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Object Lessons

The Novel as a Theory of Reference

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

Object Lessons explores a fundamental question about literary realism: How can language evoke that which is not language and render objects as real entities? Drawing on theories of reference in the philosophy of language, Jami Bartlett examines novels by George Meredith, William Makepeace Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Iris Murdoch that provide allegories of language use in their descriptions, characters, and plots. Bartlett shows how these authors depict the philosophical complexities of reference by writing through and about referring terms, the names and descriptions that allow us to “see” objects. At the same time, she explores what it is for words to have meaning and delves into the conditions under which a reference can be understood. Ultimately, Object Lessons reveals not only how novels make references, but also how they are about referring.

184 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2016

History: British and Irish History

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature, General Criticism and Critical Theory


“An ambitious work, Object Lessons blurs the line between literary criticism and philosophy of language, showing that novels can be analyzed using theories of reference and that novels can themselves present referential theories.”


"The power of Jami Bartlett’s Object Lessons lies in its oddity of approach, its historical hall of mirrors, and its challenging set of questions about the realist novel as a philosophy of language. This book will make an immediate impact both in the field of novel studies and, perhaps even more importantly, in the rapidly shifting and expanding field of literature and philosophy, which has been enlivened by a new critical attention to dialogues between literature and the philosophy of language."

Nineteenth-Century Literature

Jami Bartlett's Object Lessons: The Novel as a Theory of Reference sets out to find 'a new interlocutor for the novel in the philosophy of language--and for the philosophy of language in the novel.' At its strongest, this is precisely what the book does, staging lively dialogues in which novels theorize, analytic philosophy becomes literary, and Bartlett's own critical voice is. . .'electrifying in the way it thinks the issues through'. . . .What will stay with me most about Object Lessons is the poignancy of its theory of self-referential reference: how much it manages to draw--convincingly--from reading so close it is syntactic; how mournful it is about reference's lack of contact with its objects; how wholeheartedly it turns to the energy of language as a kind of compensation; and how, in drawing out its most powerful images and anecdotes, it makes the philosophy of language literary. . . .Equal parts intellectual zest and deep absorption in technical language, Object Lessons will make for a rich contribution to the field of literature and philosophy."

Victorian Studies

Object Lessons is fascinating and powerfully argued. Bartlett’s understanding of contemporary work on reference is impeccable, and she uses the theory of the novel to articulate new insights into the nature of reference itself. This book carves out an important possibility for putting philosophy and literary studies in touch with one another.”

John Gibson, University of Louisville

Object Lessons is a tightly argued set of reflections on reference and the novel form. It is also a refreshing, original, and insistently smart example of interdisciplinary scholarship, bringing tools from the analytic philosophy of language to literary study seriously and without compromise. The result is an altogether new account of the way that the novel stands in relation to the world.”

Jonathan Kramnick, Yale University

“The novel has perhaps always wanted to refer; critics have balked. In Bartlett’s application of language philosophy to fiction, and of fiction to language philosophy, we have a chance to reconsider the problematic inheritances of both ‘the referential illusion’ and ‘thing theory.’ This will be a highly generative work.”

Elaine Freedgood, New York University

“In Object Lessons, Bartlett argues that the nineteenth-century realist novel is less a form of representation than an intentional and ironic act of reference, a self-conscious effort to understand what it means to reach for, interact with, or point at things. Putting novels by Meredith, Thackeray, Gaskell, and Murdoch into conversation with analytic and other philosophies of language, intention, and action, she shows in close detail what happens when novels use language to handle or to name the world and its objects. Pursuing these analyses with rigorous attention to the novel’s minor details as well as to its deep structures, Bartlett offers original readings of major Victorian narratives and develops a new and persuasive way to read literary fiction.”

Kent Puckett, University of California, Berkeley

Table of Contents


1 Meredith & Ends
2 Throwing Things in Thackeray
3 Gaskell’s Lost Objects
4 Murdoch and the Monolith


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