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Reading: Becoming Automatous: Automata in The Old Curiosity Shop and Our Mutual Friend

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Becoming Automatous: Automata in The Old Curiosity Shop and Our Mutual Friend

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Katherine Inglis

About Katherine
Katherine Inglis is in the final year of her PhD at Birkbeck. Her thesis explores the relationship between ambiguous objects such as android automata, anatomical waxworks and ‘philosophical instruments' and eccentric representations of subjectivity in the work of James Hogg, Charles Dickens and Charlotte Brontë. She won the George Eliot Fellowship Prize in 2006 for her essay on ‘Romola's Medieval Ancestry', which was published in The George Eliot Review in 2006. Her article on ‘Perception and Testimony in Winter Evening Tales' was published in Studies in Hogg and his World in 2006.
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Abstract

An automaton is a mechanical dissembler, appearing to possess that which by definition it cannot – autonomy. In the Victorian material imagination, this liminal figure appears as an analogy for both normal and pathological behaviours, as a paradigm and a warning, as a doppelgänger of the ideal worker and a symbol of all that was held to be reactive, affectless and inhuman. In The Old Curiosity Shop and Our Mutual Friend, Dickens merges this symbolic automaton with the marvellous showpieces and mass-produced toys of popular culture, creating an ambiguous, distressed figure whose unstable autonomy casts doubt on the authenticity of the freedom of automatous (automaton-like) characters. The Old Curiosity Shop, which features a cameo by an automaton, draws on factory literature's shifting material subjectivity in its portrayal of Little Nell and Quilp's automatous affinities. In Our Mutual Friend musical automata and speaking machines are models for human degradation. In both novels, automatous humans appear to be autonomous self-movers, but are perhaps, like android automata, dissemblers performing an imperfect impression of human agency.
DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/ntn.471
How to Cite: Inglis, K., (2008). Becoming Automatous: Automata in The Old Curiosity Shop and Our Mutual Friend. 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. (6). DOI: http://doi.org/10.16995/ntn.471
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Published on 01 Apr 2008.
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