The Ideas in Things Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel
by Elaine Freedgood
University of Chicago Press, 2006
Cloth: 978-0-226-26155-3 | Paper: 978-0-226-26163-8 | Electronic: 978-0-226-26154-6
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226261546.001.0001


While the Victorian novel famously describes, catalogs, and inundates the reader with things, the protocols for reading it have long enjoined readers not to interpret most of what crowds its pages. The Ideas in Things explores apparently inconsequential objects in popular Victorian texts to make contact with their fugitive meanings. Developing an innovative approach to analyzing nineteenth-century fiction, Elaine Freedgood here reconnects the things readers unwittingly ignore to the stories they tell.

Building her case around objects from three well-known Victorian novels—the mahogany furniture in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, the calico curtains in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, and “Negro head” tobacco in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations—Freedgood argues that these things are connected to histories that the novels barely acknowledge, generating darker meanings outside the novels’ symbolic systems. A valuable contribution to the new field of object studies in the humanities, The Ideas in Things pushes readers’ thinking about things beyond established concepts of commodity and fetish.


Elaine Freedgood is associate professor of English at New York University.


“Sly, charming, and devilishly clever, The Ideas in Things whisks its reader beyond the covers of four Victorian novels in pursuit of the associations more traditional readings overlook. Freedgood offers a new approach to realism in these pages—one that dares to risk being called literal-minded—as it tracks down the secret histories of things.”

— Mary Poovey, author of A History of the Modern Fact

 “Elaine Freedgood makes a major critical intervention by proposing a powerful method of reading for occluded histories in novels. The scam of fiction is that the uncomfortable pasts of slavery, genocide, and imperialism (to name a few) are ever present before our eyes, in the objects that proliferate in novels, but we have become habituated to give them little or no attention. In brilliantly reading ‘things’ for the histories they simultaneously reveal and foreclose, Freedgood has made it impossible to think about the Victorian novel apart from the cultural memory it both gestures towards and suppresses.”

— Gauri Viswanathan, author of Outside the Fold: Conversion, Modernity, and Belief >

“By taking things seriously—by recognizing that the most inconsequential of objects can in fact be an object of considerable consequence—Elaine Freedgood performs a wonderful feat. She not only defamiliarizes the most familiar Victorian novels; she also reads them as a way of disclosing the social lives of things and the multiple histories that lie encrypted within them. The Ideas in Things makes a major contribution to the materialist turn in literary criticism, and it makes a startling interruption in our habits of reading.”
— Bill Brown, author of A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature

The Ideas in Things argues for a culture of objects—not yet commodities, much less fetishes, but genuinely fascinating and unpredictably mobile things with complex histories unacknowledged by the way we now read Victorian novels. Freedgood’s fresh and utterly original way of reading fiction by Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Charles Dickens cracks open the archive of what she calls ‘thing culture’ and rescues the stuff of realism from the abstract and static condition of metaphors. Such seemingly benign objects as the furniture of Thornfield, the Bartons’ calico curtains, and Magwitch’s Australian tobacco consequently start telling us what they know about colonial deforestation, the slave trade, the famine in southern India, the genocide of aboriginal peoples, and many otherwise lost possibilities for meaning that would certainly have registered on Victorian readers. This book should inspire a generation of revisionary readings.”

— Nancy Armstrong, author of How Novels Think: The Limits of Individualism from 1719-1900

"Ultimately, what Freedgood generates is far more than a new set of readings of key Victorian texts. Rather, this is a manifesto for a new way to read fiction that gets us beyond the limits of the allegorical. In her important project of recuperating the meaning of things, Freedgood demonstrates the considerable delights and rewards of literal-mindedness."
— Jordanna Bailkin, Victorian Studies

"Freedgood's insistence on what she calls 'Victorian "thing culture"' as the ground for reading is what makes her work new and enables a different kind of historical literary analysis."
— Lynn Voskuil, Journal of British Studies

“Freedgood [demands] that we attend to the array of things that populate Victorian fiction but also [demonstrates] how we might in practice do so. For this reason, the book stands as an exemplary piece of twenty first-century Victorianist scholarship.”

