The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Carolyn Lesjak

Karl Marx's Capital, vol. 3 famously breaks off with two questions about class: “What makes a class?” and “What makes wage-labourers, capitalists and landlords the formative elements of the three great social classes?” (1981, 1025—26). These questions, unanswered in any systematic way in Marx's writings, shape the early history of discussions of class, a discussion, importantly, that really only begins in the mid-nineteenth century, when the language of class gradually replaces the earlier language of rank and order. As Raymond Williams clarifies, “The essential history of the introduction of class... relates to the increasing consciousness that social position is made rather than merely inherited. All the older words, with their essential metaphors of standing, stepping and arranging in rows, belong to a society in which position was determined by birth” (1976, Keywords, 61—62). The history of class as we now understand it, then, is primarily a history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

While the Marxist tradition forms one dominant strand in this history, it by no means holds a monopoly. In fact, the history of class as a concept is best understood as a series of debates within Marxism and between Marxism and a range of other critical approaches that have challenged the primacy of class over other social categories and considerations, such as race, gender, sexual orientation (see SEXUALITY), global inequalities, postmodernism, and postcolonialism. Given the enormity of this history, this entry will limit its scope to outlining a number of representative attempts to define class, sketching key theories of the novel in relationship to the issue of class, and highlighting a series of transitional moments in the evolution of thinking about class, both generally and more specifically in relation to the development of the nineteenth-century British novel.

Defining Class

About the only thing most critics agree on about the issue of class is that it's a notoriously difficult term and topic. Williams identifies one aspect of the difficulty in the slippage of meaning between class as a descriptive grouping and class as an economic relationship. “The problem is still critical,” he writes, “in that it underlies repeated arguments about the relation of an assumed class consciousness to an objectively measured class, and about the vagaries of self-description and self-assignation to a class scale” (68). In short, is class structurally determined or a form of political alliance? Depending on the answer, the politics surrounding the idea of class as a structural category and class consciousness look quite different.

On a more basic definitional level, Williams points out that historically class distinction has moved between a binary and a tripartite structure. Different binary models pit employers against workers, the idle or privileged against the productive or useful, bourgeois against proletarian. Tripartite structures, on the other hand, distinguish between landlords, capitalists, and laborers (as in J. S. Mill's formulation) or wage-laborers, capitalists, and landlords (as Marx does in Capital, vol. 3). Perhaps the most important tripartite model, in terms of the history of the novel, involves the introduction of the “middle class,” which becomes, along with “working class,” a common term by the 1840s. Its relative status highlights the tension between class as a marker of social distinction and as a function of economic relationships.

More recent developments underscore the difficulty of definition. In Race, Nation, Class (1991), coauthored by the French Marxist Etienne Balibar and world-systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein, Wallerstein attempts to isolate the solely economic determinants of class position. “The bourgeoisie [are] those who receive surplus-value they do not themselves create and use some of it to accumulate capital” and “the proletariat are those who yield part of the value they have created to others. In this sense there exists in the capitalist mode of production only bourgeois and proletarians” (120). But as the British Marxist Robin Blackburn argues, polarized versions of class determination simply no longer obtain given what he calls “financialization,” namely the expansion of the financial sector into all aspects of everyday life, including those of individuals Wallerstein would deem part of the proletariat. The linking of pension funds to the market, as well as mortgages, insurance contracts, and annuities, bring more and more individuals into the market, as it were, and “extend the realm” of what Blackburn calls “’grey capitalism,’ in which relations of ownership and responsibility become weakened and blurred” (2006, “Finance and the Fourth Dimension,” New Left Review 39:41).

These complications in no way signal that class as a social category of analysis should be jettisoned. “The proletariat is not what it used to be,” Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri acknowledge, “but that does not mean it has vanished. It means, rather, that we are faced once again with the analytical task of understanding the new composition of the proletariat as a class” (2000, Empire, 53).

Class and Nineteenth-Century British Historiography

Divergent readings of class are inseparable from the larger political and socioeconomic conditions within which they gain traction. The analysis of class in nineteenth-century British historiography offers a particularly illuminating example of this dialectical relationship, by both highlighting the deep connections between social movements and theoretical concepts of class and suggesting how changing notions of class have been mobilized historically. More generally, this disciplinary history points to a number of key transitional moments when class and its theorization dramatically alter.

