Mute Eloquence: Politics of Silence in French Enlightenment Literature

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This dissertation interrogates the political force of silence in the fictional and philosophical writings of Montesquieu, Diderot, Rousseau, and Staël around the profound moment of change of the Enlightenment, revealing a mute eloquence at the core of both language and the law. Exploring a range of mute spaces such as the seraglio, the convent, the patriarchal family, and the prison, it demonstrates how the fictional women confined within these settings co-opt silence to achieve newfound autonomy in their esprit, and in the struggle against despotism. While silence, on the one hand, may signify oppression, this project elucidates how it also operates at different levels: as a politically emancipatory expression of the passions conveyed by the epistolary form in Montesquieu; by way of the body and its gestures, and through a pacte tacite that enunciates political desire in Diderot’s philosophical dialogue and fiction; within language and friendship in Rousseau, as well as in his notion of the general will; and as a form of cosmopolitan enthusiasm inspired by nature, poetry, music, and exile in Staël. Silence permeates the various symbolic spaces of this study, while also operating at a rhetorical and a political level that is leveraged by the authors in numerous ways to reveal sites of disenfranchisement and injustice. Although each chapter examines different forms or modalities of silence, central threads that connect them are the positive potential for channeling passion into new political occupations and possibilities, the enduring challenge to combat androcentric political systems, and emerging alternatives to despotic forms of governance. Ineffability is transformed into a mode of agency, with revolutionary impact in both political discourse and the demos.

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French literature


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McNulty, Tracy K.

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Frank, Jason
Saccamano, Neil Charles
Greenberg, Mitchell D.

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Romance Studies

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Ph.D., Romance Studies

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Doctor of Philosophy

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dissertation or thesis

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