Dietrich School Flash Class: "History in Literature"



one thing I love about literary study is it's not just about reading great or great big books I teach Victorian literature that's David Copperfield Charlotte Bronte George Eliot you know great and big books that's a lot of words and of course these words become characters and scenes ideas and emotions as we read but they also function like code that provides us an interface with history and the history I study the Victorian Britain trust me not the snooze fest you might imagine for instance Charles Dickens Bleak House has hands down the best spontaneous combustion scene in literature long story short conniving constantly drunk mr. crook goes up in flames spontaneously combusts hang on though we only learn about this after several characters have given us the scene from their point of view they've burnt the chops one character announces another character notices a greasy residue weaving smears on his clothes and another character pulls his fingers back when he accidentally puts them into putrid puddles that have been congealing on surfaces in short we only learn about crooks spontaneous combustion once several characters have breathed him in and swallowed him why why does Dickens do this and why does it matter well first spontaneous combustion is disgusting and therefore fun but seriously crooks spontaneous combustion tells us a lot about what's going on in Bleak House Bleak House is is a novel in which science scientific thought and societal reform are coming together the important thing about crooks spontaneous combustion is that his greasy ashes get into the air and get into other people's bodies this solidly locates the novel at a time when the transmission of diseases was poorly under Stud which diseases were airborne which diseases were waterborne what diseases could you only cast by bodily contact whatever crook spontaneous combustion covers all these bases and again why does this matter well Dickens really really really wants to convince his readers that society needs to change he wants his readers to understand that unless systems and institutions change societies on its way to self-destruction how would you convince your readers who wouldn't otherwise understand that there is a problem the things need to change mm-hmm how about we make social ills more than a metaphor how about you convince your readers that when one part of society is left to stew in its own foul and flammable juices the other part of society may one day drink it down with its tea yeah that could maybe work so crook spontaneous combustion is more than just gross and disgusting and fun it also gives us a lot of knowledge about what's going on at that historical period it gives us ideas about what people were thinking about what was going on it brings together and shows us with being brought together is scientific thought however poorly understood and societal reform but it's bigger than that it shows us how many little bits of history are crammed into everything every story that we read

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