Title

READING BODIES: ASSOCIATIONISM, EMPATHY, AND THE ETHICS OF SENSATION IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY FICTION

Date of Award

January 2015

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

Advisor(s)

Claudia C. Klaver

Keywords

Affect, History of the Book, Sensation, Victorian

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities

Abstract

This dissertation explores the intersection between scientific knowledge about the body and literature's capacity to cultivate empathy. To construct this history, I bring together selections from nineteenth-century fiction-particularly those texts written to inspire strong feelings in their readers-and the dominant nineteenth-century scientific theory of cognition and feeling, Associationism. These fictional texts use key concepts from Associationism to construct an ethics of reading, which they then attempt to teach their readers. Through attention to form and publication history, I investigate the ways in which Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Walter Besant use Associationism to understand the physiological effects their texts have on readers, and how those effects might make readers more ethical people. The connection between science, ethics, and reading in the nineteenth-century required assumptions about gender and the capacity to read bodies: that women are more emotional, more ethical, and should more readily give up their agency to stabilize society. I conclude with a cautionary reading that locates these nineteenth-century discourses of science, ethics, and social improvement in twenty-first century articles on cognitive science and affect theory.

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