Habitual drunkards and metaphysics
Case studies from the Victorian period
in The Existential drinker
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Through four ‘case studies’ this chapter identifies behaviours, attitudes, and representations which hint at the emergence of a new figure, and suggest significant moments in the transition from the nineteenth-century’s stereotyping of the habitual drunkard to the twentieth-century’s Existential drinker. Mary Thompson was a habitual drunkard discussed in a Parliamentary Report who rejected all attempts to make her respectable, preferring to live the life of a drunkard; George Eliot’s tale ‘Janet’s Repentance’ provides an unusually sympathetic religious/philosophical apprehension of somebody determined to drink; Zola’s novel L’Assommoir describes the drinker’s response to the modern, alienating city; van Gogh’s painting Night Café at Arles, along with a letter he wrote to his brother, introduces a self which is perched dangerously close to ruin, transformation, or oblivion. The figures encountered here, both real and fictional, are largely ‘ordinary’ people, rather than (Romantic) ‘others’ or self-avowed ‘philosopher-drinkers’, and offer glimpses of the themes and representations which in the twentieth century contribute to the figure of the Existential drinker that is discussed in the following chapters.

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