This chapter introduces the two main aims of the book, to provide a rereading of British realism and to examine the important contributions British realist novels make to a dialectical reading of the history of the commons. Realism is presented not as a naive form that merely reproduces given reality, but as a generative form laced with utopian possibilities. The chapter turns to George Eliot's Middlemarch to examine the "worldly ethics" of the commons at work in the novel and to elucidate the representational challenges that the enclosure of the commons presents more broadly to literature. The introduction presents the work of the novelists at the heart of this book—Dickens, Eliot, and Hardy—not as "completed projects" but rather as ongoing experiments in the "figuration" of enclosure through new forms of realism.
This chapter presents a rereading of enclosure as an event that was not punctual or discrete in its temporality, but one possessed of a long duration. It proposes that we consider enclosure as a form of "slow violence" or "attritional catastrophe" (a term Rob Nixon applies to events such as climate change) that unfolded not only over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but which continues to this day in new forms. The chapter discusses direct representations of enclosure in works such as those of the poet John Clare, as well as more indirect representations of enclosure's afterlives. Similarly, the chapter argues for a persistence of the politics of the commons, despite its apparent erasure during the formal process of enclosure. The chapter thus argues for the continued relevance of the study of enclosure in the twenty-first century.
This chapter explores the emergence of a culture of the commons in British realism through a rereading of Charles Dickens's major novels, including The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend. It examines, specifically, his use of typification as a mode of characterization, a mode that draws upon the historical precedent of eighteenth-century character books and eccentric biographies. These character books, such as Merryweather's Lives and Anecdotes of Misers and Wilson and Caulfield's The Book of Wonderful Characters, are central to the formation of Dickens's urban aesthetic. The chapter argues for a rereading of character in realism, grounded not in the dominant model of psychological depth and interiority, but rather in what is described as the radical, thing-like materiality of character grounded in the collective sociality of the world.
This chapter locates a radical form of cosmopolitanism in George Eliot's commitment to the common and the commonplace. In readings of Adam Bede, Middlemarch, Romola, and Daniel Deronda the chapter teases out a network of literary, philosophical, and political connections to show how Eliot's abiding interest in commonness is grounded in a materialist view of character. This view draws on eighteenth-century practices of character-building and refashions them in response to the pressures of a globalizing world. Adam Bede highlights the connections between the commonplace and the historical commons, a fact underpinned by the story about enclosure at the novel's heart. Eliot's later novels are also committed to a collective view of character grounded in mutual indebtedness and a sense of the common good. Eliot's view of the common good is both ethical and political, and anticipates the contemporary feminist philosopher Silvia Federici's feminist politics of the commons.
Thomas Hardy has described his work as "abstract imaginings" to designate the deeper reality it conveys. As abstract and imagined, his writing expands our understanding of realism. In readings of The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure the chapter examines how landscape becomes a central feature of his writing, which figures the passing of the rural lifeworld in the wake of enclosure. These changes were not only captured in Hardy's fiction but also documented in his "Facts" notebook, which chronicles the precarity of life and work in the nineteenth century. A new type of character emerges in Hardy, the "enclosed self," that bears scars generally more visible in the physical environment. Quotidian changes in Hardy are part of a local-global dialectic, part of what Hardy describes as the "great web of human doings then weaving in both hemispheres."
The Afterword reflects on the relationship between the novels at the center of the book and the contemporary moment. It argues that the thought experiments of British realism can be inspirations for experiments in new forms of realism able to capture the forms of slow violence and attritional catastrophe unfolding today. It argues for the need for new forms of representation of future collective solutions to global problems, solutions that must be grounded in acknowledgment of the economic and material roots of those problems.