Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Comparative Literature


John Brenkman

Committee Members

Giancarlo Lombardi

Talia Schaffer

Subject Categories

Ancient History, Greek and Roman through Late Antiquity | Arts and Humanities | Comparative Literature | Continental Philosophy | English Language and Literature | French and Francophone Language and Literature | Literature in English, British Isles


tragedy, novel, Victorian, Hardy, Eliot, Zola


Failures of Grace argues that nineteenth-century novelists challenge the hegemonies of literary form and the value of personal suffering through what I call the trans-genre tragic novel. This new form is emblematic of a period in which values hang in the balance and places traditional values at odds with themselves by combining the low form of the novel with the highest mimetic mode in the Western tradition: tragedy. It simultaneously proposes the most vulnerable members of society as tragic heroes in contrast to the noble figures who previously were presumed to define the genre.

Through close readings of works by George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Emile Zola, I argue that nineteenth-century novels in the British and French tradition that engage tragedy are not a disperse set of accidents or confusions of philosophy and theology, as critics have claimed. Expanding on what Georg Lukács calls “new tragic problems” in the novel, I examine these nineteenth-century socio-realist texts for rifts in immanent forms of meaning, from the “disappearance of god,” as J. Hillis Miller names it, to deviations of the marriage plot which feature as the search for true fellow feeling in these novels, renewing the theme of exile common to ancient tragedy.

Failures of Grace offers two counter-movements. First, I challenge George Steiner’s declaration that “there is nothing democratic in the vision of tragedy” by dismantling this elitist view and mythologies of tragedy that have dominated academic discourse. Second, I rebuild a concept of tragedy by proposing Peter Szondi’s description of it as the “road to ruin [which] ends in salvation and redemption.” Through Fredric Jameson’s reconceptualization of providence, I theorize another means of understanding fate in these novels through unhappy endings and the overlooked implication of salvation in the late nineteenth-century novel. I further draw out how the collision of values, not only of the moment but of literary and cultural tradition more broadly, is reflected in the publishing histories of these novels themselves, the complicated significance of which has yet to be recognized.

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