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Exquisite Masochism

, 224 pages

1 halftone

May 2016



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Exquisite Masochism

Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form


How did realist novelists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hint at sex while maintaining a safe distance from pornography? Metaphors helped: waves, oceans, blooms, and illuminations were all deployed in respectable realist novels to allude to the sexual act, allowing writers to portray companionate marriage while avoiding graphic description. But in Exquisite Masochism, Claire Jarvis argues that some Victorian novelists went even further, pushing formal boundaries by slyly developing scenes of displaced erotic desire to suggest impropriety, perversion, and danger.

Through close readings of canonical works by Emily Brontë, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy, and a modernist outlier, D. H. Lawrence, Jarvis reveals how writers’ varied use of specific character types—the dominant woman and the submissive man—in conjunction with decadent, descriptive scenes of sexual refusal creates a strong counter-narrative hinting at relationships beyond patriarchal and companionate marriage structures. By focusing on the exquisitely masochistic pleasure brought about by freezing, or suspending, the sexual charge, and by depicting quasi-contractual states on the periphery of marriage, including engagement, adultery, and widowhood, novelists disrupted the marriage plot’s insistence that erotic drives remain unfulfilled and that sexual connection could be satisfied only by genital act.

Complicating our understanding of Victorian marriage ideology’s more well-trodden focus on a productive, nation-building ideal, Exquisite Masochism offers fascinating insight into our own culture’s debates around illicit sexuality, marriage, reproduction, and feminism.

Claire Jarvis is an assistant professor of English at Stanford University.

"Destined to be a classic, Exquisite Masochism gives a new depth of thinking to central topics of the novel and turns received wisdom inside out. Love, desire, depiction, but also delay, refusal, and dispersed artistic energy—Jarvis takes us through core scenes of the Victorian and modernist novel to recalibrate our sense of their force and form. The book’s tremendous importance extends beyond literature, to our imaginations of marriage, individuality, pleasure, and erotic life and their place in art and society."

"A rare first book, Exquisite Masochism represents the remarkable debut of a significant voice in the field. Claire Jarvis mounts a complicated, multifaceted argument about the ideological and affective role played by marriage in Victorian narrative. This wide-ranging, eclectic, and propulsive book will be an event in novel studies."

"Exquisite Masochism discovers a perverse Victorian philosophy of desire in a pattern of frozen postures, unobtrusively distributed across some of our most familiar novels. Claire Jarvis's fusion of subtlety and system shows us what academic literary criticism at its best can do."

"Like a sensitive film critic, Claire Jarvis urges readers to resist the forward movement of narrative and turn to scenes of stasis that recur in novels ranging from 1847 to 1928.  Exquisite Masochism uncovers a hitherto unexplored world of sexual tension and unspoken contracts, of dynamism and dominance, of pleasure and pain. This book will be essential reading for those interested in sex, gender, and the history of the novel form"

"Jarvis opens new avenues of criticism to work that is often oversimplified. Highly recommended."

"... an engaging cultural study, with applications wider than nineteenth-century literature."

"Jarvis’s elegant prose has its own beat too, which makes Exquisite Masochism a pleasurable as well as persuasive read."

"... illuminating and original..."

"At this moment in the profession, with so much work dedicated to reunderstanding the way we read now, Jarvis’s emphasis on literary form is resonant and welcome."

"Both Marsh and Jarvis have found interesting ideas about female agency in the nineteenth century..."

"Exquisite Masochism offers a fresh approach to the Victorian marriage plot and provocative, new readings of familiar texts... Jarvis is a deft critic and her readings show the value of attending closely to long descriptive passages in novels... Jarvis's commitment to close reading resonates with recent efforts to rethink the place of form and formalism in Victorian studies."

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