Anna Gibson responds to Elaine Auyoung

I still see the dress as white and gold. Auyoung’s reference to this perceptual trick not only offers a contemporary example of the kind of mediated perception Coombs’s book identifies in Victorian thinking; it can also shed light on what Coombs refers to as “the true illusions of fiction” (64). The second chapter of Coombs’s book, which draws from Saul Kripke to explain how description can yield acquaintance, helps me understand that my nonveridical perception of the white and gold dress works much like my experience of a fictional character: “fictional characters and hallucinations are somehow present even as they are also not exactly there” (63).

Auyoung helps us identify two questions at the heart of Coombs’s book, both to do with knowing: “what is it possible to know from Victorian literature?” and “what kind of knowledge [do] these texts provide[?]” Coombs frames these questions a bit differently when he asks us to consider “what it is that fiction makes present to us” (62). Reading, he suggests, makes virtually present the objects to which the words on the page refer even as we are aware that what we are experiencing is an illusion. As a result, he concludes in his epilogue, fiction can create “connective pathways” to “things in the world” (174) Auyoung’s response helps us recognize that presence and knowledge are not quite the same thing. Those things that fiction makes present to us are rarely actual, perceptible things in the world, even if we respond to them as if they are.

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