Date of Degree

6-2020

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor

Alexander Schlutz

Committee Members

Nancy Yousef

Alan Vardy

Josh Wilner

Subject Categories

Comparative Literature | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | History of Philosophy | Literature in English, British Isles

Keywords

Romantic aesthetics, educational theory, Enlightenment philosophy, gothic literature, sensibility and feeling, feminist critique, literature and science

Abstract

“British Romanticism and the Paradoxes of Natural Education” offers a distinct perspective on Romantic-era ideas on “natural” education and human development. Though the Romantic retreat into nature has long been understood as a break from the Enlightenment’s programmatic commitment to the progress of reason, I contend that the ideas on natural development of four canonical Romantic authors—Mary Wollstonecraft, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Mary Shelley—actually originate in the ideas of one of the foremost figures of the Enlightenment, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Natural education is doomed to failure in Rousseau’s thought because “nature” is paradoxically a social construct. I argue that the literary texts of British Romantic writers undermine hoped-for trajectories of “natural” development and, in so doing, reconfigure the paradox that Rousseau encountered. Wordsworth and Coleridge fail to produce the “natural” ideals that they set out to promote in their poetry because gothic figures drawn from their romance reading and nightmares embody the paradoxical force of artifice and irritability within “natural” education. Whereas Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s poetic performances reveal contradictions underlying stipulated plots of “natural” human growth, Wollstonecraft and Shelley employ gothic narratives to offer a more scathing critique of the artificial social prejudices built into male authors’ concepts of “natural” education. Drawing on a variety of Enlightenment discourses, my dissertation nonetheless identifies Romantic literature as a gothic medium that resists “natural” solutions to social problems and, in so doing, speaks to us at a very different moment of environmental crisis.

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