Bruce Robbins – The Servant’s Hand (1986)

Servants in 19th Century fiction are represented not as servants, but as generic anachronisms from Roman, Elizabethan and Restoration comedy. They serve a primarily functional role, as a foil to the protagonist, as an object of humor, as a convenient way to round out a plot, etc. Importantly, they are not represented as the proletariat: the narrative of social change (in Dickens, Gaskell and others) doesn’t have room for servants. Realism becomes rhetorical rather than realistic.

When representation becomes “standing in for something that is not present” rather than holding a mirror up to nature or “making present to the mind,” the political valence of art’s capacity to “make us see” seems to demand a different form of servant-representation. Indeed, saying that Collins and Gaskell, for example, simply employed tropes of servanthood seems too simple. Rather, we can read servants as “signs of money” or “signs of signs” crucial to maintaining middle-class status. In this sense, they enter into the literary scene laden with signifying power: tropes and literary tradition can be configured as ideology, that medium through which subjects understand the real conditions of the social. So servants mediate between the masters they serve (as Hegelian recognition) and the conditions of existence.

Robbins reads moments of recognition (even non-emphatic recognition) between servants and masters as moments of utopian prospects (Bloch’s de-realization that holds open the possibility of an otherwise). For instance, Wegg’s theatrical superiority to Boffin ironizes Boffin’s attempts to buy Wegg off, and points to the precarious position of all the nouveau riche with regard to maintaining their positions of power. Further, he uses Auerbach’s reading of the brown stocking in To the Lighthouse to connect randomness (Auerbach’s privileged mimetic possibility) to the way in which servants interrupt hegemonic spaces in ways that may be ephemeral, but poignant and real. In fact, they can trigger all sorts of “subjective” wanderings that are momentarily outside of the middle-class narrative or plot line.

In Bleak House, for example, Phil Squod’s assumption of shared knowledge of the country in his dialogue with Sergeant George both shows the limited imaginative resources of someone confined to the poorer parts of London AND, at the same, time cuts across the anonymity of Chancery. That is, it is utopian to the degree that his ability to dream of the country, of the marshes, his atemporal, not bound to subjective experience. As comic, it binds the reading audience to the servant-character, and takes on pathos in ways external to the dramatic “act.” In this sense, we could connect this dialogue to someone like Beckett, where comedy becomes both a vestige of past utopia, and sign of the future, sorta.

In Vanity Fair, the servant-master interaction between Isidor and Jos Sedley becomes a way of playing out the historical collision of Waterloo. Jos worries that he have his throat cut by Bonaparte’s soldiers because he has dressed his mustache so as to resemble an English soldier, so he asks Isidor (secretly sympathetic to Napoleon’s cause) to “cut him.” The two story lines never connect, but it does show how historical events are getting played out in the domestic affairs, interactions between high and low, etc.

In Bleak House, Hortense can be seen as a refraction of several different characters, all of whom have better reasons for killing Tulkinghorn but resist at the last moment, subduing passion by reason. This is a negative reading, consigning Hortense to the repressed realm of Lady Dedlock’s psyche, for example, but we can also read it as a surrogate action for what Esther can never quite manage, despite her efforts–namely, graduation out of the realm of servanthood, triggered by resentment at not being treated like a daughter. She may refuse Hortense services (in favor of Charlie’s), but Hortense “serves” a literacy (utopian?) purpose nevertheless.

Robbins’ argument is that relegation of servants to scenes of comic absurdity or mystical fate is not disengagement with the social, but an engagement of a different sort. So Passage to India, in “pulling back from the social world to make room for the Hindu World,” does not substitute on for the other, but rather leads to the possibility of two ending existing simultaneously: the broken private friendship and the general public festivity.

 

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