Book Report: Cynthia Wall’s The Prose of Things

Thesis of the work:

Cynthia Wall narrates the transformation of description from the emblematic settings and objects of late seventeenth-century and eighteenth century narratives to the interior spaces in the Victorian novel. She argues that late seventeenth century readers did not need spatial description due to their knowledge or as she calls it a “cultural storehouse” (11) of overdetermined settings. However, by late eighteenth century, the growing trade markets and the developed credit economy diversified spaces and the objects within them, causing a shift in cultural awareness that required an absorption of description into narrative.

Methodological/theoretical approaches:

Wall uses several theoretical approaches such as, critical theory, thing theory, rhetorical theory, historicism, cultural theory, spatialization, empiricism, and consumerism. Some of her primary sources are eighteenth century authors, Samuel Johnson, Alexander Pope, Jonathon Swift, Eliza Haywood, Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, and Daniel Defoe. A few of her secondary sources are literary critics, Virginia Woolf, Ian Watt, and Dorothy Van Ghent.


Wall notes that the eighteenth century novel presents readers with “things” that as critic, Dorothy Van Ghent argued, “are not at all vivid in texture” (1). Post-nineteenth century readers find these “things” to be secluded in “empty space” due to lack of presentations of settings (1). Therefore, Wall’s book contributes to a better understanding of the transformation of description from “Defoe’s unvisualized cityscapes and Pope’s epitheted spaces to the… elaborate landscapes of The Mysteries of Udolpho and the Victorian novel” (1). She finds that the changes in the rhetoric about, and the employment of, description are linked to four comprehensive cultural changes: first, experientially through technological ways of seeing objects; economically, through an expansion of consumer culture; epistemologically, through changes in attitudes toward the general and the particular; and narratively, through an awareness and the depictions of domestic space. She fills out the gaps in varied historical perceptions of “what visual familiarity” could possibly mean (11).

Chapter Summaries:

Chapter 1: A History of Description, a Foundling

Chapter 1 summarizes the history of description and shares the outlooks on it from classical and renaissance treatises through eighteenth and nineteenth centuries— centering on a critical shift in the late-eighteenth century. She explains that “things,” which can include moral quality and even time, substitute description in early texts— as opposed to the narration of settings. Eighteenth century author, Samuel Johnson, finds much benefit in that, arguing that a lot of descriptive details interrupt the mind and the “mind is refrigerated by interruption” (24). She shares that the OED’s definitions of description are extracted from the Renaissance and the eighteenth century from Richard Rainolde’s 1563 Foundacion of Rhetorike, Henry Peachman’s 1577 Garden of Eloquence, and the Encyclopedie of 1751 to 1765, which all agree that description’s main role is to make an object visible. She then looks to the logicians of the classical period, mainly Aristotle, who saw that poets of the classical world need to represent actions and events in a form of imitation that basically describe not the thing that happened, but what might happen to “achieve ‘universal statements’” (18). And, the “universal” has to do with evoking readers vividly. As for medieval literature, descriptions did not represent images, but rather aroused images in the “the literary memories and experiences of medieval writers’ new readers” by rearranging or rewriting the “compositional blocks” of Greek and Latin writers. The renaissance writers turned poetry into craft, as description turns away from the creator and slips into the “work of creator” (20). Then, textual praxes (lists, catalogs, ornaments) surfaced, contributing to the history of description in literature in practicality or functionality— overlooking vivid description. Therefore, Wall reveals the difference between representation and “object, thing and setting” in an effort to reveal the eighteenth century shift in cultural awareness (40).

Chapter 2 and 3: Traveling Spaces and Seeing Things

Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 have much in common in that they both study the “particulars” of texts that allow readers to see things. In “Traveling Spaces,” Wall discusses textual praxis’ closeness and impact on literary description. She links John Ogilby’s road maps to the “emblematized space” in The Pilgrim’s Progress by late-seventeenth century author, John Bunyan (42). She argues that there is a “shared cultural storehouse of visualization” that can be seen when each is looked at in the context of the other. (42) She explains that the textual praxis became a means of familiarity and cultural awareness of objects, “transforming emblem and detail into symbol and description in the eighteenth century” (43). She showcases the impact of John Stow’s Survey of London (1598, 1603), in which John Strype expanded on in 1720, on topographical description in the eighteenth century. She said his catalog is not just a description of exterior buildings, but rather a “built-in setting for human existence” (45) that the eighteenth century readers have stored. From thereafter, each expansion of his work re-visualized London’s details and structures for a newer and larger audience that needed to know the changing outlines of its spaces. Strype’s two large folio volumes do not detach themselves drastically from Stow’s description of the city, but uses sketches and outlines more than details— “the beginning of visual projection” (52).

Chapter 3, “Seeing Things,” addresses the Royal Society and British empiricism and their interest in textual praxis for physical secrets and spiritual importance in “seeing depth in surface” (71). She uses natural history, diaries and lists as textual praxis to show an increase in the description of domestic interiors at the time. Wall presents the most famous seventeenth century diarists, John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys, who she claims “reveal what they were inclined as well as taught to see by the particular emphases of their time and place” (82). She explains that details in diaries allowed for recording what is seen and creating visual description. She then moves on to satirists, Jonathon Swift and Alexander Pope, who mark her observation through microscopic description that not only makes readers see things, but also de-familiarizes the world in an effort to domesticate it by continuously inspecting it.

