2019 Thesis Abstracts
“And, In Their Falling, Rise Again”: Unearthing Muted Voices in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Sanora Babb’s Whose Names Are Unknown
Directed by Ernest Morrell
With poetic grace and provocative rhetoric, John Steinbeck’s quintessentially American text The Grapes of Wrath argues for the rights of migrant workers and the dismantling of harmful economic systems. A little-known contemporary of his, Sanora Babb, championed Okie migrants in a 1939 novel as well, Whose Names Are Unknown, but her voice has been long-overshadowed by Steinbeck’s literary prowess. Consequently, there is very little critical scholarship on Babb’s work, which is a shame. My thesis recovers her voice, in part, and puts these two texts in conversation with one another, addressing the overarching question: How might a literary and rhetorical analysis of Babb’s work challenge and complement Steinbeck’s own? Moreover, what might we learn about the field of English and American politics in doing so? Modeled on Toni Morrison’s landmark work of criticism Playing in the Dark, my thesis critically investigates canonicity and the importance of reading “with” and “against” texts. Among my findings are: the fact that Steinbeck’s text is largely allegorical and intercalary, while Babb’s is rooted in documentary realism; Steinbeck’s female characters are largely underdeveloped, but Babb’s lead the charge and are indeed the foremost protagonists; and, finally, Steinbeck’s family is entirely centered around middle aged men, yet Babb’s is more diverse, including impactful roles for the elderly and children. Placing these authors in conversation with one another produces a richer, fuller understanding of American literary identity and, as a result, highlights the crucial role literature can and should play in political advocacy and social healing in a severely fractured America.
Graphing Canonicity: A Critical Reader Reception History of John Keats Using Digital Methods
Directed by Laura Betz
Many literary scholars have created narratives of John Keats’ critical reception in an attempt to explain and document his rise to canonicity. However, there is a lack of distinction between how scholars define reception and how they define canonicity. Some critics provide a bibliography of influential essays while others cultivate a narrative for why Keats has remained a prominent author over time. The contrast among different discussions of his reception leads to claims that are not entirely supported, as they choose who the most significant Keats scholars are without standardized definitions. Utilizing emerging digital methods – namely topic modeling – it is possible to examine the critical archive afresh. Topic modeling identifies co-locating keywords probabilistically and forms them into a list with the words to which they most frequently appear in proximity, which I can then interpret. Digital tools provide the benefit of being unsupervised, and thus more representative of what has actually been the main focus in Keats’ scholarship. By analyzing the data of criticism, I can identify which topic words seem to be most influential, providing a more nuanced way of looking at Keats’ critical base and beginning to rework his current reception narratives. Whereas many scholars have cited Keats as the “poet of death” and have focused on the role of death in his works, the data suggests that “time” is in fact a more prominent theme than “death.” By refocusing scholars’ areas of interest in this way, previously unseen details of Keats’ reception and work are revealed.
“Nor Bound Thy Narrow Views to Things Below”: Dreaming as an Angle for Analyzing Crossover of Alchemical Ideals into the Enlightenment Era
Directed by Margaret Doody
Contrary to reductionist portrayals, the Enlightenment era saw astute literary writers, scientists, and philosophers actively recognized the contributions and advances of the alchemical age, actively embracing tenets of an alchemical understanding of the world in their pursuit of knowledge. A treatment of dreaming as a construct reveals the vast network of connections between alchemical understandings of the world and Enlightenment ideas. The work of Paracelsus and Margaret Cavendish in critically analyzing human beings’ conceptual understanding of their place within the universe can be seen contemplated by Newton. Acknowledgements about the boundaries of what physical science can and cannot tell us, those ideas of what we bring from the waking world into the liminal space of the dream realm and what we can bring back, these are the questions Shakespeare and Alexander Pope grapple with. Descartes and Henry More consider how the convention of the dream can be employed to solve problems, to reach conclusions about the nature of our interactions with reality and to come to a better understanding of who we are and what we believe in. To put it succinctly, analyzing dreaming as a construct invites us to a better understanding of our vantage point and relationship to the world we operate within, and whether through the scientific method or the philosophical approach thinkers have been fascinated with the contributions of the fantastic and the occult and its relationship to the truths we experience. I treat all of these thinkers and more, using Alexander Pope’s epic poem The Rape of the Lock as a grounding example of Neoclassical literature as a unifying factor with which to explore the construct of dreaming and the valuable wisdom that comes with a more holistic understanding of these two time periods. When the great partnership between the alchemical and the Enlightenment eras is properly understood, we expand our views beyond the narrow bounds that feel all too natural, gaining perspective intimately applicable to our world today.
