In Peter J. Capuano and Sue Zemka’s collection of essays, the various contributions all consider the significance of the hand in Victorian literature and cultural consciousness. For them, the hand becomes the Cartesian pineal gland of Victorian culture and thought — where the soul meets the body, impossibly melding the intangible and the tangible. Capuano and Zemka’s overarching goals are not only to recuperate the hand as an important site of the Victorian body politic, but also to dwell on the idea of embodiment itself in Victorian consciousness. There are several advantages to “think critically about the multiple referential pressures this culture places on hands” (4) — the hand stands both as emblems of the singular subject and the aggregate mass, and also both the most immediate sign of interiority but also the furthest extension of that interior will onto the exterior world. To consider hands is not only to switch to a different line of sight, but also to contour the sheer pervasiveness of the hand as a signifier. They also point out that despite the ubiquity of hands in Victorian literature and culture, “those interested in materialist conceptions of the Victorian body have long focused almost exclusively on the only other body parts open for routine inspection in the nineteenth century: the head, face, and eyes” (3). Capuano and Zemka consider both the phenomenological importance of the hand, and the critical oversight that it suffered, to examine how and why how “the hand’s importance came to be so thoroughly altered in the nineteenth century” (6).

Sir Charles Bell's illustration of the skeletal mechanism running from the hand to the shoulder required to make use of a traditional hammer (1831). [Click on all the images to enlarge them and for more information about them.]

The book is divided into four parts, each with separate themes. The first section, “Hands, Whole and Part” examines the position that the hand occupies in Victorian Literature and Culture, especially in the context of rapid industrialization. The second section, “Hands, Plot, and Character” discusses the hand as a motif or a symbolic pressure primarily in Victorian novels, whereas the third section, “Framing and Staging Hands” focuses more on the cultural and physical aspects of the hand in the archived bodies in photography and theatre. The final fourth section “Manual Exceptionalism in Later Victorian Literature and Culture” moves on from the Victorian period to the fin de siècle, modernism, and even current times in thinking about the hand.

William Bell Scott's In the nineteenth century the Northumbrians show the world what can be done with iron and coal (1861).

The organization works especially well when one reads the essays in order. The first two essays by Capuano and Tamara Ketabgian set the historical context for the importance of the hand as a site of cultural anxiety during the emergence of industrial factories and the machines within. The human hand, and its “perfection,” were a testament to “the presence of the hand of the Creator” in the religious aestheticism of the Victorian period (24). But with the rise of the factory machines that widely surpassed the abilities of mere human hands in their productivity and quality of work, the hand, “the primary emblem of human exceptionalism in the natural and economic world” (21) was diminished to an inadept tool. Capuano argues that this clash was somewhat resolved by Bell’s explanation that “all mechanical contrivances are themselves based on the model of anatomical perfection embodied in the divinely constructed hand” (25). Ketabgian takes this connection between the machine and the hand even further, arguing that in The Narrative of the Experience and Sufferings of William Dodd, the “damaged hand and body emerge not only at the industrial ‘join’ but also as emblems for the join itself, as a deeply ramified juncture of human and mechanical hinges, straps, bones, ligaments, joints, and wounds” (37). The hand, first the perfect mimesis of god’s work, is now transformed into the pivoting joint between man and machine, pain and body, subject and labor. With Karen Bourrier, the hand now becomes the open “site of interpretation,” as it not only becomes a class marker with its association to labor but also a marker of gender in terms of its delicacy and color (57). Even the lack of the hand was legible as “a legacy of participation in war or industrial accident” (57). Linking the figure of amputated General Nelson with Rochester in Jane Eyre, Bourrier argues that Rochester’s missing limb and eye mark him as both the heroic figure of a soldier returning from battle but also a punished adulterer who now can allow space for Jane to initiate contact, and redefine their relationship. Bourrier’s close reading of Jane’s hand initiating the first touch and contact after she rediscovers the maimed Rochester is amplified in Pamela K. Gilbert’s reading of The Woman in White as a series of thrilling touches only to “provide physical sensations and trigger the formation of associations, but to express intention” (78). The touch of a hand becomes the expression of will and action, especially those employed by the female characters, against the male oppression to possess their freedom and property. This willful hand (and touch) is alienated from the rest of the body in Aviva Briefel’s discussion of spiritual hands in seances and ghost stories; the hand is now a severed, floating proof of unknowable agency that becomes legibly iconic in its artfulness. In Sue Zemka’s reading of The Moonstone, the hand becomes even more detached from any identificatory pull, and stands for the emptiness, or the lack of certainty in the idea of identity itself. Zemka even goes far as to advocate a way of “thinking of the novel’s hands as characters, or substitutes for character,” which she calls “manual-centrism” (109).

"My aunt caught me by the hand" (Harpers Weekly illustration for Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (11 April 1868).

