Unstable Sympathies in the 19th-Century British Novel, 1814-1853.
Abstract: This dissertation explores the darker side of sympathy in three
19th-century British novels in order to illuminate the frustrations, anxieties, and
displeasures of intimacy, both between people and between readers and texts. Examining just
three of many possible ways in which interpersonal encounters can be deeply uncomfortable,
I argue that Frances Burney's The Wanderer; or, Female ... read moreDifficulties (1814), Mary Shelley's
The Last Man (1826), and Charlotte Brontë's Villette (1853) illustrate in characters and
mobilize in readers self-other relations that are "difficult," revolting, and penetrating,
respectively. These modalities of sympathy, which make reading a deeply uncomfortable
experience, complicate Adam Smith's influential argument that sympathy generates
benevolence and peace between individuals and social groups, challenging 19th-century
politics that incorporate Smithian sympathy as a strategy for regulating gendered,
lower-class, and racial others. Making sympathetic reading a discomfiting and disconcerting
experience, the novels demonstrate that sympathy generates unstable affects that defy
attempts to control people and their thoughts and feelings. The Wanderer rewrites the
conventions of the novel of manners to present sympathy as a mode of exclusion, aligning
readers in "difficult," shifting sympathies with both the suffering heroine and the
characters who persecute her. Further extending "difficult" sympathies from domestic to
political life, The Last Man mobilizes intimacy that generates visceral revulsion and
instigates social and political uprisings that nearly decimate humankind. Finally, Villette
revises narrative conventions for realist fiction in order to explore the sexual politics
of sympathy, which Brontë portrays as an invasive mode of penetration that painfully binds
self and other. Together, the novels show that 19th-century novelistic sympathy was fraught
with disagreement and discontent that is obscured by the dominance of Smith's theory in
contemporary politics and in modern studies of the 19th-century British novel. Examining
unstable sympathies in The Wanderer, The Last Man, and Villette recovers the political
valence of the novels' resistance to literary conventions of sympathy, which, the novels
suggest, do not fully capture the volatility of interpersonal encounters.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Tufts University, 2015.
Submitted to the Dept. of English.
Advisor: Sonia Hofkosh.
Committee: Jillian Heydt-Stevenson, Joseph Litvak, and Lisa Lowe.
Keyword: British and Irish literature.read less