Curiosity, Wonder, and Negative Capability
This chapter shows that while most nineteenth-century novels engage readers by promoting active curiosity, novels occasionally model or invoke a passive state of wonder that permits the pleasurable perception of things as themselves (vs. as clues, symbols or signifiers). As such, wonder can be aligned with Keats's notion of negative capability, which functions as a counterpoint to other aesthetic theories, particularly Kant's notion of the sublime. A reading of Frankenstein brings out the specific dynamics of curiosity, wonder, and the relationship between them, in the context of novels and novel reading. The chapter then traces a pattern common to numerous Victorian representations of illness, specifically faints or fevers, in which characters briefly inhabit a state of wonder before fully recovering. This section includes analysis of novels by Dickens, Gaskell, and Charlotte Brontë, and draws on the work of Roger Caillois. Finally, the chapter offers a reading of Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge, which shows us that the special modes of attention, or verisimilitudes, associated with wonder become more accessible when teleological plots, and the end-oriented desire with which they are associated, fail or are derailed.
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