For shame: Emotion, gender, and innovation in the nineteenth-century British novel

Bennett, Ashly Elisabeth Jensen.   Cornell University ProQuest Dissertations Publishing,  2011. 3484799.

Abstract (summary)

This dissertation argues that the British novel was shaped to a large and as yet unexplored extent by shame. While shame might appear the hallmark of Victorian repression, I examine how its revisionary potential works through nineteenth-century novelistic form, troubling limited constructions of gendered subjectivity, social roles, and modes of literary engagement. From the genre's inception, novelists and readers courted the shame—linked to the excessively emotional and feminine—that marked novelistic production and consumption. Rather than disavow or downplay such shame, however, nineteenth-century novelists often embraced and reimagined it. Elizabeth Bennet's “mortifying perusal” of Darcy's letter, Jane Eyre's humiliation before the classroom at Lowood, Becky Sharp's scandalous exposure when caught with Lord Steyne: in these scenes, innovations in novelistic form occur not in spite of shame, but through it. Reading such scenes of shame in works by Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, William Makepeace Thackeray, and George Du Maurier, I show how influential experiments in narrative technique engage shame as a model of self-conscious reflection, narration, and reading that refines the novel's form and cultural status by redefining the implications of close contact with feminized emotion. Such displays of shameful self-consciousness countered the widespread denigration of irrational feminine emotiveness that haunted the novelist and novel reader throughout the century, offering instead an analytic yet still emotionally charged form of investment in literary and social conventions. By placing these texts in dialogue with historical and current theories of emotion that highlight shame's capacity to forge identity and social attachments in ways that do not depend on strict identification with others or with social norms more broadly, I approach nineteenth-century novels as incisive theorizations of shame in their own right. In thus helping us to think beyond a stark binary of identification or critical detachment, novelistic shame enriches ongoing discussions of the stakes of emotional investments—in others, in social conventions, and in literature.

Indexing (details)

British and Irish literature;
British & Irish literature
0593: British and Irish literature
Identifier / keyword
Language, literature and linguistics; Austen, Jane; Bronte, Charlotte; Du Maurier, George; Gender; Innovation; Thackeray, William Makepeace
For shame: Emotion, gender, and innovation in the nineteenth-century British novel
Bennett, Ashly Elisabeth Jensen
Number of pages
Degree date
School code
DAI-A 73/02, Dissertation Abstracts International
Place of publication
Ann Arbor
Country of publication
United States
Hanson, Ellis
Cornell University
University location
United States -- New York
Source type
Dissertation or Thesis
Document type
Dissertation/thesis number
ProQuest document ID
Database copyright ProQuest LLC; ProQuest does not claim copyright in the individual underlying works.
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