Degree Granting Department
Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Epistemology, Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater
"Of That Transfigured World" identifies a generally unremarked upon mode of nineteenth-century literature that intermingles realism and fantasy in order to address epistemological problems. I contend that works of Charles Dickens, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde maintain a realist core overlaid by fantastic elements that come from the language used to characterize the core narrative or from metatexts or paratexts (such as stories that characters tell). The fantastic in this way becomes a mode of interpretation in texts concerned with the problems of representation and the ability of literature to produce knowledge. Paradoxically, each of these authors relies on the fantastic in order to reach the kinds of meaning nineteenth-century realism strives for.
My critical framework is derived from the two interrelated discourses of sacred space theology and cultural geography, focusing primarily on the terms topos and chora which I figure as parallel to realism and fantasy. These terms, gleaned from Aristotle and Plato, function to express two interweaving concepts of space that together construct our sense of place. Topos, as defined by Belden C. Lane, refers to "a mere location, a measurable, quantifiable point, neutral and indifferent" whereas chora refers to place as "an energizing force, suggestive to the imagination, drawing intimate connections to everything else in our lives." In the narratives I examine, meaning is constructed via the fantastic interpretations (chora) of realistically portrayed events (topos). The writers I engage with use this dynamic to strategically address pressing epistemological concerns relating to the purpose of art and its relationship to truth.
My dissertation examines the works of Dickens, the Brontës, Pater, and Wilde through the lens of this conceptual framework, focusing on how the language that each of these writers uses overlays chora on top of topos. In essence each of these writers uses imaginative language to transfigure the worlds they describe for specific purposes. For Dickens these fantastic hermeneutics allow him to transfigure world into one where the "familiar" becomes "romantic," where moral connections are clear, and which encourages the moral imagination necessary for empathy to take root. Charlotte and Emily Brontës's transfigurations highlight the subjectivity inherent in representation. For Pater, that transfigured world is aesthetic experience and the way our understanding of the "actual world" of topos is shaped by it. Oscar Wilde's transfigured world is by far the most radical, for in the end that transfigured world ceases to be artificial, as Wilde disrupts the separation between reality and artifice.
"Of That Transfigured World" argues for a closer understanding of the hermeneutic and epistemological workings of several major British authors. My dissertation offers a paradigm through which to view these writers that connects them to the on-going Victorian discourses of realism while also pointing to the critical sophistication of their positions in seeking to relate truth to art. My identification of the tensions between what I term topos and chora in these works illuminates the relationship between the creation of meaning and the hermeneutics used to direct the reader to that particular meaning. It further points to the important, yet sometimes troubling, role that imagination plays in the epistemologies at the center of that crowning Victorian achievement, the Realist novel.
Scholar Commons Citation
Wright, Benjamin Jude, ""Of That Transfigured World" : Realism and Fantasy in Victorian Literature" (2013). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.