Novelistic Modes and Sociological Thought at the Fin de Siècle: George Gissing and Emile Durkheim

by Maria Su Wang

At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive to pair fin de siècle Victorian author George Gissing’s novels of lower middle class urban life with French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s writings on social theory.  After all, not only are they separated by disciplinary context but also national borders.  Upon closer examination, however, bringing these two figures together reveal surprising convergences about novelistic modes and sociological thought at the end of the nineteenth century.

I first encountered Durkheim’s writings on social theory and sociological methodology during my graduate studies, via an interdisciplinary seminar that prompted us to explore various social scientific disciplines and query their potential for literary studies.  When I read Durkheim’s discussion of social facts, which he defines in The Rules of Sociological Method (1895) as “any way of acting, whether fixed or not, capable of exerting over the individual an external constraint” (59), I couldn’t help but be reminded of late nineteenth-century realist form.  Durkheim’s definition here emphasizes the notion of constraint, something external to individuals that exerts pressure on how they act, whether it be physical density limiting movement or internalized social norms restricting behavior.  Yet how does one grasp, much less represent, social constraint?  How does an author make legible what is presumably an internalized social consciousness into narrative form?  Social facts, according to Durkheim, are mostly visible as traces, as aftereffects – they determine and constrain individuals, but are by nature hard to capture directly.

Social facts, that is to say, exist as an invisible collective consciousness that powerfully constrains individuals.  For me, this description crystallizes Gissing’s abiding thematic interest in his novels, what he portrays so powerfully – the pathos of individuals caught within social structures and norms beyond that of their own choosing.  Gissing’s fiction focus on those who experience economic and class precarity brought about by tremendous structural changes at the fin de siècle.  In order to represent such changes, he must strategically craft his narration to show both the external structural constraints and their affective impact on the individual.  Looking at Durkheim’s notion of the social fact allowed me to pinpoint exactly how Gissing’s novels so vividly render such pathos in textual form: by deploying what I call a “constrained omniscience” as a narrative strategy in New Grub Street (1891) and The Odd Women (1893).  This narrative mode, especially in characterization, points to social constraint by performing it.

By looking at Gissing and Durkheim together, my essay reinscribes them into their respective traditions and asks, more broadly, what this comparison reveals about Victorian narrative realism and the development of sociology at the fin de siècle.  Through emphasizing the parallels between Gissing’s narration and Durkheim’s concept, this essay treats both as symptomatic of a broader interest in the fact, pointing to resonances between realist narrative technique and the longer history of disciplinary reorganization that emerges over the nineteenth century.

To read more, see Maria Su Wang, “Constrained Realism: Representing Social Facts in George Gissing’s Fiction.” Victorian Review, vol. 47, no.1, 2021, p. 97-114.

Works Cited

Durkheim, Emile. The Rules of Sociological Method. 1895. Translated by W. D. Halls, The Free Press, 1982.

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