Reading for the World
In an 1859 letter to George Eliot, Charles Dickens declared that Adam Bede had taken its place “among the actual experiences and endurances” of his life. A few years earlier, Eliot herself had written to a friend, “I am only just returned to a sense of the real world about me, for I have been reading Villette.” Victorian novels have, since their publication, produced experiences that are more than a matter of reading for the plot: they permit readers to feel as though they have come to know a “world” of unreal persons, places, and incidents in unexpectedly intimate and durable ways. In recent years, the cultural history of reading has emerged as an important and exciting area of study. Yet literary critics continue to have astonishingly few strategies for thinking about the actual process by which readers move from the words of a novel to the sense of a world. This talk demonstrates how concepts and models from the psychology of reading open up new ways to think about how novels evoke a world in the reader’s mind. The cross-disciplinary approach I introduce makes it possible to explore the dynamic relation between novelistic technique and realist aesthetics and to move beyond longstanding theoretical assumptions about what nineteenth-century novels do to their readers.