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Empty Houses:
Theatrical Failure and the Novel
David Kurnick

Co-Winner of the 2013 Sonia Rudikoff Prize, Northeast Victorian Studies Association
Shortlisted for the 2013 MSA Book Prize, Modernist Studies Association

Paperback | 2011 | $29.95 | £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691153162
272 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4 | 13 halftones.
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According to the dominant tradition of literary criticism, the novel is the form par excellence of the private individual. Empty Houses challenges this consensus by reexamining the genre's development from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century and exploring what has until now seemed an anomaly--the frustrated theatrical ambitions of major novelists. Offering new interpretations of the careers of William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, Henry James, James Joyce, and James Baldwin--writers known for mapping ever-narrower interior geographies--this book argues that the genre's inward-looking tendency has been misunderstood. Delving into the critical role of the theater in the origins of the novel of interiority, David Kurnick reinterprets the novel as a record of dissatisfaction with inwardness and an injunction to rethink human identity in radically collective and social terms.

Exploring neglected texts in order to reread canonical ones, Kurnick shows that the theatrical ambitions of major novelists had crucial formal and ideological effects on their masterworks. Investigating a key stretch of each of these novelistic careers, he establishes the theatrical genealogy of some of the signal techniques of narrative interiority. In the process he illustrates how the novel is marked by a hunger for palpable collectivity, and argues that the genre's discontents have been a shaping force in its evolution.

A groundbreaking rereading of the novel, Empty Houses provides new ways to consider the novelistic imagination.


"Empty Houses is an admirable book. Its willingness to question established views on the novel has enlightening results. In the boldness and originality of its arguments, it makes a valuable contribution not only to scholarship on the novelists it considers, but also more widely to our understanding of the novel as a genre."--Matthew Peters, Times Literary Supplement

"Erudite, nuanced, and utterly convincing. . . . Empty Houses must soon take its place in the canon of absolutely necessary studies of Victorian and later fiction."--Victorian Studies

"David Kurnick's dazzling new book, Empty Houses, draws much of its considerable force from its antipathy toward the traditional novel's psychosexual categories of identity and their ideological uses. Kurnick elaborates his elegant polemic through substantial and richly satisfying reinterpretations of works, both familiar and relatively neglected."--Joseph Litvak, Novel

"Kurnick's thoughtful, subtle, well-argued book focuses on five writers closely associated with the movement toward, and the apotheosis of, interiority in the novel: Thackeray, George Eliot, Henry James, James Joyce, and James Baldwin. All had theatrical ambitions that were largely unsuccessful. Kurnick makes the case that the novel's shift from public spaces to psychological interior spaces is fraught with ambivalence, with 'longing references to the public worlds they would seem to have left behind.'"--Choice

"Kurnick writes with both precision and verve, and his wonderfully fine grained close readings are always in the service of his larger--sometimes breathtakingly large--claims. . . . This is an important book that demands to be pondered and deserves to be argued with--and applauded."--Daniel Hack, Nineteenth-Century Literature

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