City Literature – Key Concepts

What are the key concepts for the study of the city in literature? Below, an outline (in progress) of some of the concepts I see as crucial for analyzing the literary city.

Agent Road

“[…] a concept proposed by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht in connection to Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series (Gumbrecht 2006). Following Gumbrecht, the concept of the “agent road” can be defined as a road which takes on the character of a narrative function, defining the protagonists’ movements as well as providing them with a sense of purpose or direction (Gumbrecht 2006: 641). A loss of agency from the part of the protagonists is involved in this process of mobility: the road, as it were, takes over the initiative, and the protagonists are assigned a passive role; the agent road itself dominates the direction in which the narration moves. Gumbrecht uses the examples of feverishly onwards marching insurgents, and of the train engine let loose at the end of La Bête humaine (The Beast in Man; 1890). There are numerous examples of agent roads connected to Helsinki in Finnish turn of the century prose texts, and the railway to the capital features most prominently amongst these. […] Perhaps the clearest example of the railway leading to Helsinki as an agent road is found in Arvid Järnefelt’s student novel Isänmaa (1893/1997), in which the protagonist, Heikki, returns to Helsinki in the middle of the novel, full of a sense of doubt and foreboding. Until the last moment before boarding the train, he is unsure whether he should, in fact, leave his home behind, but the urgency of the waiting train leaves him no free choice: “The train decided in his stead” (Järnefelt 1893/1997: 14).[i] Heikki boards the train to fulfil his destiny in the capital.” (quoted from Ameel 2014: 47-48)

[i] “Juna päätti hänen puolestaan.”

Urban Pastoral

“The term “urban pastoral” has been used to describe a variety of approaches to the city in literature, referring, inter alia, to Wordsworth’s poetry (Steinman 2012), to a movement of New York poetry (Gray 2010), and to the experience of London in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (Alter 2005: 103–121). […] my use of the term urban pastoral closely resembles Robert Alter’s use of the term in his reading of Mrs. Dalloway (1925), in which he notes that instances of urban pastoral appear when the “urban experience, seen quite vividly in its abundant particularities, can provide the sense of invigoration, harmony with one’s surroundings, and enrapturing aesthetic revelation that is traditionally associated with the green world of pastoral” (Alter 2005: 105).” (quoted from Ameel 2014: 142)

The Gaze

“In Baudelaire’s quintessential essay “The painter of modern life”, the observer of modernity is endowed with a particular way of looking – a child-like “animally ecstatic gaze” grounded in “deep and joyful curiosity” (Baudelaire 1863/1964: 8). The readings of Baudelaire by Walter Benjamin have further enhanced the importance that has been attached to the flâneur gaze in the (late) nineteenth-century urban experience. One of the quintessential literary examples of the flâneur gaze is provided by Baudelaire’s poem “À une passante” (“To a Passer-by”; Baudelaire 1861), which describes the exchange of meaningful glances between two chance passers-by (see Benjamin 2006: 40, 75–77; Brooks 2005: 134–135).

The polyphonic dialogue of gazes, glances and stares in urban public space is also indicative of the social and gendered power relations that permeate this space. During the last decades, the gendered dimension of the gaze has received particular attention, inspired in part by new perspectives offered by feminist film criticism and art history.[i] The flâneur and the male gaze have been seen as the quintessential symbol of “men’s visual and voyeuristic mastery over women” (Wilson 1992: 98). The poem “À une passante” and its subsequent reading by Benjamin have been central to a number of re-readings of urban modernity in relation to the female city walker, to the extent even that the passante has been equated with the flâneur himself: the woman being passed on the street is “an enigmatic icon of the cityscape”, and her ability to answer the gaze makes her a “mirror image of the male observer” (Parsons 2000: 72 ff.; see also Wolff 1985: 42).” (quoted from Ameel 2014: 65)


[i] See for a number of treatments of the gendered gaze in relation to the flâneur Ameel 2013b; Gleber 1999: 184–185; Hapuli et al. 1992: 102; Leslie 2006: 90; Mulvey 1989; Pollock 1988; Warhol 2005: 194.

The Urban Maelstrom (in Finnish Prose)

Turn-of-the-century Finnish prose repeatedly uses the word maelstrom (“pyörre”/“pyörteet”) to describe the experience of the city. In Maila Talvio’s novel Tähtien alla (“Under the Stars”; 1910), Helsinki life is described as a maelstrom experienced by the newly arrived girl Hilja (Talvio 1910: 71). Several reviews of Talvio’s novel Niniven lapset (“Children of Nineveh”; 1915), describe the protagonists’ move to the capital as a descent into the city’s maelstrom (Saarenheimo 1915; H. S-M 1915). In a review of Eino Leino’s Jaana Rönty (1907), the Finnish capital’s degenerating nature is described similarly as “Helsinki’s maelstrom” (lrv 1908: 282). In his 1899 report of his journey to Russia to meet Tolstoy, Arvid Järnefelt describes the whirl of people in the streets of the Russian capital with the word “a maelstrom of people” (“ihmispyörre”) (as quoted in Karkama 2010: 219). In Eino Leino’s Pankkiherroja (“Bank Lords”; 1914), Helsinki nightlife is described as “a world of decay, an endless abyss and maelstrom of filthy passions” into which the protagonist throws himself (“Tähän mädätyksen maailmaan, tähän saastaisten intohimojen pohjattomaan kuiluun ja pyörteesen syöksyi Antti nyt […]”) (Leino 1914: 106). In Toivo Tarvas’s novel Eri tasoilta (“On Different Levels”; 1916a), young provincial students are described as people who, without a home, end up in “the drowning maelstrom of the city so rich in pleasures” (Tarvas 1916: 210) (“He olivat kodittomia ja joutuivat huvituksista rikkaan kaupungin hukuttaviin pyörteisiin”).


Ameel, Lieven 2014: Helsinki in Early Twentieth-Century Literature. Urban Experiences in Finnish Prose Literature. Helsinki: SKS.
Alter, Robert 2005: Imagined Cities. Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel.
New Haven: Yale University Press.
Baudelaire, Charles 1861: “À une passante.” In Baudelaire, Charles: Les Fleurs du Mal.
Baudelaire, Charles 1863/1964: “The Painter of Modern Life.” Translated by Jonathan Mayne. London: Phaidon Press.
Benjamin, Walter 2006: The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire. Translated by Howard Eiland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Brooks, Peter 2005: Realist Vision. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Gray, Timothy 2010: Urban Pastoral: Natural Currents in the New York School. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.
Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich 2006: “The Roads of the Novel.” In Moretti, Franco (ed.): The Novel. Volume 2: Forms and Themes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 611–646.
Järnefelt, Arvid 1893/1997: Isänmaa. Helsinki: SKS.
Parsons, Deborah L. 2000: Streetwalking the Metropolis. Women, the City and Modernity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Steinman, Lisa M. 2012: “Flexible Genealogies and Romantic Poetics.” In Sandy, Mark (ed.): Romantic Presences in the Twentieth Century. Farnham: Ashgate, 43–56.
Wilson, Elizabeth 1992: “The Invisible Flâneur.” In New Left Review I/191, 90–110.
Wolff, Janet 1985: “The Invisible Flâneuse. Women and the Literature of Modernity.” In Theory, Culture & Society 1985/2(3), 37–46.

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