Were They Having Fun Yet? Victorian Optical Gadgetry, Modernist Selves


Were They Having Fun Yet? Victorian Optical Gadgetry, Modernist Selves

Horton, Susan R.

Victorian Literature and the Victorian Visual Imagination, University of California Press (1995)

Abstract

Solomon Gills repeatedly insists to his nephew Wall’r that he is old-fashioned, that the world has gone past him. But in one way he is one of Dickens’s most modern characters. When we first catch sight of him, he has red eyes from looking through the lenses of all those optical gadgets in his shop, eyes “as red as if they had been small suns looking at you through a fog; and a newly-awakened manner, such as he might have acquired by having stared for three or four days successively through every optical instrument in his shop, and suddenly came back to the world again, to find it green.”




Those red eyes place him in distinguished company. Three of the most prominent students of vision in the 1830s and early 1840s either went blind or permanently damaged their sight by staring into the sun: David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope and improver of the stereoscope; Joseph Plateau, who studied the persistence of vision; and Gustav Fechner, one of the founders of quantitative psychology. Sol Gills does not go blind. But Dickens, in his portrait of him, produces a verbal version of the piercing confrontation of eye and sun that art historian Jonathan Crary identifies in the late paintings of Turner. Placing the sun in Old Sol’s eyes—his name itself a pun—Dickens then turns the reader into a spectator at this transposition.

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