2007 Thesis Abstracts
Leading the Nation-State: Shakespeare’s Reflections on an Ambiguous English Polity
By Meghan Harney; director, Jesse Lander
Analysis of Shakespeare’s English history plays ultimately reveals ambivalence toward an English polity caught between monarchy and republic, between modern and medieval statehood. This ambivalence is especially seen in conflicting conceptions of leadership.
Renaissance era political theory was marked by a transformation of what it meant to be a state. This transformation had a profound effect on the development of leadership and power within polities. While medieval theories used the word state to highlight a ruler’s majesty or status, the revival of classical Roman republicanism brought about a transition from personally-grounded power to community-based power. Ultimately, a state became its own entity, tied to the authority or neither its leader nor its citizens. The shifting semantics of the state had a profound, though delayed, effect on the English commonwealth, a polity at a crossroads between the hereditary monarchy it had held for so long and a growing republican fervor. The question of England’s reaction to modern conceptions of statehood and leadership proves central to this project.
More importantly, however, is the relation of such a reaction to Shakespeare’s English history plays. Writing during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Shakespeare is placed at a time of transition in the English commonwealth. Analysis of two English history plays –Richard III and Richard II – will be grounded in the contradictory political interpretations of each play with a focus each play’s “power players.” The political conversations in these works highlight the conflicts present in contemporary debates about the English state.
Like a Man: The Postmodern Project of The Hours and Its Re-Presentation of Mrs. Dalloway’s Plight of the Androgyne
By Elizabeth Ludemann; director, Jim Collins
Michael Cunningham’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours has staked its claim as an important novel, regardless of its connections to its precursor: Virginia Woolf’s 1925 work, Mrs. Dalloway. While it is, indeed, able to stand on its own as a piece of literature, reading The Hours in relation to Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece yields a fuller and more meaningful understanding of what exactly Cunningham was trying to do. With his ability to double-code The Hours, Cunningham allows his novel to have the best of both worlds: profound popularity amongst a mass audience as well as an appreciative reception within the academic world of literary intellectuals.
The Hours is, on a very basic level, a retelling of Mrs. Dalloway, translating its plotline to different characters and time periods. More deeply, however, it is a thoroughly postmodern “re-presentation” of the whole of Virginia Woolf’s novel. There is, of course, more to Mrs. Dalloway than its plot, and thus, there is more to The Hours’s appropriation of Mrs. Dalloway than its use of plot. Cunningham takes Woolf’s ideas and expands upon them, creating a new world in which we see the interrelated nature of the writing, reading, and living of Mrs. Dalloway. This, of course, is apparent from the outset, but we must keep in mind what exactly Cunningham was doing by re-presenting Mrs. Dalloway in these ways—what does it all mean and why is it important? With his insistence upon recycling Mrs. Dallowayand its themes, Cunningham is without a doubt trying to say something, only this something may be hard to grasp. Through his expansion upon Woolf’s notion of connectivity and his focus on the theme of gender identity, Cunningham’s project undertakes the nature of progress in the plight of the androgyne and literature’s role in this evolution.
“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
Karl Marx’s early theory of the materialist conception of history explains how economic development determines the development of the ideological institutions of society which in turn determine the social consciousness of its members. This understanding of social consciousness as contingent on the economic forces at work in society is the locus point from which I try to understand the connection between economic, social and creative forces at work in the early 20th century. The guiding principle of Marx’s studies becomes the guiding principle for my exploration of the generation and the evolution of the female social consciousness and how this process is reflected in the works of the female poets Charlotte Mew, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Mina Loy.
If we believe Marx’s theory, then these poets and their poetry are necessarily a product of the social and economic systems existing in their time. By examining the work of each poet individually as well as in conversation with one another, and within the historical and social context of the early twentieth century, I seek to show how the changes in form and expression from Mew to Warner to Loy reflect the changes in their respective social consciousnesses as a consequence of the evolution of society.
A central theme of George Eliot’s Middlemarch is reform, a concern which extends to the act of writing itself, illustrated by the literal reformation of Fred Vincy’s gentleman’s hand into legible clerical writing. In Middlemarch, language itself is gendered: men are associated with writing, women with speech, but both forms are found to be problematic. Writing, as dominated by men and used for only egotistical purposes, paradoxically prevents the writer from communicating, in writing as well as speech. Writing becomes useful only as it communicates the status and rank of the writer. Women, excluded from writing by men, control oral culture, but while speech seems to offer a more natural means of communication,Middlemarch associates it with gossip and the narrow provincial viewpoint.
