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Narrative syncope: Affect, ethics, and fainting men in late-Victorian novels

Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
This project investigates the significance of fainting men in late-Victorian novels. While fainting is supposedly a female phenomenon related to women's fragility and emotional vulnerability, a large number of men swoon in Victorian novels. Fainting's form in these novels at the end of the century, I argue, reflects the emergence of materialist ideas about the brain and the nervous system's importance to human consciousness and subjectivity. Fainting is a physiologically affective response, one that reveals the nonconscious, automatist, and animal part of every human—including men. Swooning in novels creates what I am calling narrative syncope. As a term, syncope is used across multiple discourses. In medicine, it refers to a loss of consciousness, and in grammar and music, it defines a gap, bridge, elision, or dysrhythmia. Through narrative syncope, late-Victorian novels engage not just the representation of fainting but also its novel form. That is, fainting's affective and nonhuman character mirrors what we might call the affect of narrative form, including temporal disjunctions, shifting narrative perspectives, and gaps in linguistic meaning. While fainting men appear across Victorian literary genres and beyond, my focus in this dissertation is on three late-century novels: Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), H. G. Wells's The Time Machine (1895), and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897). Each of the fainting men (and sometimes women) in these novels is struggling with the (im)possibilities of self-representation, as novelistic form turns from realist narration and towards an alienated and fragmented literary style. These men are, as Jacques Derrida would call them, autobiographical animals, whose nonhuman bodies and narratives both subvert and create the conditions for their subjectivity. Furthermore, as the nineteenth century struggled with the moral implications of materialism and Darwinism, these late-century novels offer a way to understand ethics as an embodied imperative. That is, affectively nonhuman bodies and narratives challenge the moral status of humans, while at the same time suggesting a greater ethical demand that emerges from the uncertain species status of the body. In exploring affective ethics in these novels, I follow Derrida's conception of ethics as an impossible demand.
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Thesis advisor: Linley, Margaret
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