Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Mary Ann Caws

Committee Members

Talia Schaffer

Richard Kaye

Joan Richardson

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature | Literature in English, British Isles


Selfhood, British Novel, Psychoanalytivc Theory, Aesthetics, Charlotte Bronte, Henry James, Virginia Woolf


In her essay “On Being Ill” (1926), Virginia Woolf writes “We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others…There is a virgin forest in each; a snowfield where even the print of birds' feet is unknown.” My dissertation explores how the novel’s attempts to represent this inherently intimate and estranging “virgin forest” also test its formal limitations. From free indirect discourse to stream of consciousness, the development of the novel is marked by different modes of reproducing inner life that push beyond the boundaries of historical, social, and physiognomic indices. I argue that these narrative and stylistic means to comprehend this paradoxical aspect of inner life offer an understanding of selfhood as aesthetic process. I use the term “radical interiority” to demarcate the ways that selfhood’s incoherence and enigmas eventuate discursive plenitude: Woolf’s snowfield as a stage for active interior relations in tension with the bounds of language. My work explores this space by connecting the aesthetic and the psychic: tying Roland Barthes’ desire “to open the field of meaning totally, that is infinitely” to the psychoanalytic theories that have emerged after Freud and Lacan. Drawing on the ideas of Melanie Klein and others who see psychic life and its relation to the world as predicating a creative act, my dissertation asserts how the representation of these mobile and aesthetic interior forces destabilize socially- and historically-constructed subject positions. The novels in my study register the processes of understanding the potentiality and limitations of self-consciousness through varied experiments with formal rupture, metatextuality, narratological ambiguity, and poetic language in conflict with positivist constructions of inner life.

Using Charlotte Brontë, Henry James, and Woolf as case studies, my work identifies radical interiority in British novels of different periods—the Gothic underpinnings of the mid-Victorian marriage plot, the psychological verisimilitude of late nineteenth-century realism, and the visionary simultaneity of twentieth-century modernism. The novels in my study—Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Villette (1853), James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and The Wings of the Dove (1902), and Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922) and The Waves (1931)—represent the relationship between inner and external life through highly aestheticized forms and practices; in this way, they can render the psychology of particular characters unique and irreproducible. In texts that interrogate the novel’s capacity to replicate a boundless inner life, these authors trace expanded affective networks found in the constant introspective “re-visioning” of the self. I locate the access to radical interiority in moments of formal and narrative rupture and incoherence, where poetic languages of vision and metaphor derail the stability of both chronology and characterization.