Secondary – Our Mutual Friend

Never over till it’s over, syllepsis opens minds as well as grammar, keeps things going and up for grabs. It gives us one syntactic timeline braided together with a syncopated grammatical strand. With closure resisted at the phrasal level, response is held not in check but in expectancy. . . . It keeps difference alive across iteration or ellipsis, implanting the null with surplus. Time and time again, syllepsis abruptly refocuses the other through the lens of the same.

Garret Stewart, “Ethical Tempo of Narrative Syntax: Sylleptic Recognitions in Our Mutual Friend,” 2010


These three vignettes obviously present a range of models for agency, from the abject powerlessness of the waterlogged corpse to the omnipotence of old Harmon’s attempt to enforce his intentions from beyond the grave. In fact, the problem of agency permeates Our Mutual Friend. By using a variety of cases to foreground concerns about the scope and powers of social systems—economic, legal, and educational, as well as classist, gendered, and normative—to control and condition individuals, the novel rehearses one of the pressing issues for mid-Victorian England debates about morality and responsibility, that is, how to disentangle individual motive from social conditioning. Rather than figuring these as mutually exclusive terms, Our Mutual Friend repeatedly emphasizes the impossibility of distinguishing between self- and social determination when it comes to agency.

Connect with JS Mill On Liberty: “A person whose desires and impulses are his own—are the expression of his own nature, as it has been developed and modified by his own culture—is said to have a character. One whose desires and impulses are not his own, has no character, no more than a steam-engine has a character”

Molly Anne Rothenberg, “Articulating Social Agency in Our Mutual Friend” (2004)



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