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Abstract

This dissertation explores the rich intersections between realist fiction and pre-cinematic optical technologies in Victorian Britain. Most scholars agree that the styles and techniques of literary realism are deeply shaped by visual culture, but they limit their inquiry to pictorial media like painting and photography. In “Virtual Realism: Victorian Fiction as Optical Technology,” I reveal realist fictional aesthetics to be embedded in the visual culture of nineteenth-century optical technologies, from magic lanterns and optical conjuring to animation toys and stereoscopes. What distinguishes these technologies from other kinds of visual representation is their virtuality: they create images that exist only through the interface of the viewer’s perception and the apparatus. Informed by optical technology, realist writers such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins and Thomas Hardy conceive of literary works less as a precise replica of the world and more as a virtual scene modeled on visual illusions of light, motion and depth. By blending literary analysis with archival methods of media history, my research contributes to our understanding of the rise of virtual reality in modern culture. Realist novels were not only engaged in creating virtual experiences, but in conceptualizing a virtual modernity that they characterize and express through optical technologies. Optical culture both participates in creating these conditions and offers a framework through which Victorians could reflect on the virtualization of modern life.

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