While many critics have found the character Will Ladislaw an inadequate companion for Dorothea, his relationship with her suggests a third form of language as a solution to the problems of written and oral communication. Artistic writing – in novels, poems – provides a desirable alternative to the earlier forms of language, by allowing one to assume another’s perspective and imagine a world beyond the constrictive mores of Middlemarch. Will, as an artist and traveler, allows Dorothea to move beyond the egotistical writing of Casaubon and the confining orality of Middlemarch. Unlike Lydgate, whose plot parallels Dorothea’s until the conclusion when he falls victim to the town’s writing and orality, Dorothea shows the potential of writing to move beyond the provincial. Will Ladislaw, whom the novel associates with art and a cosmopolitan perspective, suggests the possibility that creative uses of language can imagine a world and possibilities beyond Middlemarch.
Ambiguity of the value of commodities underscores the ambiguity of the prevailing value system in Vanity Fair. Authenticity, a core of truth within sham society, is only gestured toward, not located, in the novel. Because authenticity, either static or circumstantial, cannot be found in Vanity Fair, those who recognize the impossibility of such authenticity are most successful in navigating the Fair. Thackeray asserts that Vanity Fair is “a novel without a hero,” but he repeatedly lays claim to a heroine: Becky.
Becky Sharp understands the structure of Vanity Fair because she stands apart from it. As an orphan, situated without established family relations, Becky cannot lay claim to a place in Vanity Fair society. Hence, she must imagine herself a place in this society. In order to do so, however, Becky must understand the way that the society works, fashioning a way to insert herself into it. Her femaleness makes this insertion possible, because a woman’s place in society is inevitably created rather than assumed. In this way, the identity of women (or lack thereof) requires them to recognize the performative nature of identity. I argue that Becky’s unique lack of identity, as both orphan and woman, makes her aware of the performativity of identity, thus equipping her to be the novel’s heroine. This knowledge of performativity makes her complicit with the narrator and able to pull the strings of her fellow puppets.
Graham Greene (1904-1991) embodied a paradox: he was one of the last century’s most influential Catholic writers who was determined to never be pegged a “Catholic writer.” Greene successfully fused the entertaining and popular aspects of the thriller genre with the pressing issues of modern moral anxiety, and he infused his novels with religious and ethical concerns that are at odds with twentieth-century political frameworks. For Greene, Religious presuppositions are of ultimate concern, because salvation is at stake.
Using the writings of Roger Sharrock and Greene’s biographer, Norman Sherry, to guide my explication, I offer a close reading and examination of the themes apparent in The Power and the Glory and Monsignor Quixote. I explore the novels in order to make clear that Greene’s writing style and Catholic faith combine to bring issues of a religious politics to the fore. In these two works, Greene presents an argument that the salvation of the soul ought to be of ultimate concern to every man, woman, and child, and that it is the duty of those people who adhere to a traditional Christian faith to oppose the politics of modernity that demean the value and the importance of individual lives.
“I merely wanted Glas (Paris: Editions Galilee, 1974). That is all. But the bastards reply it is unavailable. Swine. All of them. Swine. Swine. Swine.” Zampanò, House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 novel, House of Leaves is a maze of text, hypertext, theory, and citation, twisting around the overlap of several authorial voices all struggling for control. And while this labyrinth offers many paths of interpretation, Jacques Derrida’s 1974 Glas is an Ariadne’s thread that can lead to an understanding of how both texts work question the accepted standards of communication.
Glas is a clear precursor to contemporary experimental novels likeHouse, as it places two essays in side-by-side columns that run the length of the book, each frequently disrupted by blocks of quotations and digressions. While the two essays are not clearly related, Derrida maintains the sense that they are intimately connected. Danielewski pulls a similar trick in House, weaving together at least three different texts manipulated by at least three different voices—not including his own—all of which overlap in unexpected ways. Both Glas and House are therefore built around conflicting and/or unstable voices, allowing their format to mirror the substance of their theoretical investigations.
This thesis places House in the context of the philosophical inquiries made in Glas, in which Derrida works to move outside the bounds of Western tradition. These questions include: what is the purpose of the name and the signature in the absence of authority; what is the significance of sound outside of an accepted system of language; and where can meaning be found in the absence of a recognizable structure? While Derrida uses the theories of Georg Hegel and Jean Genet to support “a text designed to exploit the capacity of writing to produce sense outside of the paradigm of community,” Danielewski tries to produce a novel that works to undermine the “paradigm of community” by using the house as a symbol of the Derridean defiance of communication. However, where Derrida comes as close as possible to cutting himself free from tradition, Danielewski relies so heavily on other texts and forms of communication—Glas being one of them—that he ends up trapped deep in their labyrinth. Danielewski’s failure to create his own Glas, despite pushing the limits of the print novel, begs the question of whether a piece of fictional prose can truly free itself from “tradition,” or if that is a challenge best taken on in the field of poetics.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet itself suggests that the attempt to discern a single, objective interpretation of the play misses the point. The play is a dramatization of countless “thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls” and is irreducibly pervaded by a profound sense of mystery. Thus, to attempt to give an objective, univocal interpretation of the significance of the play would be to “pluck out the heart” of its mystery, as Hamlet chides Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for attempting to do to him in the third act.
