Subjects on Display explores a recurrent figure at the heart of many nineteenth-century English novels: the retiring, self-effacing woman who is conspicuous for her inconspicuousness. Beth Newman draws upon both psychoanalytic theory and recent work in social history as she argues that this paradoxical figure, who often triumphs over more dazzling, eye-catching rivals, is a response to the forces that made personal display a vexed issue for Victorian women. Chief among these is the changing socioeconomic landscape that made the ideal of the modest woman outlive its usefulness as a class signifier even as it continued to exert moral authority.
This problem cannot be grasped in its full complexity, Newman shows, without considering how the unstable social meanings of display interacted with psychical forces-specifically, the desire to be seen by others that is central to both masculine and feminine subjectivity. This desire raises an issue that feminist theorists have been reluctant to address: the importance of pleasure in being the object of the look. Their reluctance is characteristic of cultural theory, which has tended to equate subjectivity with the position of the observer rather than the observed.
Through a consideration of fiction by Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Henry James, Newman shifts the inquiry toward the observed in the experience of being seen. In the process she reopens the question of the gaze and its relation to subjectivity.
Subjects on Display will appeal to scholars and students in several disciplines as it returns psychoanalysis to a central position within literary and cultural studies.