Fall 2019

Dickens’s Tableaux
Melodrama and Sexual Opacity in David Copperfield and Bleak House
by Victoria Wiet
Abstract:
This essay examines the features and function of tableaux in two novels by Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850) and Bleak House (1853), in order to rethink the influence of melodramatic conventions on the form of narrative fiction, particularly the understanding of female sexuality that melodrama afforded novelists. Taking Dickens as an important example, literary critics have typically associated melodrama with ostentatious legibility, but recent scholarship on the theatrical tableau has illuminated the complex ways the melodramatic stage both produced and occluded revelation. Drawing on this work, I demonstrate that the adaptation of the tableau into the novel form increases the possibility of illegibility because readers necessarily rely on the narrator’s description and interpretation of the material world. In David Copperfield and Bleak House, this remediation has particularly significant consequences for the representation of sexually compromised women. By inadequately revealing the sexual histories of suspected “fallen women,” densely visual but opaque scenes featuring Annie Strong, Martha Endell, and Honoria Dedlock defer judgment on their characters, with Lady Dedlock’s protracted illegibility preventing her plot from culminating in a decisive narrative or moral conclusion. Because the narrators of both novels depict these female characters as deliberately making themselves illegible, the novel tableau becomes an important way for Dickens to dramatize the fallibility of the omniscient and quasi-omniscient narrators of realist fiction.

Recycling melodrama: HBO’s “quality television” discourse and the place of women’s testimony

by Michael Reinhard

Blurb:
Over the past decade, HBO has turned towards domestic melodramas like OliveKitteridge(2014), Sharp Objects(2018), and Big Little Lies(2017) to cultivate its aesthetic brand of“quality television”for women (Imre2009; McCabe& Akass2007) . These series frequently position their themes in dialogue with popular feminisms through melodrama’s documented capacity to seize upon the social problems that mark everyday public life (Linda Williams2001; Christine Gledhill1987). The identification of a“quality television”discourse in the development of HBO’s television slate for women has seized on this melodramatic tradition during a period in which social media networks have provided communities of feminists and allies space to reconsider the value, authenticity,and place of women’s testimony in the public sphere. During the Brett Kavanaugh hearings,The New York Times captured the“#WhyIDidn’tReport”phenomena where survivors of sexual assault testified to their silenced experiences on social media. That many recent“quality”domestic melodramas on HBO feature Academy Award-winning or nominated film actresses, such as Frances McDormand and Reese Witherspoon, who advocate feminist storytelling as well as the Time’s Up legal defense fund is a relationship worth examining. While careers of film-turned-TV actresses have previously been thought through heuristics like recycling (Mary R. Desjardins2015), the present circumstances of these actresses reflect not only the renewed cultural place of television but also clear tensions between the re-emergence of middle-class feminist political discourse on television today and its relationship to the racial underpinnings of the film industry’s cultures of prestige. It is precisely this tension that now marks the function of HBO’s recycling of domestic melodrama in its development of television branded as“quality.”

Not Your Mother’s Melodrama: Three Twenty-First-Century Women’s Films

by E.L. McCallum

This essay argues that twenty-first-century melodrama films by female directors rework the core components of classic melodrama form—not only its timing, but also narrative form, agnition, and the underlying fantasy of union. While they retain a focus on objects and setting as bearers of emotion, and on a crisis in intimate relations, the three films by Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, and Ann Hui considered here reconsider melodrama’s possibilities. They all broach ways of rethinking Oedipal fantasy, moving beyond a story of the fraught emergence of the individual to one focused on a collective problem of how we negotiate a proper proximity to cherished others. All three films turn from what could have been to what the past makes possible now and thus change melodrama from a melancholic genre to a generative one.

Vamps and Virgins: The Women of 1920s Hollywood War Romances

by Liz Clarke

Liz Clarke suggests moving beyond surveying the canonical combat films in order to take a closer look at the representations of women and war in early Hollywood. She points out that in the 1920s, Hollywood studios considered females to be their target audience and so geared their narratives and complex female protagonists accordingly. Exploring films from that time era, Clarke connects melodrama and war and observes the broader relationship between heroism, gender, war, and nation that arises in these films. She argues that when we define war films beyond military training and combat narratives alone, more possibilities exist to look at the multifaceted ways women and war are on screen.

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