Graduation Year

2014

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Ph.D.

Degree Granting Department

English

Major Professor

Marty Gould

Co-Major Professor

Pat Rogers

Abstract

Abstract

My dissertation seeks to bring aesthetics into conversation with the epistemological concerns of three Victorian texts, in response to the prevalence of beautiful feminine faces and bodies in Victorian texts, their presence amplified through the use of copious description. I examines the ways that Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Browning complicate traditional contemporary assumptions regarding behaviors and moralities through their constructions of feminine beauty. These writers challenge and dispute a variety of Victorian social norms imposed upon both men and women, most notably the mandate to adhere to prescribed behaviors that codify in order to regulate gender normativity.

My project begins with a historical review cataloging beauty's constructions and uses. Then, in Chapter two, I argue that Thomas Hardy elevates imperfect women through descriptions of their natural beauty in order to question and reject popular constructions of proper femininity. Chapter Three transitions from presentations of subversive feminine beauty offering a fairly straightforward disputation of contemporary values in Hardy, to shedding gender constraints in Oscar Wilde, as the author disputes gender rigidity by crafting beautiful men with "feminine" desires and by reassessing the desirability of women. Finally, Chapter Four notes the ways that Robert Browning artistically subverts Victorian literary conventions by rejecting the typical practice of objectifying women by his near-total absence of descriptions of female features, and by placing his emphasis on the spiritual life of his heroines.

My dissertation observes that given that beautiful images are so powerful, they could and did (as they still can and do) serve as a means of social control, and never more so than in Victorian England, when details use, particularly in the construction of feminine bodies, so consistently and pervasively worked to exclude healthy female sexuality, to scorn and shame deviant masculinities, and to annihilate the feminine body.

Ultimately, though, the crux of my project is to detour away from traditional observations regarding the potential for objectification beauty allows, and to engage with Foucault's idea of a "reverse-discourse" which employs "the same vocabulary, using the same categories" as the dominant discourse. The central argument of my dissertation is that certain Victorian writers produced subversive texts which appropriated recognizable constructions of physical beauty in order to transform their societies toward a more just, more liberal, more compassionate morality.

With each of the three texts I examine, I work toward establishing that claim by situating the text within its historical and cultural context within the long nineteenth century. I also pay attention to how these writers engage and instruct the reader. This is integral to my central argument because if literary narratives offer the mode of transformation aimed at improving societies, then the act of reading, and the actor, the reader, must be the primary recipient of the message that the constructed beautiful body holds.

I have worked to illustrate the ways that by constructing characters possessing great physical beauty, and displaying or withholding descriptions of the crafted body, Victorian writers challenged, disputed, and supplanted a variety of nineteenth-century social norms. I claim and then support that beautiful characters functioned within literature as persuasive agents of change, subverting social norms by arousing and then inverting conventional associations between beauty and goodness.

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