Prufrock’s “Social Self”: A New Approach to T.S. Eliot through G.H. Mead
Directed by Romana Huk
In this cross-disciplinary thesis, I read T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), in a new and revelatory way by considering it through the lens of G. H. Mead’s social psychology of the self. I argue that Mead’s ideas on social selfhood, specifically as he outlines them in “The Social Self” (1913), enlighten a fresh understanding of the causes and effects of Prufrock’s social construction and allow us to build on the recent critical discussion of Prufrock’s social nature. My analysis goes beyond assumptions that Prufrock is a social being to show specifically how his self is socially constructed in a social psychological sense. I supplement my thesis with material from chapter VI of Eliot’s dissertation on F. H. Bradley (1916), which deals with the philosophical idea of solipsism. With Eliot’s notion of solipsism in mind, I argue that Prufrock’s solipsistic self as recognized in the critical literature aligns with, rather than contradicts, Mead’s conception of the social self. In placing Eliot and Mead into conversation with one another, I apply a methodology of contemporality that views both writers as processing ideas of selfhood in the early twentieth-century, Eliot through poetry and Mead through prose. In doing so, I establish a previously unrecognized connection between Eliot and Mead—Josiah Royce, with whom both studied at Harvard—and complete a triangulation of these three figures in literary scholarship. I argue that Eliot’s poignant expressions of Mead’s “I” and “me” of self-consciousness take on implicit and explicit forms in the poem, that Mead’s argument for the self-conscious self as “the self in the full meaning of the term” provides the basis for understanding Prufrock as a social self, and that Prufrock’s communication problems reflect the consequences of social selfhood in modernity.
Converging Values: Infinite Jest, The Great Divorce, and Service in the New Sincerity
Directed by Matthew Wilkins
Keywords: Postmodern Cultural Dominant, Anhedonia, New Sincerity Virtues, Heaven and Hell
The purpose of this thesis is to establish the apparent relationship between two seemingly unconnected works: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. Wallace, writing at the height of the postmodern cultural dominant, was influenced by emerging philosophical and sociological concepts such as Derrida’s linguistic theory of deconstruction, the development of late-stage capitalism, the merging of nation-states, and the rejection of societal grand narratives. Throughout Infinite Jest, Wallace attempts to redeem several of his characters from the supposed “anhedonia” of the postmodern condition through their learning to embrace the virtues of sincerity, authenticity in relationships, and a rich interior life. However, the success of these redemption arcs can be considered debatable. In this way, Wallace is considered to be one of the founding members of the “New Sincerity” literary movement, breaking away from its ironic predecessors. Conversely, Lewis, writing at the height of the modernist cultural dominant, wrote the mythic novella The Great Divorce, a story of a man who is able to visit both the dingy town of Hell and the vast meadow of Heaven, and discovers that a giving of oneself up to others in service may be the key to remaining in the meadow for eternity. Therefore, this thesis argues that the method from which one can leave the confines of Hell and be welcomed into Heaven within The Great Divorce is similar to that of the redemption arcs that the characters must face within Infinite Jest. The “New Sincerity” virtues that Wallace offers as meaningful in a contemporary setting, consequently, can be seen as extending towards or finding their conclusions in Lewis’s conception of service, the possible ultimate “New Sincerity” virtue. This assertion is supported by several indications that Wallace was not only aware of Lewis’s writings, but was likely influenced by them in his own works.
Coleridge and Catholicism: The Religious Context of Christabel and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Directed by Yasmin Solomonescu
In 1795, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote that “He who sees any real difference between
the Church of Rome and the Church of England possesses an optics which I do not possess—the mark of the antichrist is on both of them.” Eleven years later, Coleridge was once again a member of the Church of England, but his opinion on the Catholic Church seems to have remained relatively constant from 1795 until his death in 1834.
