The impulse to tell and to know: the rhetoric and ethics of sympathy in the Nineteenth-century British novel.

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Kristen Anne Pond (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Mary Ellis Gibson

Abstract: My dissertation examines how some nineteenth-century British novels offer a critique of the dominant narrative of sympathy by suggesting that the most ethical encounter will preserve distance between self and other while retaining the ability to exchange sympathy in the face of difference. This distance prevents the problem of assimilation, the unethical practice of turning the other into the same that was a common way of performing sympathy in nineteenth century Britain. I propose that these critiques are best identified through a reading practice that utilizes discourse systems; the discourse systems I include are gossip, gazing, silence, and laughter. In the texts examined here (including Harriet Martineau's Deerbrook (1839), Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford (1851), George Eliot's Silas Marner (1861) and Daniel Deronda (1876), Charlotte Brontë's Villette (1853), and William Thackeray's Vanity Fair (1848)) one encounters each of the elements listed above as more than just plot devices or character markers. For example, gossip occurs in Martineau's and Gaskell's texts as a communicative act used by characters, as a rhetorical device used by narrators, and as a narrative technique used by the authors. The cumulative effect of gossip's engagement with social relations thus critiques unethical uses of sympathy and illustrates more ethical encounters between self and other, challenging, in some cases, the limits of sympathy as a technique for approaching difference.

I elucidate these literary revisions of sympathy by reading them in relation to changes characterizing British society in the Victorian period. During the years from 1830-1870, British life was marked by sweeping technological changes (railroads, printing), paradigm shifts (higher criticism, Darwinism, middle class moral code), and the climax of British imperialism. Writers responding to these tumultuous changes to the structure of nineteenth-century society used sympathy to undermine us/them categories that created unnecessary differences and to reveal the ability to sympathize when faced with difference. However, these texts also reveal ambivalence over sympathy: its reliance on identification and therefore the possible limits to sympathy's ability to negotiate difference. This ambivalence either restricts the extent to which these writers revise the model for using sympathy, or, when pushed passed the limits, revise not only social relationships but also the form of the novel itself. This project thus refocuses realism in the nineteenth century as a form concerned with relationships and not just representations.

These authors' treatments of sympathy led to the radical reformation of certain narrative techniques so that the distances modeled through character exchanges of sympathy are emulated in the text itself through narrative gaps. As difference requires characters to revise how they engage with the other, so too must readers revise their reading practices. The novelists addressed in this study attempted to form a different kind of reader in the nineteenth century, one who would not easily elide the difference between self and other by immediately identifying with characters or narrators, and who would understand the import and rhetorical effect of elements (gossip, gazing, silence, laughter) usually disregarded as trivial at best or innately unethical at worst. Such thematic treatments of sympathy necessarily lead to a different understanding of sympathy's trajectory in the nineteenth century as well as in our own time. These authors' unconventional use of gossip, gazing, silence, and laughter asks that we reconsider how these elements can play vital roles in the negotiation of identity and the interactions between self and other, broadening the scope of discourses that define an ethical encounter.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2010
Discourse, Realism, Sympathy
English literature $y 19th century $x Criticism and interpretation.
Sympathy in literature.
Realism in literature.
Martineau, Harriet, $d 1802-1876.
Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn, $d 1810-1865.
Eliot, George $d 1819-1880.
Bronte¨, Charlotte, $d 1816-1855.
Thackeray, William Makepeace, $d 1811-1863.

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