Realism and Space in the Novel, 1795-1869: Imagined Geographies by Rosa Mucignat

Shinjini Chattopadhyay


Mucignat, Rosa. Realism and Space in the Novel, 1795-1869: Imagined Geographies. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013. 181 pp.


Bakhtin described literature as an artistic category constituted by a matrix of space and time (84). Rosa Mucignat investigates the multiple ways in which the axis of space becomes pivotal in realist novels of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Mucignat argues that the attribution of specific geographical and spatial locations to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century realist novels, as opposed to the abstract geography of earlier novelistic traditions, is a crucial development in the evolution of the genre. She suggests that the treatment of narrative spatiality is divided into three categories: visibility, depth and movement. The practice of making visually available to the reader spaces that are not absolutely necessary for the plot contributes to the emergence of a new narrative discourse, in which visual spatial details become capable of furthering the story. The root of Mucignat’s claim can be located in Barthes’ discussion of the category of “the real,” which is signified by the visualization of intricate material details to create the “reality effect” (Barthes 234). Mucignat explains the category of spatial depth with reference to Bakhtin’s theory of the chronotope. According to Bakhtin,

In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. (Bakhtin 44)

Mucignat’s conception of spatial depth, following Joseph Frank, is intertwined with time. Spatial depth occurs when details from the past re-emerge and add new dimensions to the present. The third category of movement is associated with transportation from one specific geographical location to another, a phenomenon that lends a strong socio-historical foundation to the nineteenth-century novel. Mucignat traces through six European novels the transformation of the treatment of space as it gradually attains a substantial level of solidity: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96), Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (1827), Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (1830), Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) and Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (1869).


Mucignat’s reading of the interrelation between space and object in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship adds new socio-economic dimensions to the characters in the novel. That Wilhelm’s grandfather’s collection of artworks was tastefully arranged in otherwise asymmetrically built rooms does not appear to Mucignat as solely indicative of the old Meister’s enthusiasm for art. In such manipulation of space, she sees a reconciliation of personal taste and ambition with the limitations of the available resources. However, the space of the playhouse, apart from catering the pleasures of art to Wilhelm, also becomes a site of contention between his love for art and his father’s rigid mercantile philosophy. The precise means by which the space of the theatre creates an opportunity for subversion perhaps requires closer attention than Mucignat chooses to allot. Mucignat also draws an interesting correspondence between external architecture of the mansions and the interiority of the minds of the residents therein. The pragmatic design of Lothario’s castle, which is thought to be devoid of any artistic beauty, is seen as reflecting Lothario’s own inclination to emphasize the ultimate utility of objects.  


The second novel Mucignat discusses is Mansfield Park, where she points out that the visualization of space takes place mostly through Fanny’s eyes. She highlights Fanny’s initial discomfort in moving about the grand mansion of Mansfield Park, which, Mucignat argues, signifies a conflict between the social standing that the available space indicates and the socio-economic position that Fanny has so far inhabited. Although the reader feels that the incongruity of social status between the Bertrams family and Fanny — Fanny’s reactions to the manoral space — perhaps demands a more detailed discussion. Fanny’s unfavorable social position not only influences her reactions to space, it also determines how she appropriates space for herself. Fanny decides to make the marginalized space of the discarded old East Room into a room of her own. According to Mucignat, this room allows Fanny to exercise her autonomy of thought and action within a strictly private space. But that Fanny’s autonomy of thought is limited by the fact that she needs the reference of solid objects, associated with sweet memories, to guide her private musings is not commented upon by Mucignat. Fanny’s movements between the aristocratic country estate of Mansfield Park and the industrial city of Portsmouth add variations to her world. Mucignat emphasizes that when Fanny visits her place of origin in the squalor and confusion of Portsmouth, she is able to better understand the orderly society of Mansfield Park. As Raymond Williams writes in The Country and the City, “the life of country and city is moving and present: moving in time, through the history of a family and a people; moving in feeling and ideas, through a network of relationships and decisions” (7). The essentially mobile nature of life in the country and the city makes Fanny’s understanding of society possible.


