The suspension of (dis)belief: Novel and Bible in Victorian society

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Patricia Cox Miller

Second Advisor

Linda M. Shires


Novel, Bible, Victorian, Gaskell, Elizabeth, Bronte, Charlotte, Eliot, George, Hardy, Thomas

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature


In The Suspension of (Dis)Belief: Novel and Bible in Victorian Society, I explore one of Victorian culture's key ideological paradoxes: on the one hand, the belief that the Bible at the core of English Christianity spoke with a unified and authoritative voice, and on the other, the fact that it actually was a heterogeneous text, full of internal tensions, frequently self-critical and occasionally self-deconstructive. I demonstrate the consequences of this paradox in four Victorian novels that make heavy use of biblical quotation, Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848), Charlotte Brontë's Villette (1853), George Eliot's Adam Bede (1859), and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891)--novels that challenge the biblical text, revitalize it, and profit formally from its contested meanings all at once. Placing these novelists' use of biblical quotation in historical context with contemporary evidence as diverse as radical tracts, Anglican sermons, literary reviews, personal letters, social treatises, and essays on biblical criticism and theology, I challenge the standard account of a gradual and linear waning of the Bible's authority during the Victorian period by demonstrating how novelists appropriated, critiqued, subverted, and transformed the Bible for diverse social, artistic, and even religious purposes. My research expands our awareness of the ways scripture functioned as cultural power in the nineteenth century, and it complicates our understanding of the Victorian "crisis of faith" and the evolution of the English novel.


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