Victorian Literature Affect
by
Tamara Ketabgian
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0003

Introduction

The Victorian period is renowned for its culture of shared powerful feeling: its mawkish sentimentality, its anxieties of gender and class, its fantasies of empire, its elaborate matrix of sexuality, and—most memorably—its literature, defined both by complex portraits of emotion and an equally complex ability to spur emotion in readers. This entry treats the recent explosion of literary, critical, and historical interest in Victorian affect, especially in scholarship of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Deliberately broadly defined, affect may describe an emotion, mood, feeling, sensation, or psychic state—whether physically, mentally, gesturally, or verbally displayed. The term has gained popularity in current years because it acknowledges the difficulties involved in distinguishing between voluntary and involuntary feeling, whether rooted in bodily sensation, expression, or cognitive interpretation. Recently, affect has been prominently employed in fields such as psychology, anthropology, sociology, behavioral economics, gender and sexuality studies, cultural studies, and philosophy—including the postmodern philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, which treats affect as a collective emotional “flow” that challenges the borders of selfhood and humanness. Because of these diverse affiliations, affect has particular relevance for Victorian studies, as an interdisciplinary field currently interested in issues surrounding the body, sexuality, popular culture, psychic experience, and evolving disciplinary and predisciplinary forms of knowledge. For, whether they refer explicitly to affect or not, Victorian literary and cultural studies have long sought to historicize different forms of feeling. Scholars stress the period’s groundbreaking medical and psychological discourses of bodily sensation, shock, and disease—and the vibrant transformation of these discourses in period literature. Moreover, gender critics have reassessed the era’s widespread feminization of sympathy and sentimentality, in important cultural and aesthetic revaluations of popular women’s texts, melodrama, and sensation fiction. In turn, these revisionist accounts of affect have inspired new interpretive and narrative approaches toward Victorian literature more generally—toward both the literary representation of affect and the affective responses of readers to texts. Concentrating primarily, but not exclusively, on Victorian literature, this entry surveys scholarship on the expression, analysis, and experience of affect, as mediated by gender, class, empire, sexuality, technology, economics, medicine, psychology, literary genre, and various theories and practices of reading.

General Overviews

Overviews of Victorian affect fall into two categories: literary and cultural approaches, which include linguistic, historical, and philosophical studies; and psychological approaches, which treat concepts of affect in the context of Victorian psychology, psychoanalysis, and their development as disciplines.

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