Year of Publication
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Arts and Sciences
Dr. Jonathan Allison
With the dawning of the twentieth century, writers and critics found themselves facing a social world undergoing massive change, the forces of capitalist modernity leaving the individual increasingly disaffected and disconnected from her surroundings. This social world, rent as it was by alienation, offered a hostile environment for the sort of coherence that had traditionally been prized by Western aesthetics since the Enlightenment. How could a literary work attain a degree of coherence while reflecting a deeply dissonant modernity? Navigating this contradiction between literature’s inherited values and literature’s possibilities in alienated society can be seen as central to the project of literary modernism that emerges at this time.
The uncanny, the experience of something appearing at once strange yet somehow familiar, offers a means by which these conflicting demands of coherence and relevance can be managed. Forwarding a theory of the uncanny that emphasizes its ability to bridge, if momentarily, the disconnect between a subject and her world while not hiding the reality of this disconnect, my dissertation seeks to place the uncanny at the center of our structural understanding of pivotal modernist texts. By employing the experience of the uncanny at crucial moments in the text, the work is able to achieve a coherence between a character’s psyche and their material surroundings otherwise difficult to come by when describing a social life often devoid of this coherence. Modernism’s innovation is to allot the uncanny the structural role of joining disparate elements of the text together; it is not that modernist works are more uncanny than that which came before, but more reliant on the uncanny on a structural level.
In support of this theory of the uncanny’s role in modernism, I look at the works of two of modernism’s canonical writers: D.H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield. In my chapter on Lawrence, I begin with a reading of his posthumous novella The Virgin and the Gipsy, a work that relies heavily on the uncanny as a structural support, before looking back to one of the earlier Brangwen novels, The Rainbow, to discern how those novels prefigure a deeper embrace of the uncanny as a means of dealing with problems facing the modern novel. In my chapter on Mansfield, I trace the evolution of her short stories from her first published collection, 1911’s In a German Pension, though her later works, Bliss and Other Stories and The Garden Party and Other Stories. In these later collections, there is seen a movement toward a more uncanny short story, a movement which can be understood as an attempt to deal with the problem of depicting alienated characters while still bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion, a problem which bedeviled many of the stories in her early collection. Mansfield is thus seen as, over the course of her career, tending toward the uncanny as a way of reconciling content and form within her stories.
In this dissertation, I see the first step toward a longer, book-length study of the uncanny as central to the development of twentieth century literature, the changing role of the former reflecting changing pressures on the latter as modernism gives way to postmodernism.
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Reffett, Delmar R. Jr., "Waking Sleep: The Uncanny in Modernist Literary Aesthetics" (2020). Theses and Dissertations--English. 105.