felski's Beyond Feminist Aesthetics, agreeing with Felski's argument that it is necessary to recognize the complex dialectics that take place between the individual and society. Not only does culture construct human beings, but human beings also construct culture. Felski's theory aids Houston in emphasizing that Dickens not only influenced but was also greatly influenced by the Victorian dynamics of consumption. In fact, Houston argues that while Dickens dismantles Victorian ideologies about class and hunger by demonstrating the unnaturalness of expecting one class to starve so that another might gluttonize, he nevertheless accepts and perpetuates the Victorian identification of woman as the self-sacrificing, always-nurturing "angel in the house" without need of nurture herself.

This extraordinary book will appeal to literary scholars, as well as to scholars in the social sciences, history, humanistically oriented medicine, and women's studies.


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