This project seeks to address the apparent gap between Coleridge’s views on the Catholic Church and his use of medieval Catholic settings in both The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel. I argue that Coleridge used the Catholic setting of these two poems and the theological questions he explores in them to clarify his own religious beliefs, particularly with regard to his questions about original sin. Through an interpretive lens that emphasizes the knowledge of Catholicism evident in Coleridge’s writing, I explore the implications of a reading of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in light of the Catholic sacrament of confession and Christabel in light of the Catholic understanding of concupiscence. Each of these methods sheds light on the depth of Coleridge’s conflict over the question of original sin that would not be apparent without an understanding of the nuances of religious questions Coleridge was grappling with. I conclude that despite Coleridge’s return to the Church of England, these questions appear to remain unresolved in both his prose writing and his poetry.
Narcissism vs Collectivism in Digital Communities: Investigating Social Capital Production in Social Media
Directed by Matthew Wilkins
New technology is often accompanied by concerns about the effects it has on younger generations. Time spent watching television has been linked to decreasing social capital in past studies, and the development of social media has been linked to the increase of individualistic tendencies in American youth. This study reviews the psychological literature on generational differences of narcissism, finding that, while individualistic tendencies are more common now in younger Americans, there is not a plague of narcissism causing maladaptive behaviors. Then the role of social media is investigated, whether it promotes narcissism or social capital production. To evaluate digital communities for social capital production and narcissistic symptoms, the study took text (Word count=89,175,174) from thirteen different subreddits and parsed the words using the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count dictionary (LIWC). Two peer support subreddits (rDepression and rAnxiety) had significantly higher authenticity ratings than the other subreddits, indicating genuine conversation and feedback. However, these two subreddits did not have higher rates of social concern pronouns or social words, although the other three peer support subreddit did (rOffMyChest, rRelationship_Advice, rrelationship). The subreddits designed to support people with mental illness thus do not show out-group concern like the other peer-support subreddits, but they display personal concern that is related through individual experiences. This kind of interaction on the mental illness subreddits is thus considered a beneficial instance of social capital production, since it connects individuals from different backgrounds and places them in a broader community. The linguistic data collected in this study corroborates previous findings that social media correlates to social capital (Skoric et al., 2015), at least in the instance of peer-support subreddits. Limitations of the study to provide behavioral correlates are discussed, for which another Twitter study is brought in to provide evidence of social media affecting behaviors.
The Cybernetic Literary Aesthetic in Player Piano, The Crying of Lot 49, and Galatea 2.2
Directed by Matthew Wilkins
Cybernetics is the field concerned with homeostatic control mechanisms in systems. The key focus of those control mechanisms is communication, the process of information flow, into, out of, and within the system. In this thesis, I identify a cybernetic literary aesthetic and analyze its manifestations in Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2. I provide background of the roots of cybernetics, including the relation of the field to general systems theory, information theory, and statistical mechanics, particularly drawing upon the works of Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, and Ludwig van Bertalanffy. I then subject each of the novels of interest to the cybernetic lens, such that character interpersonal relationships and relations with their environments compose a system. I identify manifestations of the cybernetic aesthetic in these novels, including cybernetic redefinition, system conflation between the realms of the human and the technological, and the identification of cybernetic tropes like feedback looping and entropy in form and content, and analyze their effects on reader interpretation. The result is a fresh perspective on extensively studied postmodern works, an increased breadth of understanding of authorial inspiration and motivations, and the recognition of new patterns in form and content that reveal insight into how these novels represent a different kind of historical and literary progression, occurring alongside evolutions in cybernetics.
