Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Feeling Things: The Novel Objectives of Sentimental Objects

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Feeling Things: The Novel Objectives of Sentimental Objects

Article excerpt

Eighteenth-century it-narratives have come under increased scholarly scrutiny in the last decade. Consequently, their status as satires of both an emergent consumer culture and a concordantly burgeoning literary marketplace has been well established.1 It-narratives, however, have not been fully considered within the context of eighteenth-century sense theories. When read alongside the period's persistent curiosity about the ways the five senses, especially touch, mediated the relationships between objects and ideas, it-narratives emerge as more than just satirical commentaries on either the mass production or consumption of commercial goods and texts. Specifically, in their depictions of the senses, eighteenth-century it-narratives function as serious philosophical meditations on the ways that fiction's increasing pretensions to verisimilitude dangerously threatened to refashion an individual's capacity to engage sensually, materially, and empirically with the world around them.2

The preface to the anonymous Adventures of a Black Coat (1760) epitomizes the anxieties engendered by the ascendancy of realistic fiction in the literary marketplace. The Adventures of a Black Coat begins, for example, with a criticism of novels: an admittedly ironic, though not uncommon, move for the preface of a would-be novel to make. The goals of a novel, the titular coat proclaims, ought to be "to excite virtue, depress vice, and ridicule folly."3 "Present novelwriters," however, have failed to achieve these goals because they "seem to have little else in view than to amuse their readers; or, if they have any design to instruct them, they gild the pill so very thick, that all its latent good qualities are destroyed, or its effects prevented."4 That is to say, the black coat is convinced that after reveling in depicting unsavory characters that turn readers into rubbernecking spectators of vice, novelists craftmorals for their stories that are so heavy handed as to be unbelievable at best and unpalatable at worst. Here, however, in this metaphor of pill gilding, the black coat gives readers a succinct characterization of a world of letters made new by the novel: by crafting plots and characters that seem realistic but are obviously contrived to titillate readers and then recast to exemplify moral and social norms, novelists could call real experiences into question. Novelists, in other words, wrap reality in fiction and spin a thick, gilded coat that "prevents" readers from materially engaging with authentic experiences. For the black coat, this gilding inheres in the very nature of novel-writing because novelists "cannot, like the dramaticwriter, represent [their] scene[s] to the Senses."5 Instead, novelists' "power" can only "set" "characters in such a light" so as to offer "virtues" to "imitate" and "errors" to "amend."6

The black coat goes on to emphasize the increasingly delimited nature of the works issued from Grub Street: "the Cacoethes Scribendi hath infected the town so much, that almost every shop, or work-room, harbours an author; and gentlemen of the file, now leave their more useful labour at the vice, and toil to polish periods."7 The incurable disease of writing is as easily launched into circulation as a cheap novel. It moves infectiously, silently, invisibly, and threateningly among "the town." Yet the effect of its contagion is one of isolation. Not only do authors find themselves confined in rooms, they find themselves myopically confined to the matter of their literary productions-the smallest graphic markings of their material texts, such as the period, or more expansive endeavors such as the periodic sentence, all of which they polish much as they might the gilding on their didactic pills. Therefore, although the black coat casts the production of novels as a contagion, it also argues that prolific literary productions create closed relationships between authors and texts. From the perspective of the black coat, novels that "imitate" real life thwart individuals' sensory capacity to perceive a world outside of Grub Street and its textual productions. …

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