Reconfiguring gender: George Gissing and social progress at the fin de siecle

Date of Completion

January 2004


Literature, English




George Gissing invites constant rediscovery because he eludes it; the very tensions and contradictions that make his novels troubling are precisely what demand analysis. At the center of these contradictions, I contend, are conflicting constructs of class and gender. It has become something of a critical commonplace, perhaps, to say that class and gender “intersect.” But my project is to trace precisely the way in which these categories overlap and interact in Gissing's novels, to demonstrate their dependence on each other, and to understand how this functions within each text as a whole. Novelistic strategies for establishing gender and class, I argue, may serve equally well to dismantle them. My dissertation examines the ideological implications of this interplay of class and gender in relation to narrative itself. ^ In order to structure his explicitly social fictions, Gissing presides over the collapse of the marriage plot, both as a narrative convention that, with few exceptions, dominates the Victorian novel, and as a symbolic mechanism for the resolution (or containment) of social conflict. While Gissing continues to work within the basic structure of domestic fiction, his novels ultimately elude the conditions of this framework. According to Nancy Armstrong, “[i]t is only by…subordinating all social differences to those based on gender that these novels bring order to social relationships”; the mechanism for imposing this order, of course, is often—though not always—the eventual marriage of protagonists who conform to very specific models of gender. Gissing's novels systematically project class conflict onto gendered courtship plots, but rather than providing the resolution Armstrong describes, Gissing's disrupted marriage plots tend to insist that social relationships ultimately cannot be thus subordinated. In doing so, they expose the social fantasy that might be said to structure most Victorian novels, and destabilize the rigid constructs of gender upon which, according to Armstrong, the suppression of social difference depends. I establish a certain mutability of gender as a recurring characteristic of Gissing's novels, and I identify this as a site where social change can be imagined. ^