In the penultimate chapter of the book, ‘Space and the Map,’ Mucignat presents a unique and interesting reading of The Betrothed and The Red and the Black. In this chapter Mucignat notes how the treatment of geographical space undergoes a transformation within the two novels. In both Goethe and Austen, a certain linearity was noticed in the movement of the characters as they travelled from one geographical location to another. But with Manzoni and Stendhal, according to Mucignat, several geographical locations become simultaneously available to the characters, creating a complex map of mobility instead of a singular linear space. For example, Manzoni juxtaposes the minute description of the Lake of Como and the Lombard landscape with the plague-stricken cityscape of Milan and points towards the inherent quagmire of reality. But at the same time, in meticulously mapping out the geographical locations, Manzoni is also trying to reduce the manifest disorder and create a coherent whole. Stendhal’s work likewise, says Mucignat, is steeped in geographical specificity and the locations are deeply connected to the events that took place therein. She identifies the principal ethic behind Stendhal’s sketch of the narrative map to be relying upon the events and actions. While the quotidian activities take place in Verrières, Stendhal chooses Besançon and even Paris as the locus of unusual events. On the other hand, Mucignat interprets the prison cell, to which Julien was finally condemned, as a space of “social vacuum” where, in the absence of any source of compulsion to conform to the dominant socio-economic standards, Julien is able to live his true character (119). The cartographic structure of space, which implicit in the narrative, renders meaningful the relationship between the individual and the contemporary socio-economic structure that forms the foundation of the novel. 


In the last chapter, Mucignat reads Great Expectations and The Sentimental Education with reference to Bourdieu’s theory of the literary field. According to Mucignat, in a literary field, unlike a map, objects are engaged in a process of mutual interaction which renders a particular vitality to the space in which the characters operate. The activities of Pip and Frédéric Moreau are determined to a certain extent by such sources of vivacity. The marshes and Satis House in Great Expectations are not just inanimate locations on the literary map. They are inherently connected to Pip’s psyche and direct his actions. Similarly, in Flaubert, as Mucignat interestingly points out, the shops, streets, cafés and theatres of Paris transcend their obvious functional roles and govern the movement of the characters and create multiple opportunities for chance meetings which in turn become the driving force of the plot. Thus, apart from the characters, the urban space itself becomes an active narrative agent.


The detailed textual analysis in Mucignat’s work, under the aegis of theoretical evaluation, signals new possibilities of research. George Levine had indicated how landscape becomes instrumental in encapsulating the realities which border incredulity and hence transcends the claims of reality within the folds of Realism. Mucignat carries the thesis to a different level where she examines not only landscape in fiction, but space itself and how it contains both the credulous and the incredulous and becomes a driving force behind the narrative. Although she has set the scope of her work within a restricted time span, it implies expository comments on succeeding literary movements. Her analysis of urban space in the nineteenth-century novel indicates to some extent how the city became central to the Modernist experience. Therefore, Mucignat’s work is valuable not only for its close inspection of space in literature from eighteenth to nineteenth century, but also insofar as it implicitly discusses how these works of fiction act as a prelude to Modernism.


Works Cited


Bakhtin, M.M. “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P 1981. 44-97. Print.

Barthes, Roland. “The Reality Effect.” The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000. Ed. Dorothy J. Hale. Oxford: Blackwell, 2006. 229-34. Print.

Frank, Joseph. The Idea of Spatial Form. London: Rutgers UP, 1991. Print.

Levine, George. The Realistic Imagination: English Fiction from Frankenstein to Lady Chatterley. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981. Print.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford UP, 1973. Print.




Shinjini Chattopadhyay is a final year Postgraduate student at the department of English, Jadavpur University. Her research interests include Modernist and Postcolonial literature. She has previously presented papers at various national and international seminars. Her paper, “What Message Does Death Send: The ‘Living Dead’ and the Australian Landscape in the Poetry of Judith Wright,” won the Wertheim Prize for best graduate student paper at the American Association for Australasian Literary Studies Annual Conference, 2013.



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