The book then moves onto more abstract dispersions from the literal and the figurative hand: James Eli Adams addresses the symbolic sense of the hand in mortmain, or "the dead hand" of legacy or inheritance that dictates the freedom and will of the living in Middlemarch. Through Dorothea’s reaction to the dead hand of legacy, Adams articulates Eliot’s aesthetic of moral asceticism. Jonathan Cheng addresses what one could call "the hand diffused" — in other words, gestures. With methods used in distance reading, Cheng echoes the refrains of Actor-Network Theory utilized by Zemka in mapping the way hands (in his case, gestures) create a network that reveals the pattern of their characters' behaviour in the narrative. He maps the “changing description of characters’ hand gestures in 905 nineteenth-century novels, with a specific emphasis on investigating the extent that these hand gestures behave as signs of gender” (149-50). Cheng notes the decreasing strength of the connection between gestural description and their implied gender; this trend of diminishing the symbolic strength of the hand is reiterated in the next essay by Kate Flint. Flint addresses both the representation and the physical hand in and out of Victorian photography, which not only obsessed over hands as an image but also as tools of producing those images. She argues that the role of the hand in nineteenth century photography is curbed as the status of photography shifts from artistic labor to more mechanized procedure throughout its history. The place of hand in relationship to technology of photography, as it did with the industrial machines in Capuano and Ketabgian’s arguments, falls in symbolic value from artistic perfection to an inept tool. Though stained fingers and finger stains in making photography once marked craftsmanship that distinguished itself from racialized and classed labor, by the end of the century they became “an undesirable mark of slovenliness rather than a badge of serious aesthetic and scientific engagement” (193). Julianne Smith also explores the visuality of the hand in H.K. Browne’s illustrations and stage adaptions of Dickens’s Bleak House. The full physicality of the hand is privileged, Smith argues, over other forms of expression in the theatrical representation of class and gender anxieties.

H. K. Browne (Phiz)'s "Lady Dedlock in the Wood" in Dickens's Bleak House, as she reaches out to acknowledge her daughter Esther for the first time.

After the physical turn that started with Kate Flint’s essay, Deborah Deneholz Morse takes a turn back to literature — albeit late Victorian ones — by a close reading of hands in Trollope’s The Duke’s Children, and demonstrating the role that the hands play in representing the novel’s subtle openness to more progressive ideals in class and gender towards the end. Daniel A. Novak also reads an openness to future and posterity in the figure of the writing hand in Oscar Wilde, negotiating the balance between the author’s will over his own legacy and how he will be taken up by future generations. Novak, in other words, reads a “living hand” in Wilde’s “letter to and for the future,” a contrast to the dead hand we have found in Adams’s reading of Middlemarch (252). Like Morse and Novak, Miller reads a liveliness in the detached hands of Hardy’s prose and poems, and James’s Wings of the Dove. These last three look forward in time positively in their reading of hands: despite the diminishing of symbolic power that hands underwent in the nineteenth century, there still seems to be hope in our most delicate appendages.

Despite the crisp organization of the essays, the authors' frequent mistakes in names and labels of characters and theories take the reader away from their arguments. Franklin Blake and Gabriel Betteredge from The Moonstone are called “Frederick Blake” and “Gabriel Betteridge” (10, 113, 114, 122), and Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT) is labeled and consistently invoked as “ACT” (112-3, 119, 126). Marian Halcombe is named as “Marian Earle,” Walter Hartright is frequently spelled “Walter Hartwright” (8-9), Rosanna Spearman as “Roseanna Spearman” (113, 117), and Godfrey Ablewhite as “Godfrey Abelwhite” (114).

Regardless, each of the essays deliver powerful and fascinating arguments surrounding the hand. The organization of the entire collection develops the hand as a signifier of a broad network of ideas, and delves into the history, form, and afterlife of what the hand signified in the Victorian era. As I hope my summary shows, the contributors are conversing amongst themselves in their essays, which strengthens the whole edited collection as an aggregate. The exciting diversity and academic rigor in each, and all, of the contributions cannot be overstated. On the one hand, the collection holds a certain charm in keeping so close to the object of its study; it claims to study the hand in Victorian literature, and does just that, very satisfyingly. With the tumult of the academic profession and the general state of the world, there is a certain pleasure to be had in a series of studies that reads its object with such passion and curiosity. On the other hand, precisely because of that satisfaction, the collection could be read as dangerously close to academic escapism. As J. Hillis Miller powerfully articulates in his essay, “our situation has altered enough toward imminent danger to make [him] wonder whether [he] can in conscience devote time to writing an essay on something so relatively marginal as ‘Hands in Hardy and James’" (257). For instance, I wonder if the association of hands with labour (as in “Hands” labelling the workers in Hard Times), could have been read more usefully in the collection, not only in terms of its ineptitude in comparison to machines (Capuano), potential and real injury (Capuano, Ketabgian), and marker of low class (Bourrier), but as a lively site of labor itself, and its potential to signify a collective of workers as well as an individual laborer. This could have been a great avenue to think about the power of the collective to remedy the ills of our current academic system and job market, not to mention our climate and politics more generally. The only real way of bringing about changes to the "harrowing" reality that J. Hillis Miller discusses in his essay seems to lie in this potential of collective power (257).

Yet, it is, ultimately, left to the readers to handpick what matters the most to them. At least to this reader, what was so engaging about the hands, from reading the collection, is the possibility of touch. The hand becomes the emblem of a contact, a change, a transfer, all things pregnant with narrative potential. What the touch entails is the folding of the inside and outside — like a Moebius strip, the touch brings the subject’s interiority to the surface of contact with the world. The book productively struggles with the relationship between this folding of inside and out with its linguistic representation; the mimesis of the touching hand in literature becomes a way to negotiate the embodiment itself in language. As Eve Sedgewick puts it, “the sense of touch makes nonsense out of any dualistic understanding of agency and passivity; to touch is always already to reach out, to fondle, to heft, to tap, or to enfold, and always also to understand other people or natural forces as having effectually done so before oneself” (14). Despite the alarming human condition that colors darkly everything around us, I did find joy in discovering that the hand that I envisioned after reading this book is an open one—ready to touch, and be touching, my own.

Related Mareial


Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

[Book under review] Victorian Hands: The Manual Turn in Nineteenth-Century Body Studies. Ed. Peter J. Capuano & Sue Zemka. Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2020.

Created 4 April 2021