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Exquisite Masochism

Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form

Claire Jarvis

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A groundbreaking approach to the Victorian marriage plot.

How did realist novelists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hint at sex while maintaining a safe distance from pornography? Metaphors helped: waves, oceans, blooms, and illuminations were all deployed in respectable realist novels to allude to the sexual act, allowing writers to portray companionate marriage while avoiding graphic description. But in Exquisite Masochism, Claire Jarvis argues that some Victorian novelists went even further, pushing formal boundaries by slyly developing scenes of displaced erotic desire to...

A groundbreaking approach to the Victorian marriage plot.

How did realist novelists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hint at sex while maintaining a safe distance from pornography? Metaphors helped: waves, oceans, blooms, and illuminations were all deployed in respectable realist novels to allude to the sexual act, allowing writers to portray companionate marriage while avoiding graphic description. But in Exquisite Masochism, Claire Jarvis argues that some Victorian novelists went even further, pushing formal boundaries by slyly developing scenes of displaced erotic desire to suggest impropriety, perversion, and danger.

Through close readings of canonical works by Emily Brontë, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and a modernist outlier, D. H. Lawrence, Jarvis reveals how writers’ varied use of specific character types—the dominant woman and the submissive man—in conjunction with decadent, descriptive scenes of sexual refusal creates a strong counter-narrative hinting at relationships beyond patriarchal and companionate marriage structures. By focusing on the exquisitely masochistic pleasure brought about by freezing, or suspending, the sexual charge, and by depicting quasi-contractual states on the periphery of marriage, including engagement, adultery, and widowhood, novelists disrupted the marriage plot’s insistence that erotic drives remain unfulfilled and that sexual connection could be satisfied only by genital act.

Complicating our understanding of Victorian marriage ideology’s more well-trodden focus on a productive, nation-building ideal, Exquisite Masochism offers fascinating insight into our own culture’s debates around illicit sexuality, marriage, reproduction, and feminism.

Reviews

Reviews

Jarvis opens new avenues of criticism to work that is often oversimplified. Highly recommended.

... an engaging cultural study, with applications wider than nineteenth-century literature.

Jarvis’s elegant prose has its own beat too, which makes Exquisite Masochism a pleasurable as well as persuasive read.

... illuminating and original...

At this moment in the profession, with so much work dedicated to reunderstanding the way we read now, Jarvis’s emphasis on literary form is resonant and welcome.

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About

Book Details

Publication Date
Status
Available
Trim Size
6
x
9
Pages
224
ISBN
9781421419930
Illustration Description
1 halftone
Table of Contents

Preface
Acknowledgments
1. Making Scenes
2. The Grasp of Wuthering Heights
3. Buoyed Up
4. Hideously Multiplied
5. Dead Gems
Conclusion
Notes
Index

Author Bio
Claire Jarvis
Featured Contributor

Claire Jarvis

Claire Jarvis is an assistant professor of English at Stanford University.