Figures of Catastrophe: Tragedy, Law, and Lateness in Victorian Realism

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This dissertation examines the historical and cultural significance of the connections that the Victorians drew between catastrophe and figuration. Arising from the classical discourse of drama, catastrophe used to mean the end of a story. In the Victorian era, it acquired the meaning that we ascribe to it today. George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and Oscar Wilde wrote catastrophic stories in which they produced several different philosophical meditations on the temporal experience of catastrophe. Figuration was the privileged site for these meditations because figural language itself possesses an ability to structure the time of reading¬¬. The figures that this dissertation studies–tragedy, law, and lateness–submit themselves to figural interpretation, that venerable method for comprehending reality, where they suggest multiple contrasting ways of inhabiting the time of catastrophe. The procedure of figural interpretation which, by rights, should lead to comprehension, turns into a scene of a missed encounter between figural language and the catastrophe of which it speaks. In staging this missed encounter, the narratives of Eliot, Hardy, and Wilde vitiate any straightforward understanding of the experience of catastrophe or the philosophical problems that such an experience poses. In place of understanding, these stories suggest the possibility of a renewed competence in the attempt to speak of a phenomenon that exceeds the boundaries of language.

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272 pages


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catastrophe; figuration; lateness; law; tragedy; Victorian literature


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Hanson, Ellis

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Levine, Caroline Elizabeth
Chase, Cynthia
Caruth, Cathy

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English Language and Literature

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Ph. D., English Language and Literature

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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dissertation or thesis

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