— Joseph Bizup, Modern Philology



- Elaine Freedgood
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226261546.003.0001
[contingency, Victorian novels, Jane Eyre, Mary Barton, fiction, reality effect, realism, metonymy, evidence, social hieroglyphics]
Victorian novels describe, catalog, quantify, and in general shower us with things that threaten to crowd the narrative right off the page. These things do not get taken seriously—that is to say, they do not get interpreted—much of the time. This book assumes that critical cultural archives have been preserved, unsuspected, in the things of realism that have been so little or so lightly read. It “reads” objects with obvious imperial and industrial histories in three well-known Victorian novels: mahogany furniture in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, calico curtains in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton, and “Negro head” tobacco in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations. It also examines Middlemarch by George Eliot, using it as an early example of the way in which the “literary” novel works to refigure, and stabilize, our perception of the symbolic ground of fiction. This introductory chapter examines the reality effect in the Victorian novel, metonymy and its convention and contingency, the possible “evidence” the novel provides, the metonymic imagination, and social hieroglyphics. (pages 1 - 29)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Elaine Freedgood
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226261546.003.0002
[Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, mahogany, violence, slavery, deforestation, cash crops, Madeira, Jamaica, colonization]
Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre is a novel flush with the details of furniture and drapery; in particular, Brontë seems to have been something of an aficionado of wood. At Gateshead, the residence of the despicable Reed family, there is massive mahogany furniture. Some of the finest mahogany once came from Madeira and the Caribbean; indeed, in the Caribbean the word “madeira” meant mahogany (as well as wine) well into the nineteenth century. Both places were deforested of mahogany and planted with the cash crops that allow Jane Eyre to furnish her world with souvenirs, in the form of mahogany furniture, of the original material source of her wealth. The geographical coordinates of Jane Eyre—Britain, Madeira, and Jamaica—allow the novel to revisit and remember the violence that inheres in the history and geography of British colonization, slavery, and trade. This chapter argues that Jane's purchase and placement of mahogany furniture symbolizes, naturalizes, domesticates, and internalizes the violent histories of deforestation, slavery, and the ecologically and socially devastating cultivation of cash crops in Madeira and Jamaica. (pages 30 - 54)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Elaine Freedgood
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226261546.003.0003
[Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton, cotton, coziness, domesticity, calico, fustian, famine, laborers]
Fustian and calico hold a host of meanings in their names, in their histories, and, quite literally, in their rough and smooth textures. Part of the genealogy of coziness that we can trace in checked curtains is that they mark a continuity with the preindustrial past of East Lancashire. The calico curtains in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton suggest that its laboring-class residents are domestic. This chapter is not so much a “reading” of Mary Barton as it is a meditation on the way that the history of calico unravels the ideological work of domesticity as Gaskell tries to deploy it. The blue and white curtains that promise protection at key narrative moments have been purchased at the expense of the laborers who make them in England, and the laborers who no longer make them in South Asia. Hence, the presence of checked curtains suggests the exceptionally high price of domesticity for the poor. In addition, famine haunts Mary Barton; characters hunger, starve, and die at an alarming pace. (pages 55 - 80)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Elaine Freedgood
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226261546.003.0004
[Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, Negro head tobacco, state violence, slavery, genocide, fetishism, realism, metonymy, Australian Aborigines]
Repressed horror circulates in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations in many forms, including domestic abuse, state violence, slavery, and cannibalism. This chapter analyzes fetishism, realism, metonymy, and violence in Great Expectations and argues that there is a particularly overwhelming horror that cannot be named but only encoded fetishistically in the most apparently negligible of details. The “negligible” (uninterpretable, insignificant, non-symbolic) detail on which this chapter focuses is “Negro head” tobacco; the horror in question is the genocide of Australian Aborigines during the Victorian period. Negro head tobacco conjures Abel Magwitch's identification of himself as a slave, specifically as the black slave of his erstwhile partner, Compeyson. In the second paragraph of Great Expectations, we find Pip trying to interpret a set of desperately unreaderly texts—the epitaphs on the gravestones of his dead family. He attempts to sketch for himself a portrait of his parents and brothers according to the “evidence” provided by the writing on their gravestones. (pages 81 - 110)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Elaine Freedgood
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226261546.003.0005
[George Eliot, Middlemarch, fiction, meaning, underdetermination, metonymy, metaphors, realism]
This chapter uses George Eliot's Middlemarch as an example of the way in which the “literary” novel works to refigure, and stabilize, our perception of the symbolic ground of fiction. It argues that George Eliot, as a self-conscious producer of the novel as a particularly “literary” genre, begins to restrict and assign meaning to fictional objects, tying off the metonymic loose ends that the baggier novels of the earlier Victorian period had left—however unwittingly and unwillingly—dangling. It traces the structure and ideology of underdetermination, a figurative practice that attempts to prune away the highbrow or literary text from middlebrow or non-literary text. Metonymy is narrated to the point of exhaustion: all possible (that is, correct) connections are made by the narrator. The infinite individual possibilities for metonymic interpretation are reduced to proper metaphors. This newly restricted literary meaning makes the things of fiction symbolically alienable. This chapter also examines Eliot's realism in Middlemarch. (pages 111 - 138)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Elaine Freedgood
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226261546.003.0006
[Victorian novels, fetishism, abstraction, alienation, spectacularization, commodity culture, thing culture, objects]
This coda argues that the objects in Victorian novels were not fully in the grip of the kind of fetishism Karl Marx and Marxists have ascribed to industrial culture. A host of ideas resided in Victorian things: abstraction, alienation, and spectacularization had to compete for space with other kinds of object relations—ones that we have perhaps yet to appreciate. Commodity culture happened slowly: it was preceded by, and was for a long time survived by what this book calls Victorian “thing culture”: a more extravagant form of object relations than ours, one in which systems of value were not quarantined from one another and ideas of interest and meaning were perhaps far less restricted than they are for us. Thing culture, stimulated by production, display, and reproduction, inspires the representational practices that contribute to the formation of commodity culture. This coda emphasizes how slowly this may have happened and the extent to which a thing culture remained vibrantly extant well into the Victorian period, perhaps only becoming truly vitiated toward the end of the century. (pages 139 - 158)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online