Civil Disobedience in Context: The Incarceratory Texts of Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Directed by Laura Dassow Walls
Since its birth, the United States of America has been a constant experiment in progress. Though there is no “correct” way to conduct a democratic republic, the improvement of our society is the goal of public officials, political theorists, authors, and social activists. Despite the good intentions of the public sector, the American government occasionally threatens the wellbeing of its citizens. As societal experimentation invites mistakes, the government, at times, even compels citizens to harm one another, forcing them into positions of moral compromise—regardless of whether or not people are conscious of the evils that they perpetuate. In these insidious scenarios of government failure, the onus falls onto the shoulders of citizens to stand up for what is right—in direct defiance of the government that wrongs them. One strain of civilian activism, known as “civil disobedience,” enables one to resist and to draw punishment in such a way that other citizens and the government itself are awakened to the evils caused by the law. The phrase “civil disobedience” was popularized in the United States and has propelled the major moral victories of American history such as the abolition of slavery and the legislation of civil rights. This honors thesis explores the unique historical and philosophical contexts that cultivated two cases of successful civil disobedience. Specifically, I investigate the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau within antebellum-era New England, and that of Martin Luther King, Jr. within the Civil Rights-era South. I rely on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” and King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail as literary windows into their respective historical realities and philosophical ideals. At the end of this document, I consider how civil disobedience might aid the contemporary United States in advancing a public response to the issue of climate change.
Toxic Femininity in the Gothic Novel: The Influence of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman on the Trope of the Vindictive Woman
Directed by Greg Kucich
One of the prominent tropes of the Gothic genre is that of the vindictive woman, often the foil of the heroine who strives to make the life of that heroine miserable. She is, typically, the orchestrator of the harm that befalls the young hero and heroine, and her vindictiveness is frequently translated into physical and emotional violence against the protagonists. The construction of this trope often aligns directly with themes that Mary Wollstonecraft discusses in Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), particularly in terms of her warnings against raising women to place all of their value in competing with other women for husbands. In this thesis, I compare two gothic novels, The Italian by Ann Radcliffe (1797) and Zastrozzi by Percy Shelley (1810) in their respective portrayals of the vindictive woman. Radcliffe’s villainess, the Marchesa di Vivaldi, aligns with Mary Wollstonecraft’s critique of mothers who transfer their trauma upon their daughters. Shelley’s antiheroine, Matilda, serves as a cautionary tale against breeding toxic competition between women. I argue that both iterations of the vindictive woman are influenced by Wollstonecraft’s feminist philosophy, and the vastly different endings of the two novels are different aspects of Wollstonecraft’s proposed solutions to what she sees as the problem with women’s status in her contemporary society.
Publicizing the Private: Joanna Baillie’s Theater of Evolving Feminism
Directed by Greg Kucich
Theater in England has historically been understood as a masculinized space where conservative social norms and political commentary are both presented on stage and encouraged throughout the audience. Yet while strict laws were passed to preserve this patriarchal public sphere, progressive plays nevertheless slipped past the censor and were staged before hundreds of eager onlookers. Joanna Baillie, a female Scottish Romantic playwright, produced many of these revolutionary works.
This senior thesis analyzes three of Joana Baillie’s works—De Monfort (1798); The Legend of Lady Griseld Baillie (1821); and The Family Legend (1810)—to argue for the presence of a subliminal feminism within her plays. By analyzing her social commentary over the course of her career, this project proposes that Baillie’s feminism evolves from a focused critique of damaging gender systems into a much broader promotion of an inclusive history: a feminist historiography. However, this is not to say that Baillie entirely adheres to progressive sociopolitical beliefs. A significant (and seemingly incongruent) feature of her works is the presence of a conventional surface-level reading, a reading that ultimately complicates the argument in favor of Baillie’s feminism. This thesis consequently navigates the claims for and against a progressive Baillie and concludes by stating that the playwright forwards a limited (and thus more realistic) understanding of gender relations within her current society. Moreover, Baillie’s devotion to mobilizing the emotions and sympathies of the audience members who view her staged plays suggests that she participates in a career-long effort to publicize the private sphere within the masculinized realm of the theater.
