Date of Degree
Mary Ann Caws
David H. Richter
English Language and Literature
Eighteenth-century visual culture and literature reflect a struggle between two models of vision and understanding: on one side, an Enlightenment vision dedicated to disembodied objectivity and technical precision; on the other, a sentimental or expressive vision that produces irrational or emotional insight. If the disembodied eye can be seen as an emblem of reason and the goal of the Enlightenment approach to scientific knowledge, the spectatorial and incarnate eye represents an alternative and equally significant emblem of the period's visuality. This dissertation focuses on novels from the late Eighteenth century in which the spectatorial and incarnate eye is the dominant visual mode.
Committed to the depiction of affecting visual encounters, the novels discussed in this study—Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling, and the Marquis de Sade's Justine—construct their readers as spectators. Employing both narrative storytelling and visual spectacle in the service of representing and transmitting emotional experience, the novels pit visual apprehension against verbal communication. In Walpole's Gothic novel, truth adheres in emotional responses to visual experience, while verbal representations are revealed to be untrustworthy. In the sentimental novels of Sterne and Mackenzie, scenes of storytelling demonstrate the futility of verbal communication and representation, even as a sufferer's visible distress produces a tearful response in onlookers. In Sade's pornographic novel, Justine's efforts to make her virtue visible—in her sentimental storytelling and strategic use of tears—consistently produce physical libertinism in her audience. In all of the novels, in-text audiences model appropriate spectatorship and demonstrate the desired emotional and somatic responses. Meaning, in the novels, is inseparable from feeling.
In their exploration of irrational and emotional visual experience, the novels of narrative spectacle reject objectivity in favor of the visual apprehension of irrational truth, entertaining the possibility of unmediated expression. As they create the illusion of leaving their own ontological nature behind, so they encourage readers to leave off reading and experience the text as if he were spectator to the incidents.
Radford, Tanya, "Visible Effects: Narrative Spectacle and Affective Response in the Late Eighteenth-Century Novel" (2006). CUNY Academic Works.