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Strange Likeness

Description and the Modernist Novel

Strange Likeness

Description and the Modernist Novel

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

The modern novel, so the story goes, thinks poorly of mere description—what Virginia Woolf called “that ugly, that clumsy, that incongruous tool.” As a result, critics have largely neglected description as a feature of novelistic innovation during the twentieth century. Dora Zhang argues that descriptive practices were in fact a crucial site of attention and experimentation for a number of early modernist writers, centrally Woolf, Henry James, and Marcel Proust.

Description is the novelistic technique charged with establishing a common world, but in the early twentieth century, there was little agreement about how a common world could be known and represented. Zhang argues that the protagonists in her study responded by shifting description away from visualizing objects to revealing relations—social, formal, and experiential—between disparate phenomena. In addition to shedding new light on some of the best-known works of modernism, Zhang opens up new ways of thinking about description more broadly. She moves us beyond the classic binary of narrate-or-describe and reinvigorates our thinking about the novel. Strange Likeness will enliven conversations around narrative theory, affect theory, philosophy and literature, and reading practices in the academy.

240 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Thinking Literature

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


"In her consistently astute and beautifully written new book, Dora Zhang explores how three writers found ways to capture facets of experience that would seem to elude capture. . .  . As a study of description in modernism, Strange Likeness performs a number of important critical interventions. . . . In this respect, her book reads as an appropriate, even emblematic, early entry in the Thinking Literature series, whose stated commitment is to the 'exploration of how literature thinks, and to the refinement of literary criticism as a mode of reasoning in and about the world.' But Strange Likeness seems to make a further, more specific wager: that literary study still has a place for, might indeed be energized by, a kind of book-length exploration that was once much more central to the discipline, in which the main concern is to describe how certain literary texts achieve what they achieve."

Douglas Mao | Critical Inquiry

Strange Likeness rearranges what we think we know about modernism’s relation to realism—and to questions of objectivity, psychology, social convention, and collective life. Zhang is a gifted critic, beautifully attentive to details and large patterns, precise in her analytic vocabulary, and admirably thorough in her range of theoretical and historical reference. Her lucid, ambitious book deserves to be widely read and debated.”

David Kurnick, Rutgers University

“A shrewd and splendid study, elegantly conceived, timely, and persuasive. Strange Likeness is at once an incisively close study of James, Proust, and Woolf, and a far-reaching account of the overlooked descriptive vocation of twentieth-century fiction. With unbroken lucidity and verve, Zhang offers a powerful revisionary reading of the modernist novel.”

Michael Levenson, University of Virginia

"For so long description has seemed the simplest part of what the novel does, the inert counterpart to narrated action and reflection. In overturning that assumption, Zhang gives us a whole new modernism and, in a way, a whole new novel, since the light cast by her utterly convincing readings of James, Proust and Woolf reflects both backward and forward across the entirety of its history. Strange Likeness models a form of criticism in which intensity and precision in the analysis of literary texts is what opens them anew to the most far-reaching questions of our relation to each other and to the physical world."

Mark McGurl, Stanford University

"Zhang listens to the echoes that surface readers miss in her exquisite analyses of the  high modernist novel. Strange Likeness is above all a masterpiece of close reading."

ALH Online Review

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Introduction. “That Ugly, That Clumsy, That Incongruous Tool”

1. Toward a Theory of Description

2. James’s Airs

3. Proust and the Effects of Analogy

4. Feeling with Woolf

5. The Ends of Description



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