Chapter 4: Writing Things

Chapter 4 looks experientially at the gaps and isolated details in the work of John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe. She explains that Defoe’s fiction depends on things, like the earthenware pots, umbrellas, gold beads and more that have emblematic Puritan qualities, but not many have looked at the things that lack background. Wall notes that they may be connected to another object, but not to a visualized space. Therefore, when looking at the “empty spaces,” in Robinson Crusoe, she finds, as Virginia Woolf did, beauty in familiar objects and grace in actions. She says, Crusoe’s grapes, green lines, and raisins are all symbolic of “God’s providence” and that even the things Crusoe made himself, like the umbrella and raisins, give him pleasure— in relation to the world of goods that celebrated the pleasure of making, buying, seeing, and arranging new things (112). She closes the chapter with a look at the obsession of massive things in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto that she claims he created as “satiric weapons” (97) due to an increasing presence and familiarity in past narratives.

Chapter 5: Implied Spaces

As for the implied spaces that things occupy, Wall analyzes the texts of Aphra Behn, Eliza Haywood, Penelope Aubin, and Mary Davys to show how space is created in narration. She says the rooms and any of their details are only revealed when the plot requires them to appear. For example, Eliza Haywood and Samuel Richardson both produce space through an act, instead of producing space for the act. For example, she says, in the scene, where Pamela thinks she’s finally leaving back home, her “weeping prayer… calls up her master’s ‘Elbow Chair’ for her support as well as the wall, lobby, hall details through which she moves in exiting” (140). They disappear again once she’s no longer moving through them or in need of an object. She adds that any good eighteenth century heroine, such as Pamela, is expected to make spaces in narration visual.

Chapter 6 and 7: Worlds of Goods and Arranging Things

Chapter 6 and 7 connect in their interest in the trade market and its impact on the status of description in the eighteenth century. In the “Worlds of Good,” Wall indicates that the access to material goods was an admission to see the interior of the house and the objects within. “Shops, advertisements, and auctions” all exposed objects and renewed the expectation of readers (149). Things were also found in “catalogs, inventories, letters, [and] guidebooks” and were “arranged and rearranged in private spaces” in the world and in fiction. Therefore, things visibly occupying space in texts become “socially acceptable” (150).  “Arranging Things” shows how this increase in consumerism generated an interest in color, texture, and arrangement within domestic space. She uses two of the central textual praxes in the “development of novelistic descriptions,” diaries and country-house guidebooks, to showcase their impact on the arrangement of things inside homes. Access to houses through domestic tours and through texts allowed for an “increased attention to interior detail in novels” that later vanished by the 1840s (150).

Chapter 8: The Foundling as Heir

In her last chapter, “The Foundling as Heir,” Wall argues that the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century marked a complete shift in description from one of empty spaces to one with fully visual spaces, where events happen. There is no longer a need for actions to show spaces or objects, but rather settings stand on their own. She proves her point through the works of Ann Radcliffe and Walter Scott. For example, Wall says that in Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, when Emily returns home after her father’s death, she is overcome with memories that inhabit all the empty spaces (211). Scott was also influenced by Radcliffe and had been also praised for his “novelty” (216) and detailed description. Wall claims that Scott and Radcliffe both created a space to placing characters and their actions in (218).


Cynthia Wall’s book allows us as eighteenth century literature students to understand the historical and cultural impact on the status of description—especially in that time period with so much change in settings and goods. We did not truly get a chance to look at how objects are substituted for description or how the transformation came about later on in the late eighteenth century. In chapter 6, “The World of Goods”, we get a better understanding of the “cultural storehouse” (11) that was broken down after the growing trade markets and the developed credit economy that increased objects, demands and expectations. Also, when looking at Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, we didn’t look at the power a character’s action has on an object or setting. We can say it almost becomes the main agent in eighteenth century description.

Strengths and Weaknesses:

This book’s strength is Wall’s use of varied theoretical approaches, such as thing theory, empiricism, consumerism and spatialization, which truly unite as one when making her argument. However, some issues I had, but I do not really consider weaknesses because I think it’s an overall well-wrought and proven book, are too many sources to keep up with and some chapters that could have become one repressed one. I can easily see chapter 2 and 3 in one section and chapter 6 and 7 in another, and she even makes that linkage. The arrangement could have limited the amount of sources and maybe strengthened her argument even more.


Wall says, eighteenth century novelist, Samuel Johnson, finds that too much descriptive detail interrupts the mind and the “mind is refrigerated by interruption” (24). I’m not convinced by this argument and still wonder why detailed descriptions could have “refrigerated” the minds of eighteenth century readers.

Work Cited

Wall, Cynthia Sundberg. Prose of Things: Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century. Univ Of Chicago Press, 2006.

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