I’m not going to be in class this Thursday (Nov 3) because I’m attending the annual conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA). This is the largest conference in the scholarly field of Victorian studies, so it’s kind of a big deal. Rather than cancel class on Thursday, I thought I would give you a brief assignment on Tennyson’s In Memoriam, instead. Yes, I’m cruel. I know you would rather have a cancelled class. I get it. But this is your chance to show me what you know!
The paper I’m presenting at NAVSA is entitled “Victorian Studies in Hard Times.” Essentially, I’m analyzing a passage from Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, in which the novel’s third-person narrator takes a moment to intrude upon the narrative to develop a critique of Victorian Utilitarian political and economic principles as they apply especially to factory systems. Here’s what Dickens writes:
So many hundred Hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power. It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but, not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions. There is no mystery in it; there is an unfathomable mystery in the meanest of them, for ever. – Supposing we were to reverse our arithmetic for material objects, and to govern these awful unknown quantities by other means!
Notice that last line and its reference to the “awful unknown quantities.” Dickens’s reference here is not completely clear, but we can extrapolate a little bit. The passage’s emphasis on governance suggests that these “unknown quantities” are the souls of the “quiet servants” whose hands operate the machinery of the Victorian era’s industrial factories. Dickens’s speculation is that it is possible to imagine a scenario in which Victorian political and economic doctrines govern bodies in different ways than they currently do. Dickens does not provide an alternative, but leaves the speculation open-ended as a critique of Victorian Utilitarianism’s tendency to reduce bodies of citizens to numbers and statistics in the great arithmetic of political governance. Clearly, Dickens’s narrator assumes, there must be an alternative. But where and how does a culture begin to “govern” the unknown quantities of bodies and souls?
This question is of the Victorian age, but it’s also prominent in our own age of “big data” and algorithmic quantification (which is beside the point for the purposes of this mini assignment). Here’s my question, though, for each of you this week: to what extent is Tennyson’s In Memoriam making similar speculations about the limits of Victorian political and economic systems?
Here’s your assignment: reread the poem’s opening prologue. Pay attention to the stanza about how “Our little systems have their day.” And then write a response to the following questions, either as a comment on our course blog (see the + sign below) or through the assignment link in Blackboard. I would prefer that you comment through the course blog, but I realize that some students do not want to put their thoughts into the public realm.
Here are the questions: how does Tennyson develop his critique of little systems in the prologue and elsewhere in the poem? What images/metaphors does the poem develop as a way of critiquing the “little systems” of Victorian economic and scientific thought? What do you think of the poem’s many references to roots, webs, hands, networks, and nervous systems? How do all of these images/metaphors reflect a critique of scientific and political thought?
These are big questions, but I know you are up to the task. There’s no need to worry about the quality of your writing in your responses. I just want to see if you can recognize this major thematic element of the poem.
I’m looking forward to reading your responses!