Matthew Kaiser


On his book The World in Play: Portraits of a Victorian Concept

Cover Interview of April 30, 2012

In a nutshell

The most compelling and unsettling moment for me in all of Victorian literature comes when Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole: that epistemological abyss at the heart of nineteenth-century modernity.  For all its quaintness, it is a terrifying image. A ludic microcosm swallows reality whole.  The boundary between the inside of the child’s game and the outside schizophrenically collapses.  Modern life, in the shape of a girl, loses its footing.

In this book, I lower myself into the rabbit hole.  I survey and map it.  I explore the extent to which a growing number of nineteenth-century British writers and thinkers equated modern life with the sensation of a world in play.  A world in play means two things.  It means a world in flux, an unstable cosmos with an unfixed horizon, a universe turned inside out.  But it also means a world trapped in a ludic representation of itself, a world literally inside play.

The further I made my way down this Victorian rabbit hole, the more startled I was by the ubiquity of the logic of play in nineteenth-century depictions of modernity, indeed, the centrality of play to the Victorian sense of self.  Darwin, for instance, conceives of nature, including human nature, as a competitive sport, with biological winners and losers.  Rudyard Kipling rechristens British imperialism the “Great Game.”  The Victorians invented the weekend.  They turned leisure into big business.  They built hundreds of parks and playgrounds in a normalizing effort to cultivate and manage play.  Child play acquired unprecedented ideological importance in the nineteenth century.  In myriad ways, the logic of play made the Victorian world cohere.  From the middle-class ethic of competition, through the therapeutic faith in recreation, to the political efficacy of holidays in the promotion of national identity, play made everyday life make sense.  At the same time, however, this intrinsically unstable concept betrayed the illusoriness of life’s coherence.

The idea of a world in play is not the same thing as a world at play, which is how the Victorians depicted that apocryphal epoch known as “Merry Old England.”  A world in play is not about having fun.  It is about being trapped in the funhouse mirror, in illusion, in an unsettling new reality in which “all that is solid,” to quote Marx and Engels, “melts into air.”  Our twenty-first-century fascination with virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and online communities, with dystopian computer programs that colonize consciousness itself, can be traced to the Victorian world in play.  In The Matrix, Alice-like Neo follows a woman with a rabbit tattoo down a digital hole.

This book maps the Victorian world in play—and hence our own.  In the process, it advances a new theory of Victorian literature and culture.  But the book also examines how various Victorian writers—Charles Dickens, Emily Brontë, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, among others—struggled valiantly to find their footing, ethically and politically, in play, how they made a home for themselves in this unsettling world of ours.