Open Mind, Open Hands

This week marks my first official week of Honors Thesis research! It has been a week filled with note-taking, reading, re-reading, questions and excitement as I begin this project. I committed this week to deep diving into Peter Capuano’s Changing Hands, the only book dedicated to exploring the role of hands in Victorian literature. Published in 2015, this recent work is groundbreaking in my field of interest – and thus deserves my critical attention as I aim to explore the role of hands, arms and touch in the works of Eliot, Gaskell and Trollope.

Capuano opens his book by noting the vast amount of references to hands in Victorian literature. Indeed, “hands appear in nineteenth-century novels more often than any other body part including faces, heads and eyes” (Capuano 12). A word cloud derived from Matthew Jockers’ research on the most frequently mentioned body parts in over 3,500 nineteenth-century novels illustrates this point particularly well (see image below). For me, this fascinating statistic only confirms my commitment to this topic.

Capuano goes on to analyze the role of hands in major literary works against various critical contexts. His chapters explore the connection between the hand and Britain’s developing industrial society, burgeoning ideas of evolutionary theory and Judeo-Christian traditions. He considers anatomy, etiquette, needlework and penmanship all in relation to the hand. His work has introduced me to important scholarly material, relevant historians and theories of sexuality that I will need to consider as I embark on this project. Most importantly, Changing Hands has introduced me to new angles for my thesis.

Capuano’s section on “Manufacturing and Manipulating Separate Spheres of Gender” particularly made me consider how Victorian authors represent the female hand in relation to industry and manufacturing. Although my initial proposal focused on the role of erotic tactile interaction, this chapter has spurred new questions for me. For example, how does tactile interaction navigate class and gender boundaries in the workplace of my novels? How do my characters hands speak into cultural concerns towards Britain’s developing urban and industrial society? What do female hands communicate about newly emerging gendered spheres of work?

These are all questions I will be taking with me as I continue my research. If this first week has taught me anything, it is the need to be open to change. My project will naturally shift and evolve as I explore scholarly discourse and perform my own research in the U.K. So, I hope to go forth with an open mind. And of course, open hands!

Hands are the most described body part in the nineteenth-century novel

Hands are the most described body part in the nineteenth-century novel



  1. Jacqueline Keshner says:

    This analytical angle is so cool, Katie, and I love that representation of the Hands word cloud; it’s a great visual representation of how one physical attribute can communicate so many nuanced subtexts about social changes and interactions, which I know your research will illuminate, as well. I’m excited to see what else you’ll uncover, and best of luck with research in the U.K.–can’t wait to hear about where you go and what you’ll discover there! 🙂

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