Fictions of Consent: Contract and the Victorian Novel

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Psomiades, Kathy A

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This project addresses how democratic regimes founded on ideals of individual agency and personal freedom systematically disadvantage groups and persons. I argue that (neo-)liberalism enacts this inequity not incidentally, but by design, creating an illusion of free choice and consensual contract while actively obscuring the coercive mechanisms that sustain inequality. As the era in which contractual agency was consolidated into a national political program, the Victorian period produced a plethora of legal and literary justifications for the injustices sanctioned by English liberalism. I aim to reveal the contradictions internal to these justifications, while also disclosing methodologies of resistance. Today, we remain Victorian in our reliance on a model of individual consent to rationalize our political system; my interest in Victorian novels lies in their ability to reimagine and critique the political conditions that we take for granted today.

"Fictions of Consent" starts with a puzzle: there are certain kinds of criminal behavior—murder, sexual deviance, cannibalism—that are exceptional rather than typical, yet nevertheless generated enormous concern in Victorian jurisprudence and popular culture. I contend that nineteenth-century law and literature seem to have allocated undue attention to exceptional crimes not because of their sensationalism per se—not because they’re extraordinary—but because they’re actually dangerously ordinary. There are behaviors, I argue, that the law is invested in expelling as criminal, but that the novel can help us see as contractual. When novelists translated outlandish criminal behavior into rational attempts of modern subjects to negotiate consensual relationships with one another, they transformed these ostensible anomalies into the predictable culmination of a liberal social order: these crimes now became part and parcel of a society based on freedom of contract. Novelists including George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mona Caird, and Thomas Hardy suggest that the violent coercion apparently unique to the extreme situation in fact represents the ordinary logic of liberalism.






Davenport, Emma (2022). Fictions of Consent: Contract and the Victorian Novel. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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