115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Villains in Realism: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t

Aimee Fountain, University of California, Davis

I argue that villains disappear from realist novels during and due to the transition to neoclassical economics (1840s-1870s). As economics becomes a science, capitalism becomes naturalized, a change that has aesthetic ramifications: unnatural villainy is replaced by what Jameson calls mere “bad faith” wherein people are naturally constrained to be selfish.


This paper discusses the way character is represented in realist novels over the course of the transition to neoclassical economics from the 1840s-1870s. This transition sees the purview of political science being reduced as economics is made a separate, scientific discipline. And, as Philip Mirowski argues in More Heat Than Light, the excising of the political element and the reliance on equations derived from physics paint capitalism as a natural phenomenon. But while the discipline of economics is reductively made “scientific,” real economic exigencies become increasingly complex, and class positions become increasingly fluid, resulting in an aesthetic change: villains nearly disappear from realist novels. 

  The Veneerings (Our Mutual Friend) and the DeCourcys (Barsetshire Series) are characters of a new, distinctly mid-Victorian type, who embody ideology. They do nothing but consume and strut, reaffirming a class relation in which they have been accorded some power. The realist novel suggests both that we should do otherwise and that such characters are incorrigible: they exist within a milieu that supports and affirms them. Their desires and drives are the basis for formalist mathematical calculation, because they are predictable in the same degree that capital is naturalized via the neoclassical economy.

As consumerism and capital become increasingly naturalized as cultural phenomena, they are affirmed not just scientifically (via neoclassical economics) but aesthetically. Whereas Dickens’ novels of the 1840s and 50s have villains who speculate on others’ misfortunes (Oliver Twist’s Fagin, David Copperfield’s Uriah Heep, and Dombey and Son’s Mr. Carker, etc.), Trollope’s novels of the 1860s and 70s paint the worst characters as “not really bad,” having convinced themselves that they have no choice (eg. Ferdinand Lopez in The Duke’s Children, The Barchester Series’ Mr. Slope, and Mr. Crosbie of The Small House at Allington. I will read the above named characters among others to illustrate the change in characterization from unnatural villainy to what Jameson calls mere “bad faith” during the transition to neoclassical economics.