chapter  5
18 Pages

FANTASTIC REALISM

IT would be misleading to regard fantasy as an ‘alterna­tive’ literary form during the nineteenth century. Not only were writers like Kingsley and Carroll wellestablished figures, but mainstream novelists, working primarily with realistic conventions, also relied upon nonrealistic modes. Gothic, sensationalism, melodrama, romance, fantasy, disrupt a ‘monological’ vision, fracturing the texts of Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Dickens, Balzac, Wilkie Collins, Dostoevsky, Hardy, James, Conrad, etc. Flaubert’s Reve d ’enfer and La tentation de St Antoine incline towards fantasy. Even George Eliot, notably in her story The Lifted Veil, reworks Gothic horror. From a Marxist perspec­

tive, such an intrusion of fantastic sequences constitutes an interrogation of the ideals sustained through bourgeois realism. ‘The Assuring of organic form becomes a progres­ sive act’: ‘In English literary culture of the past century, the ideological basis of organic form is peculiarly visible, as a progressively impoverished bourgeois liberalism attempts to integrate more ambitious and affective ideological modes.’ 1

An uneasy assimilation of Gothic in many Victorian novels suggests that within the main, realistic text, there exists another non-realistic one, camouflaged and con­ cealed, but constantly present. Analogous to Freud’s theory of the workings of the Unconscious, this inner text reveals itself at those moments of tension when the work threatens to collapse under the weight of its own repression. These moments of disintegration, of incoherence, are recuperated with difficulty. They remain as an obdurate rem inder of all that has been silenced in the name of establishing a norma­ tive bourgeois realism. A dialogue between fantastic and realistic narrative modes often operates within individual texts, as the second attempts to repress and defuse the subversive thrust of the first. This dialogue is equivalent, on the level of narrative form, to the dialogue of self and other which is thematically central to nineteenth-century litera­ ture. A fear of immanent metamorphosis from ‘real’ to ‘unreal’ increases the stranglehold of dominant notions of ‘reality’ and their fictional reproduction. Ironically, a Gothic tradition is increasingly employed to serve and not to sub­ vert a dominant ideology. Its horrors, transgression and sexual ‘licence’ are exploited by many Victorian novelists to deter a bourgeois reading public from political revolution, even as it provides them with a temporary fulfilment of ungratified desire.