Faith and Liberation: The Religious Experience in Kierkegaard and Shelley
Directed by Romana Huk
This senior thesis investigates the experience of God as portrayed by Søren Aabye Kierkegaard and Percy Bysshe Shelley with a focus on the concept of divine selflessness, or “ecstasy,” present in both of their works. This religious experience goes by different names in different esoteric traditions, and I argue that many of these traditions and thinkers are attempting to describe the same phenomenon. The interrelation between “eccentric” thinkers, such as Kierkegaard and Shelley, and esoteric traditions and “mystics,” such as Zen and Meister Eckhart, stems from their shared claim that they attempt to express just one ineffable idea that can only be understood by the individual who looks deeply inward. Further, they instruct readers and students to discover this ineffable idea for themselves by looking inward. The authors’ role in guiding them is to give them the concepts to work with, provoke them into examining themselves, and outline a path that they can follow. It is ultimately a method of liberation from what Kierkegaard and Eckhart call sin and Zen calls “dukkha.” The individual becomes liberated by experiencing ecstasy, attaining Nirvana, and seeing God with the same eye that God sees the individual. Further, this thesis argues that Kierkegaard and Shelley place the same essential importance on the notion of faith and that they both claim faith can only be present after the individual has resigned selfish interests in the world. These thinkers and traditions do not agree on everything, but they possess vital convictions in common that work toward instructing the reader on the ineffable idea.
“The Ghosts of Lovely Things”: Virginia Woolf’s Literary Ghosts as a Vehicle for Localized Transition within Social Movement
Directed by Elizabeth Evans
Although Virginia Woolf is not known for writing ghost stories, research into her personal life and diaries reveal her scholarly consideration of the supernatural. Woolf wrote two articles on Henry James’s and Dorothy Scarborough’s ghost stories, and a close analysis of Woolf’s texts reveals frequent ghostly mentions. By examining Night and Day, “A Haunted House,” Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and “Street Haunting,” I analyze how Woolf’s literary construction of the ghost becomes a space of transition in an innovative way of analyzing trajectories of social change. The ghost depicts broad progress locally through individual characters. I identify three categories of ghosts in Woolf’s texts: simple ghosts, the ghost of multiple selves, and the ghost of memory. Simple ghosts, or typical ghostly references, establish an environment of ghosts in the texts. The ghost of multiple selves occurs when selves from different time periods appear to co-exist in a temporally ambiguous space. By experiencing the hybridity of past and present states of self, characters encounter gradual transition and individually represent changes from the broader social context. The ghost of memory appears when past events are visually recalled and exist as a vision in the present, acting as a reflective tool for characters to recognize their transition and understand how change manifests in the present. In each text, the ghosts function differently depending on the types of transition presented, from the evolving role of women, overcoming fears of death, grieving in a healthy manner, or acknowledging the virtue of community. Woolf’s ghosts create a space for each individual to transition from where they are in the process of change. Additionally, I consider today’s Women’s March, arguing that Woolf’s ghost provides a model for progress that highlights individual difference without demonizing others, deconstructing the myth of universality in the contemporary women’s movement.
“In me you’have hallowed a Pagan Muse”: An Epistolary Approach to John Donne’s Petrarchism
Directed by Susannah Monta
Metaphysical poet John Donne is renowned for his lyric and religious poetry, but his verse letters are less widely read. Connections between Donne’s poetry and the poetry of Petrarch are also made in scholarly criticism. However, less well studied are the comparisons between Donne and Petrarch in regard to their epistolary work. I am making a comparative study between Donne’s verse letters to women, particularly the Countess of Bedford, and Petrarch’s body of letters, especially the one letter that he wrote to a woman, the Holy Roman Empress Anna, wife of Charles IV. In this study I analyze the effects of unrealized desire, both real and fictionalized, on male authors and their female subjects, and how power dynamics complicate the relationship between poet and object of praise in the work of both Petrarch and Donne. I first include a literature review detailing different critical responses to Donne’s responses, and outline my own middle-ground approach. I then examine the degree of Petrarchism in Donne’s verse letters through close reading and analysis in the light of three different themes: in regard to gender roles, the role of religion and idolatry, and finally poetic immortality. I connect these themes to views of intelligent and educated women in Petrarch’s and Donne’s times, and how education, wealth, and intelligence increase the power of the female patroness, while at the same time increasing poetic desire for her. In conclusion, I describe how the Petrarchism present in Donne’s verse letters asserts how Donne and Petrarch both strive for poetic immortality, and as a result achieve a high status in the literary canon.