Forming Person: Narrative and Psychology in the Victorian Novel
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This dissertation argues that the Victorian novel created a sensory self much like that articulated by Victorian physiological psychology: a multi-centered and process-oriented body that reacts to situations and stimuli as they arise by mobilizing appropriate cognitive and nervous functions. By reading Victorian fiction alongside psychology as it was developing into a distinct scientific discipline (during the 1840s-70s), this project addresses broader interdisciplinary questions about how the interaction between literature and science in the nineteenth century provided new ways of understanding human consciousness. I show that narrative engagements with psychology in the novel form made it possible for readers to understand the modern person as productively rather than pathologically heterogeneous. To accomplish this, fiction offered author and reader an experimental form for engaging ideas posed and debated concurrently in science.
The novels I read - by authors including Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and George Eliot - emerge as narrative testing grounds for constructions of subjectivity and personhood unavailable to scientific discourse. I attribute the novel's ability to create a sensory self to its formal tactics, from composites of multiple first-person accounts to strange juxtapositions of omniscience and subjectivity, from gaps and shifts in narrative to the extended form-in-process of the serial novel. My side-by-side readings of scientific and literary experiments make it clear that fiction is where we find the most innovative methods of investigation into embodied forms of human experience.
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