Changing Hands

Industry, Evolution, and the Reconfiguration of the Victorian Body
Peter J. Capuano
A new imagining of human hands as physical objects and literal representations in Victorian fiction


  • Shortlisted for 2015 British Society for Literature and Science Book Award

In Changing Hands, Peter J. Capuano sifts through Victorian literature and culture for changes in the way the human body is imagined in the face of urgent questions about creation, labor, gender, class, and racial categorization, using “hands” (the “distinguishing mark of . . . humanity”) as the primary point of reference. Capuano complicates his study by situating the historical argument in the context of questions about the disappearance of hands during the twentieth century into the haze of figurative meaning. Out of this curious aporia, Capuano exposes a powerful, “embodied handedness” as the historical basis for many of the uncritically metaphoric, metonymic, and/or ideogrammatic approaches to the study of the human body in recent critical discourse.

Changing Hands is a major contribution to Victorian studies, revealing the human hand as a fascinating nexus for the scientific, industrial, religious, and social upheavals of the age. Capuano’s provocative examples and arguments freshly illuminate the whole landscape of nineteenth-century writing: this is a manual for our critical moment.”
—Andrew Stauffer, University of Virginia

Changing Hands offers a revelatory account of the impact of industrialism and evolutionary discourse on conceptions of human agency and identity, which Peter Capuano brilliantly elicits from figurations of the human hand. In capturing the pervasive importance of a trope long hidden in plain sight, Capuano transfigures a broad range of nineteenth-century reflection.”
—James Eli Adams, Columbia University

“This book will change the way we read the bodies of Victorian characters; Capuano alerts us to the importance of a signifier so ubiquitous in the literature as to have become invisible. No longer! Changing Hands is a well-written, highly readable volume offering a significant scholarly payload. Scholars will be citing and extending this work for some time to come.”
—Pamela Gilbert, University of Florida

“Exemplary . . . a provocative and interesting perspective, which complicates the debate from earlier in the century between mechanized labor and individualized modes of production . . . a fine addition to Victorian studies.”
—Jay Clayton, Vanderbilt University

Cover credit: © Linda Bucklin /; Jupiterimages/ Design by Paula Newcomb.

Peter J. Capuano is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Nineteenth-Century Studies Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a faculty member of the University of California's Dickens Project.

Praise / Awards

  • "For [Capuano], industry and evolution are not simply two concurrent historical developments that independently shape Victorian understandings of the hand. Instead, he provocatively argues that the very fact that industry destabilizes the hand as a source and a sign of human exceptionality early in the century changes the development of evolutionary theory and its reception in England."
    --Victorian Studies 
  • “Insightful and ambitious in scope, Changing Hands engages not only with Victorian literary studies but also with philosophy, gender studies, media studies, the history of science and technology, and the digital humanities.”
    --Nineteenth-Century Contexts
  • "Changing Hands is a must-read for scholars working on hands or tactility in any period or field of study."
    --Kimberly Cox, British Society for Literature and Science

  • “A provocation to scholars working in different fields…[which] should inspire others to investigate anxieties surrounding ‘embodied handedness’ in a wide array of works across multiple venues.”
  • “Written with compelling clarity, Changing Hands covers a great deal of theoretical, historical, and literary ground.”
    --Studies in English Literature
  • "Capuano moves deftly through a range of novels to developments in science, religion, and industry."
    --Recent Studies in the Nineteenth Century
  • “…a series of superb, sometimes revelatory, readings of nineteenth-century British novels.”
    --Journal of British Studies
  • "A very lucid and perceptive reading of Victorian “handedness” in the nineteenth century novel."
    --Dickens Quarterly
  • “Capuano’s approach to reading characters’ bodies through their hands delivers a fascinating meditation on the nexus of meaning and materiality and the myriad ways it came to shape the human body from the Victorian period forward…By refusing to take for granted the ubiquitous presence of hands in the Victorian novel, Capuano boldly recasts hands as the ultimate biocipher, one that codes and decodes our physical realities and corporeal selves at any point in time.”  
    --Victorians Institute Journal
  • "One of the most notable things about this work is that it demonstrates a fruitful way to engage in ‘distance reading’, generating insights by big data analyses of patterns such as statistical word usage that empirically establish the increased imagery of hands, but it does not end the analysis simply by noting such patterns. Rather, Capuano works through the contexts in which such word choices occur, connecting them both to the specific plot and a larger literary and social context.”
    --Sherryl Vint, The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Studies
  • Shortlisted: British Society for Literature and Science (BSLS) 2015 Book Award
  • Highlighted for the 2015 North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA) Book Prize

Look Inside

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 340pp.
  • 57 figures.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-07284-2

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  • $94.95 U.S.

  • Paper
  • 2015
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-05284-4

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  • $39.95 U.S.

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  • Victorian literature, body, body studies, hands