I argue that a univocal interpretation is impossible because within the world of the play significant reality is entirely a function of subjectivity. There is a complete breakdown between subjective and objective reality in the world of Hamlet; hence reality is only meaningful when construed subjectively. I do not argue that the play is anti-realist; truth may be univocal, but the play supports the thesis that the content of any such objective truth is, in itself, empty of significance for human beings, at least in the context of the society reflected in the play. It may glean significance only through the mediation of subjective reality. I argue that Hamlet’s famous inability to act during most of the play derives from this absolute cleavage between subjective reality and the objective world. It is not until act five that he becomes reconciled to this division through his formation of belief in Providence.
“I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man."
Anne Brontë’s refusal to reveal the gender of Acton Bell (her pseudonym) in the preface to her final novel underscores the unique view Anne had on gender. While recently it has been popular to label The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as an early feminist novel, if Anne Brontë is a feminist author, she is a very unique one. Her “feminist” tract, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, is no partisan text, but rather a call for a world in which male and female are equal.
If any equality is to occur, in Anne’s world, a woman must act with all the self-possession that a man is allowed and a man must act with all the decorum and maturity that would be expected of a woman. A person must be moral and should embrace both the feminine and masculine characteristics of their being. The individuals, regardless of gender, that can achieve both in the novel are greatly rewarded: they transcend social and gender boundaries to acquire true happiness and unity, not only with each other, but also with God.
Gender ambiguity so pervades The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that it invades multiple facets of the novel—not just the preface and the characters, but even the narrative form of the novel. And while Anne might never directly state that the novel is about illustrating a new world view, the entire work corrals the reader into recognizing her view of gender ambiguity, thereby allowing Anne to achieve her ultimate goal: to write something that is both a source of enjoyment as well as a source of truth.
It seems that no one is quite sure what in the world Wittgenstein actually thought. This is especially true when it comes to the meditation on rule-following at the heart of his last and greatest work, the Philosophical Investigations: though philosophers as diverse as Saul Kripke, Crispin Wright, and John McDowell have attempted to explicate this meditation, they have arrived at contradictory and confusing conclusions. My thesis attempts to make sense of their positions and, ultimately, Wittgenstein’s own.
I argue that Kripke’s “skeptical paradox” does not represent Wittgenstein’s own position but rather an error regarded by Wittgenstein as a philosophical temptation. As such, this paradox asks for neither a “straight” nor a “skeptical” solution; instead, it is to be best viewed as a confusion that must be defused, a question that must be unasked: Kripke’s skeptical paradox makes rule-following seem impossible only because it wrongly assumes that what it means to follow a rule must be explained in purely positive terms. Rule-following, which underlies nearly all of the activities that make up human life, can only be explained with recourse to both positivity and normativity: any account that attempts to explain rule-following by deriving normativity from positivity is doomed to failure.
That philosophers ever fell into this error in the first place, I argue, is due to a particularly modern mindset that seeks to explain the whole world in purely positive terms. While noble in its own way, this attempt radically mischaracterizes the world and cannot succeed. This mindset has strongly influenced contemporary literary theory: I argue that the attempt to subordinate texts to theories has led to the contradictions that gave rise to deconstruction, which runs in spiritual parallel to Kripke’s skeptical paradox. Instead of this subordination of text to theory, I argue for a Wittgensteinian way of looking at texts, one in which no text can ever be fully explained in terms of only one reductive theory.
“A Glimpse Through the Gateway”: The World Elsewhere in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie
By Megan Teigen; director, William Krier
Theodore Dreiser is often criticized for a lack of imagination, purportedly evidenced by his careful documentation of the economic and social minutiae of life in the city. This paper considers Dreiser’s representation of 1890s Chicago and New York in Sister Carrie in light of Richard Poirier’s concept of a “world elsewhere,” arguing against his accusation that Dreiser fails to create within his text an alternate world free of societal constraints.
Drawing from Amy Kaplan’s definition of realism and Christophe Den Tandt’s concept of the urban sublime, I argue that Dreiser’s accumulation of detail functions as a process of construction which not only recreates the city’s actual reality but also builds a world elsewhere. Carrie, to whom Dreiser grants an “emotional greatness,” senses the existence of such a world and pursues it constantly through the novel. The world remains always just beyond her reach as long as she seeks it in material terms, but, as Poirier writes, the conflict in the most interesting novels arises from the attempts of its characters to sustain an existence within the world elsewhere. Sister Carrie exemplifies this conflict because Dreiser has successfully created a world elsewhere for Carrie to pursue.