by Jill Galvan
When I first read George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), I was startled to find how much it focuses on a miserable marriage. I had heard about everything else this novel depicts: hack writers, the literary marketplace, the ravages of capitalism, a cruel post-Darwinian world. But Edwin and Amy Reardon were a shock. Gissing devotes so much time to their home life and to showing how the scarcity economy destroys their relationship.
New Grub Street was the very first novel that piqued my interest in fictional troubled marriage, the subject of my current research. I’ve come to think that there is something about strained wedlock that lends itself to realism and reveals its aesthetics, giving us special insight into the fiction of lifelikeness. Indeed, naturalism, a subgenre of realism—with its great attention to material and biological life as such—often dwells on marital coupledom gone awry. Think of all those spouses or near-spouses in Thomas Hardy’s novels (The Return of the Native , Tess of the D’Urbervilles , Jude the Obscure , and so on) who find coupling up a losing game. The understudied Lucas Malet (Mary St. Leger Kingsley Harrison) likewise plots Nature’s torpedoing of wedlock in Colonel Enderby’s Wife (1885). Several other works in Gissing’s oeuvre, too, hang their naturalism on the story of a bleak engagement or marriage.
With all its focus on evolution and biology and its animalization of the human, naturalism has often been treated as a rather science-y mode. Yet it, like all realism, is an artful genre, careful and formally tricky with character. This trickiness includes a sly play with spatiotemporal scale, along with a heightened awareness of the errors of human perception. Naturalism even includes a subtle perceptual misdirection of us, its human readers. (New Grub Street illustrates this especially well through its meta-treatment of language, story, and reading.)
Perception, like sensation, is both a biological and an aesthetic issue. This makes it a major source of naturalism’s artful realism. Consider a now well-established concept in animal studies, umwelt. This is an organism’s specific in-the-world, perceptual uptake and inhabiting of the environment. A snail, for instance, experiences its environment in a certain way, and this is fundamentally non-translatable to any other type of organism: a unique being-as-experience. What happens when we apply this concept to humans, as also animals? As Ed Yong says in An Immense World (in a helpful metaphor borrowed from umwelt’s original 1909 theorist, Jakob von Uexküll), the human’s inhabited perceptual “house” may be “bigger” than other animals’, but that house still has only so many windows: we are “still stuck inside . . . , looking out. Our Umwelt is still limited; it just doesn’t feel that way. To us, it feels all-encompassing. It is all that we know, and so we easily mistake it for all there is to know. This is an illusion, and one that every animal shares.”
Naturalism is constantly trying to get inside the small-scale human umwelt-house—our species’ little, ordinary, perceptual experience of life, even in its illusions. It is time to think about naturalist lifelikeness in character-perceptual terms: to get down on the ground with characters. This would include lots of attention to affect—not just bodily sense-being, but also emotion, like the emotion of being in love. In naturalism, love makes characters perceive their fates as controllable, even while the text is hinting at the cruel randomness of Nature-as-Fate. This conflict between life and Life, fate and Fate is a scalar one, and it makes naturalism oscillate; that oscillation is crucial to naturalism’s form. Naturalism renders reality not in spite of human illusion, but because of it. The illusion is, ironically, essential to the realism.
 Ed Yong, An Immense World (NY: Random House, 2022) 6.
To read more, see Jill Galvan, “Love Story’s Ontology: Species Feeling in New Grub Street.” Victorian Review, vol. 48 no. 1, 2022, p. 69-90. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vcr.2022.0000.