Benjamin D. O’Dell: “The Captain is Bunk”

My final project has led me to follow in the footsteps of the Stanford Literary Lab’s first pamphlet and explore what use, if any, digital tools hold for the project of genre classification. To be specific, my objective is to test whether Charles Dickens’s mid-Victorian Bildungsroman David Copperfield (1850) can be appropriately understood “as an attempt by Dickens to recast domestic fiction as a masculine endeavor,” as Emily Rena-Dozier contends in her article for the Autumn 2010 edition of SEL (813).  Conventional wisdom holds that traditional notions of gender relations in England are best understood through the concept of the separation of spheres, whereby male authority is located in the public workplace and female authority is located in the privacy of the home.  In fact, so pervasive is this concept that it is not only the structuring premise for period studies such as Mary Poovey’s Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England but also more expansive works of literary scholarship like Michael McKeon’s The Secret History of Domesticity:  Public, Private, and the Division of Knowledge.  Previous commentators have often read nineteenth-century British domestic fiction as an extension of the separation of spheres by assuming that the genre embodies distinctly feminine traits.  In contrast to this view, Rena-Dozier uses information pertaining to David Copperfield’s composition, content, and initial reception to provide a compelling case for the need to break the association between femininity, the domestic novel, and the domestic sphere.  In so doing, she presents a new problem for scholars:  “how to understand domestic fiction and the domestic sphere without the habitual conflation of domesticity with femininity” (825).

In raising this question, Rena-Dozier gestures towards the daunting task of identifying formal features within the genre of domestic fiction that can be understood as either gender-neutral or masculine.  I believe that a close examination of domestic fiction using tools that have been developed within the digital humanities can provide empirical evidence towards quantifying Rena-Dozier’s claims about David Copperfield, as well as a starting point for generating hypotheses about how domestic fiction functions in relation to gender, more generally.  Be that as it may, one of the initial complications I have run into in collecting data for my project is determining what criteria to use as the basis for classifying texts.  For the sake of simplicity, I began by conducting a simple search for “domestic fiction” using the Internet Archive, the largest open-access digital library in the English language.  My search initially returned fifty novels that had been labeled with the term as one of the “keywords” in the metadata for each file.  After eliminating duplicate and foreign-language novels from my collection, I made a surprising discovery:  male authors were responsible for the majority of the texts that had been labeled “domestic fiction” in the Internet Archive’s database.  Recognizing obvious oversights in the collection, I decided to incorporate primary texts from the bibliography of Nancy Armstrong’s landmark text, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel, as well as my own knowledge of literary history to augment the representation of female authors.

In its present form, women account for the authorship in thirty of the fifty-seven examples of domestic fiction in my corpus.  Whether this collection can be called “representative” is less important to me than the fact that it is useful to the comparative nature of my project, which seeks to tease out associations between David Copperfield and gendered categories of fiction.  At the same time, I have noticed a few issues with the composition of the collection.  Although most of the titles on this list clearly have a place in this study, as in the case of any attempt to classify texts, there are strong arguments to be made for or against the inclusion and exclusion of particular works.  Most troubling to me is the inclusion of M.B. Manwell’s 1898 novel The Captain’s Bunk:  A Story for Boys.  This novel first stood out to me for its peculiar title.  A closer examination of the text and its metadata quickly suggested that it is very different from the rest of the texts included in the collection (23).  Whereas most of the novels in the corpus contained “domestic fiction” as the first—and occasionally sole—tag, the keywords for The Captain’s Bunk on the Internet Archive placed “domestic fiction” as the third tag and included the following tags in addition:  “Christian fiction,” “Didactic fiction,” Fishing villages—Juvenile fiction,” and “Problem families—Juvenile fiction.” As if that weren’t enough, the image of a menacing Captain reprimanding a boy on the cover of the 1898 edition confirmed the notion that the novel is worlds away from the works from Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot included in the collection.


Given the loose interpretation of the term “domestic fiction” on the part of the file’s creator, I was initially wary of including the novel in my project because it seemed to signal an obvious error in classification.  Yet I ultimately decided to keep it based on the belief that it may reveal things about domestic fiction that I do not already know.  As a matter of methodology, the question of whether or not to include Manwell’s novel points seems to touch on a larger concern about the function of classification.  Contemporary skepticism for the notion that genres represent static categories has largely eroded its significance in scholarship.  But as the Stanford Literary Lab has demonstrated, digital tools have the potential to see genres that exist on levels beyond the purview of current literary frameworks.  By removing Manwell’s text, I would have been prematurely closing off the opportunity to identify potentially significant variation within the realm of domestic fiction.  In contrast, my actual list attempts to provide a glimpse at the many manifestations of domestic fiction written by male and female authors and may provide a list with more utility than established conceptions of the genre.

-Ben O’Dell


Rena-Dozier, Emily.  “Re-gendering the Domestic Novel in David Copperfield.”  SEL 50.4 (Autumn 2010):  811-829.  Print.

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