the prison house of language

July 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

As I anticipate applying to ph.d programs after only one year of grad school, one of my main concerns is the fear of not having “grown” enough, in a literary critic-ish kind of way, to the extent that a well qualified ph.d program would require. I’m just starting to discover what my interests in the field are and where I see my work gravitating towards—which is great—but nonetheless, my ideas are nascent and I feel extremely pressured to have them fully developed in time for the application process.

Anyway, all that just to say…one of my newly realized interests is the topic of ideology—not an uncommon area of interest in the least since the emergence of critics like Michel Foucault who, disrupting and permanently changing the landscape of literary criticism, crystallized post structuralist methodologies, and thus made it inevitable for the literary critic to circumvent ideological considerations when studying literary texts. More specifically, though, what I find fascinating are the ways in which a literary text critiques a certain set of social issues, values, and mores while simultaneously perpetuating the same social constructs, constructs the text had initially set out to expose and critique (deconstruction, woot woot!). Nietzsche described human discourse as trapped in a “prison house of language” and because ideology is of course the result of language, being stuck in a prison house of ideology rings pretty true, too.

The last couple of readings I’ve done are concerned with this broad subject in the context of British nineteenth century and Dickens’s work. David Waters’s Dickens and the Politics of the Family is a study of the ramifications of the construct of the cozy, domesticated middle class family Dickens’s is so well known for portraying. And while Dickens’s offers many representations of broken families in his novels too, it is clear that these fractured families only function to be measured against the middle class family ideal—a precautionary portrayal of what NOT to be. Such families in Our Mutual Friend like the Wilfers serve to produce and elevate the “formation of middle class cultural authority” (27).

In Our Mutual Friend the installment of the “perfect” middle class family serves to solve one major social and ideologically charged conflict: class struggle. The marriage of Lizzie Hexam, lower class factory worker, and Eugene Wrayburn, upper class gentleman, for example, erases class boundaries and transcends social disparities—at least this is the pretty packaged message delivered to the reader by the end of the novel. And in order for the Lizzie and Eugene, as well as Bella and John, to live happily ever after, in order for their domestic household to work properly under the status quo, Eugene and Bella must undergo a moral transformation: Eugene goes from insensitive, rude, insouciant bachelor to loving, grateful, respectful husband; Bella goes from gold-digging, sassy, selfish brat to humble, devoted, self-sacrificing wife. These transformations, which “involve a conversion to the values of domesticity,” allow for the resolution of class struggle, and tacitly suggest that one’s just morality prevails over social inequalities (192).

Now isn’t that lovely? Not so fast. Dickens resolves class struggle by exploiting another major social conflict: gender inequalities. “Social inequalities,” Waters writes, “are made to seem temporary and relatively insignificant in comparison with the supposedly permanent and ‘natural’ differences of sex which are defined by the middle class ideology of separate spheres” (199). I won’t go much into detail, but in a nutshell, Dickens perpetuates the inequalities of gender by giving the narrator full-access to the thoughts of women in OMF as well as allowing their bodies to be “site[s] for character analys[es]”; whereas the narrator’s treatment of men is limited to significantly fewer moments of free-indirect discourse and their “physical presence is downplayed,” emphasizing their individual voice (185). These gender constructs—where the woman is portrayed in ways that promulgate her vulnerability, purity, etc and where the man is viewed as the source of dominance, restraint, etc—are the pieces needed for Dickens to complete the middle-class-family-that-overcomes-class-struggle portrait.

Where Dickens manages to circumvent one social construct, he falls into the pit of another—it’s inescapable; we live in a prison house of langauge. As unpleasant as it is to accept, we realize and fathom the world through social constructs, the very systems that create and shape our ideologies.


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