In The Making of the English Working Class (1963), E. P. Thompson defines class as a historical relationship always “in the making”; less a “thing” or an “it,” the working class is made by way of an active social process, one in which individuals are at once conditioned by and exert influence over their immediate historical experience. He targets economistic treatments of class that neglect “real people” and “real contexts” and argues instead for a more catholic understanding of class politics, involving new kinds of workers (notably, artisans) and an expanded conception of labor. His reading of the nineteenth-century working class, and his later work on William Blake and William Morris, equally intervenes in contemporaneous Marxist debates, insisting, in the wake of Stalinism and scientific socialism, that a new socialist politics inclusive of a vocabulary of desire is needed.

Despite its expansion, Thompson's definition of class nonetheless contains a conspicuous absence. As the feminist historian Joan W. Scott notes, “In trying to work within the boundaries set by canonical texts like Thompson's, [feminist socialists] faced a tradition that held to a universalized definition of class, the meaning of which was nonetheless constructed in gendered terms” (1988, Gender and the Politics of History, 83). Feminist challenges to Thompson have taken two routes. One has been to recognize the significant roles women played in the history of industrialization charted by Thompson, a move paralleled within literary studies of the novel by the inclusion of women writers and an attention to gender politics within a broad range of novels written by both male and female authors. In the disciplines of both history and literature, this first wave of feminist work leaves the older categories of class analysis largely in place.

The other major challenge results from the “linguistic turn” prompted by the impact of continental theory on the humanities beginning in the late 1960s and dominant within literature departments by the 1980s (see STRUCTURALISM). In history, specifically, the language and construction of class as a concept becomes the new object of study. In this second wave, older class analyses are shown to be premised on an unacknowledged sexual difference, suggesting how deeply intertwined class and gender are—a recognition that will then be extended to the relationship between race and class, and eventually to a whole host of other social categories of identity.

Also working within a linguistic model, Patrick Joyce questions historians' use of the language of class altogether in his claim that class was not “the collective cultural experience of new economic classes produced by the Industrial Revolution” (1995, Class, 322). Joyce's conclusions speak pointedly to the anxieties aroused by the influx of theory into history; as new social categories and concepts such as “sociality,” “habitus,” and “governmentality” are invoked, the whole question of who constitutes an historical actor within what kind of narrative appears to be up for grabs (11). Less an occasion for moral outrage or political disaffection, however, these developments register the ongoing need to critically articulate the constitutive categories of identity within a now fully global capitalism.

Class and Theories of the Novel

Historically, theories of the novel have tended to concentrate on the construction of the middle class, given the novel's close identification with a middle-class market culture. Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (1957) serves as one starting point for the placing of the novel in history. Watt links the rise of the novel to the rise of the middle class and identifies realism “as the lowest common denominator of the novel genre as a whole” (34). He sets the stage for a rich and ongoing debate about the relationship between realism and the novel and about the novel's class politics.

Watt has been criticized for neglecting the role of women both as writers and readers; inaccurately representing capitalism by focusing on its productive needs at the expense of its equally powerful demands with respect to consumption; presenting the novel as a more consolidated form than it actually was at the time; and failing to consider other narrative forms and media shaping eighteenth-century culture. These criticisms have spawned new social histories of the novel inflected by new theoretical discourses. Key developments include psychoanalytic, Foucauldian, and New Historical readings, each of which has resituated issues of class and, in some cases, stopped talking about it altogether (see PSYCHOANALYSIS). Following Foucault, D. A. Miller's The Novel and the Police (1989), for example, moves toward a “micro-politics” of power and domination and away from economic analyses of capitalism and class. Foucauldian-influenced theories of the novel importantly expand the ambit of novel studies, “[making] it possible,” as Nancy Armstrong in Desire and Domestic Fiction (1987) argues, “to consider sexual relations as the site for changing power relations between classes and cultures as well as between genders and generations” (10).

