Entertainment, or the policing of virtue

Spring 1988

Mercer looks at the distinction between entertainment and amusement in Victorian literature and culture, considering the popular works which massively outsold Dickens and Eliot. Foucualt’s ideas about moral policing are invoked alongside popular Victorian ideas of topography and phrenology. Eugene Sue’s Les Mysteres de Paris is discussed, and Umberto Eco’s assertion that it is a ‘closed text’ with a ‘predetermined response’ built in is questioned via a discussion of the roman feuilleton, a kind of serialised novel incorporating reader responses and closely tied to real-world events. The role of different reading contexts is considered and reading out loud within the family is seen as central to the construction of Dickens’ works. Meanwhile, the interpretive and informative potential of illustrations is considered as a counterpart to the power of text.

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