A Sociable Silence: Silence and Sympathy in the Victorian Novel


This dissertation argues that silence played a fundamental role in the Victorian novel and in Victorian novel writing, operating as a productive force in service of sympathetic exchange and creative labor. It examines Charles Lamb's and Thomas Carlyle’s foundational roles in detaching silence from its traditional Romantic associations with solitude, escapism, and rurality before focusing on the social utility of silent space in novels by Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot. Dickens, Brontë, and Eliot build silence into the urban and suburban settings of their novels, stretching the boundaries of Victorian realism in order to restore balance to the fictional soundscape and demonstrate silence’s pertinence to human attention, sympathy, and moral development. My project reads these novels in conversation with the nineteenth-century rise of sound attenuating technologies that made urban silence possible both on and off the fictional page. Ultimately, I contend that writers such as Dickens, Brontë, and Eliot recognized silence as a narrative technology as well as a critical environmental condition. Their work takes the production of silence in hand, figuring its disappearance in a modernizing and urbanizing Britain as a threat to the sympathetic impulse and, through that, to social cohesion.

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