Re-turning the pages: beginning literary research


First of all, many thanks to the generous people whose donations have helped fund my summer research! These excellent books are currently piling up in front of my already packed-full bookshelves thanks to your kindness, and they are sure to be very helpful.

How is my research going so far? Well, it is going well. Conducting English research seems like a bit of an academic oddity at times. A childhood friend of mine whom I see while I am home during the summer is also working on research for a senior project, but hers is a biology project. The words “research project” more readily conjure images of scientific work like hers Having developed a hypothesis that male birds will “mob” or swarm and chirp at predators to flaunt for female birds, she is now testing that hypothesis with experiments. Last week, I had the privilege of watching one: with the help of a wireless speaker synced with her phone, she played a recording of predator bird-calls in the woods and recorded behavioral responses from birds in the area. How does English research compare with such projects which harmonize so well with the classic processes of the scientific method? What is the logical approach to researching literature?

As in the scientific method, my project began with questioning, research, and the formation of a hypothesis, of sorts. Those steps were all part of the application to conduct an English honors project. I questioned, initially, the roles of cemeteries in Victorian novels. That expanded into a questioning of how images of cemeteries and burials contribute to novelistic commentaries on social justice. With those questions in mind, I began preliminary research in the perusal of various novels featuring those images and critiques and the gathering of titles of relevant secondary sources. I selected two novels, Far From the Madding Crowd and Bleak House, as the main subjects for my work, and wrote a research proposal for the honors committee’s approval.

The next step is of course experimentation. A scientific experiment, like my friend’s, is fairly straightforward. A literary experiment, however, is a bit more abstract. For my project, experimentation has begun with the re-reading of my selected novels and an assessment of how accurately they support or disprove my hypothesis that representations of disgraceful burials in the novels serve as evocative appeals to social justice.

Now, I have finished carefully re-reading both books! So, what are my conclusions thus far? To make this project as reasonable and logically sound as possible, I will need to make sure that the books I use are the most suitable choices for my research questions. How did these two fare?

Far From the Madding Crowd

Dorset countryside, the setting of the novel: image by John Northcote Nash {link to https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/dorset-landscape-144567}

This was my third time reading this novel, undoubtedly one of Hardy’s finest. What most struck me in this reading was the superb use of parallels and character foils to set-up an unaccountable contrast between the sad fate of Fanny Robin and the less-sad fate of Bathsheba Everdene. The scenes associated with Fanny’s death and burial may be called “melodramatic”: tears roll down pale cheeks, furious renunciations of fatal love are shouted in the dead of night over the radiantly pure corpses of a pauper and her new-born child.

However, the Victorian idea of “melodrama” has implications which Hardy’s novel may not match. Melodrama as a theatrical tradition which flowed into popular novels, especially those of Dickens, generally had a strong social and moral undercurrent. I am interested in how melodramatic novels were used to expose injustices and draw people by the heartstrings to join social movements. Upon re-reading Hardy’s novel, which I still enjoyed as much as ever, I had to admit that is simply didn’t feature a strong critical message. The novel is more concerned with the faults of blind fate than with the faults of society.

Bleak House

This could very well be Jo the crossing-sweep, one of the novel’s central characters: image by Augustus Edwin Mulready {link to http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2897562/When-poverty-meant-poverty-Impoverished-Victorians-revealed-photographs-workhouse-residents-eating-dinner-coffin-beds-inside-shelter.html}

At 770 pages, Bleak House demands a major commitment from its readers. How patient Dickens’ first readers must have been to await short installments from this tome over a period of months and months! Yet, with its endless series of cliff-hanger chapters and ever-accumulating mysteries tossed about in its literal labyrinth of interwoven plot-lines, it is no wonder that this masterpiece firmly gripped their attention. In a few words, I love Bleak House because it is absurdly long—you will develop a genuine relationship with this book by the time you finish it—but also absurdly well-constructed.

From start to finish, Dickens offers the harshest assessments of various aspects of his own society: he condemns the Court of Chancery as an overwhelming fog of depression and death, he lampoons ineffective charity campaigns, he mocks Romantic abstractions, he ridicules the fashions of the aristocracy to no end. All of these attacks combine to form one great call to awareness, awareness of the sufferings of the poor who fall through the cracks of public attention to slip into alleys where the night of ignorance and pain is never broken. Yes, this is exactly the kind of melodramatic, forcible novel I plan to evaluate.


Both novels offer their own plentiful troves for analysis, but there may be too much of a gap between their social view-points to provide for a meaningful study of the pair as works of social critique. Bleak House is certainly a social critique from cover-to-cover; in Far From the Madding Crowd, that is simply not the case. With these first experiments to test my hypothesis, I have found that Hardy’s novel is not as ideal a subject for the investigation of my research questions as I originally thought.

Fortunately, I am still in the early stages of my project, so changes to approach are possible and practical. At the advice of the English honors committee, I have begun learning more about a different novelist who sits firmly within the melodramatic and sensationalist traditions where Dickens made great marks, Wilkie Collins. Collins was, in fact, one of Dickens’ closest friends. In light of their literary partnerships and common view-points, studying Dickens and Collins in tandem would be very natural. There is only one problem with that idea: I have not actually read anything by Collins before! To remedy that, I have just started his first great novel The Woman in White, a sensational thriller which integrates many of the narrative elements and themes of deception and justice which later appeared in Collins’ other great novel The Moonstone, often considered the first real detective novel. It just so happens that Bleak House also features some excellent detective work from dear Mr. Bucket and his clever wife.

It seems by all accounts that a novel by Wilkie Collins could be just what my project needs. However, I am only about a hundred pages into The Woman in White thus far, so there are still 450 pages more to consider! Whether or not I decide novel changes are necessary, I feel comfortable with the fact that my summer research is taking shape and moving along. Check back soon for more updates, I am sure you patient readers will be awaiting my next installment with the same eagerness as Dickens and Collins’ entranced audience (just kidding)! Over and out for now!


  1. cmwilson01 says:

    Thank you for your comment! Your project sounds very interesting. Writing does offer such great insight into social divisions, and I imagine that the samples you are using would be rich examples of that. I have now decided to use The Woman in White for my project, because I enjoyed it so much. It will be fascinating to look at how each narrator’s writing style reflects his or her social standing and motivations. Wishing you all the best with your project!

  2. cmwilson01 says:

    Thank you for your comment! I definitely feel like my project has an interdisciplinary aspect. I love the idea that literature does not exist in a vacuum because it is a sort of sociological artifact from which we can gain perspective on our own condition.

  3. elrakoff says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post and learning more about how English research is conducted! Admittedly, I knew very little about the process before reading your words here. I applaud the amount of focus such close reading (and so many pages!) must take. It even sounds like your project might be labeled as interdisciplinary, touching on history and aspects of sociology/social climate as well, in addition to studying the linguistics/literature of it. Good luck with the rest of your work and thanks for educating me on how English research takes form! – Ellie

  4. aswhitlock says:

    As a history major, I find your research project fascinating. I focus on the period between the Industrial Revolution and the end of the Second World War and Victorian Gothic literature is some of my favorite (particularly Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White). I really like how you are not just focusing on the literary aspects of the novel, but how the writing style, etc. fits in and integrates the realities of the period. One of the things I am looking at in my research is how pilots’ own writing styles reflected the social class atmosphere at the time of the First World War. I am glad you are bringing light to the importance of Victorian literature and its respective depth as commentary on the time period. Can’t wait to hear more about your research!

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