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The Dream Life of Citizens: Late Victorian Novels and the Fantasy of the State

Zarena Aslami
It has become commonplace to claim that nations are constituted through the incitement of feelings and the operations of fantasy. But can we think of the state as a subject of feeling, as well? This study of late Victorian culture argues that novels certainly did. Revisiting major works by Olive Schreiner, Thomas Hardy, and George Gissing among others, it shows how novels dramatized the feelings and fantasies of a culture that was increasingly optimistic, as well as anxious, about the state’s capacity to “step in” and help its citizens achieve the good life. In particular, the book tracks the historical emergence of a fantasy of the state as a heroic actor with whom one has a relationship and from whom one desires something and argues that novels became a privileged site for meditating on its more tragic implications. The central tragedy arises from the painful condition of individuals’ imagining themselves to be independent of power-bearing institutions, yet knowing that they are not and may not even wish to be. The Dream Life of Citizens illuminates this enduring ambivalence at the heart of the liberal subject’s relationship to state power.
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