At the same time, however, the shift toward “micro-politics” is also a primary point of contention for Marxist literary critics. Gayatri Spivak, for example, argues that Foucault loses the ability to understand how macropolitical interests determine micro-interests once he abandons the notion of ideology. Sharing this concern regarding the loss of key Marxist terms, Fredric Jameson's groundbreaking The Political Unconscious (1981) argues for the indispensability of a notion of class, given Marx's recognition that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Communist Manifesto, 34). “It is,” he writes, “in detecting the traces of that uninterrupted narrative, in restoring to the surface of the text the repressed and buried reality of this fundamental history, that the doctrine of a political unconscious finds its function and its necessity” (20). Class, in Jameson's account, will only disappear with the end of capitalism.

Class in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel

Within the nineteenth-century British novel, readings of class roughly follow the trajectories already outlined vis-à-vis British historiography and theories of the novel. Rather than repeat this chain of interpretive moves, this section focuses on one problematic regarding the representation of class: the difficulty of representing the working class within a predominantly middle-class form. One aspect of this problem arises in the group of novels known as industrial novels, written in the years between the two Reform Bills, 1832—67, the period when new subjects were not only appearing in novels but also being enfranchised politically. In their focus on the industrial working class, novels such as Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848), Benjamin Disraeli's Sybil (1845), Charles Dickens's Hard Times (1854), and George Eliot's Felix Holt (1866) grapple with the dilemma of how to represent the working class and industrial labor without promoting social revolution, in turn registering the class allegiances of these novelists. From a different angle, the new historicist Catherine Gallagher argues in The Industrial Reformation of English Fiction (1985) that the industrial novel represents a problem of translation between the social and the novelistic, which leads ultimately to the supplanting of industrial fiction by less politically contentious forms of literature in the latter decades of the nineteenth century.

Yet even as the industrial novel as a genre wanes, later nineteenth-century novels extend its concerns in the changed circumstances of an increasingly corporate capitalism. In the 1880s and 1890s, George Gissing returns to the issue of the working class and poverty in slum novels such as Workers in the Dawn (1880) and The Nether World (1889), both of which portray in sordid detail the miserable living conditions of the poor. In these works, as Jameson suggests, the “solution” of the Dickensian paradigm—the hearth as “Utopian refuge from the nightmare of social class” (188)—produces new problems, as the home now becomes a space which serves to further impoverish and underscore the class divide. William Morris, seemingly recognizing the representational impasse class provokes in the realist novel, swore off the form altogether and instead, in News from Nowhere (1890), turned to the utopian romance to represent his vision of a classless society. Thomas Hardy, within the context of agricultural labor, brings to metropolitan Britons the everyday experiences of the rural working class from his own complex position as a participant-observer (see ANTHROPOLOGY). In these later representations of the working class, class differences become sites for the larger recognition that an older way of life is disappearing. As he peruses job advertisements in a reading room, Paul Morel, in D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913), expresses this loss explicitly in terms of the triumph of industrialism: “Then he looked wistfully out of the window. Already he was a prisoner of industrialism. ...The valley was full of corn, brightening in the sun....He was being taken into bondage. His freedom in the beloved home valley was going now” (89).

If, for Lawrence, industrialism names the complex of social factors shaping the early twentieth century, globalization undoubtedly performs the same function today. While the world globalization attempts to describe may be exponentially more complicated, and the conceptual framework needed to explain that world ever more elusive, the history and developments traced in this essay should be a reminder of the urgency behind these theoretical and activist projects: that class and its new variants represent persistent attempts to come to terms with the vagaries of capitalism and to provide adequately explanatory narratives for the new social relations capitalism is in the business of creating.


1. Armstrong, N. (1987), Desire and Domestic Fiction.

2. Clark, A. (1995), Struggle for the Breeches.

3. Gallagher, C. (1985), Industrial Reformation of English Fiction.

4. Jameson, F. (1981), Political Unconscious.

5. Koven, S. (2004), Slumming.

6. Lesjak, C. (2006), Working Fictions.

7. Lynch, D. (1998), Economy of Character.

8. Marx, K. (1998), Communist Manifesto.

9. Robbins, B. (1986), Servant's Hand.

10. Spivak, G.C. (1999), Critique of Postcolonial Reason.

11. Thompson, E.P. (1963), Making of the English Working Class.