Year of Publication
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Arts and Sciences
Dr. Jill Rappoport
Nineteenth-Century Pets and the Politics of Touch examines texts of the era in which both humans and animals find empowerment at the point of physical encounter. I challenge contemporary perceptions of human-pet relationships as sweetly affectionate by focusing on touch. I uncover an earlier interest in the close reciprocal relationships between human and nonhuman animals, arguing that these nineteenth-century thinkers presented what I call a “politics of touch,” in which intimate and often jarring physical encounters allow for mutuality and autonomy. I first turn to Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849) and protective violence, a condoned ferocity that frequently unites and guards pet and pet keeper against unwanted amorous intrusions, while also showcasing animal agency and the possibility of deviation from the pet keeper’s wishes. Brontë’s animals simultaneously preserve and rework the traditional form of the marriage plot, allowing for powerful animal-centric possibilities. In chapter 2, I analyze the affective maternal and erotic bonds between women and their pets in Olive Schreiner’s novels. While this touch was frequently seen by both protofeminists and people antagonistic to women’s rights as a cause for disdain because affection was supposedly misplaced, it is a crucial part of Schreiner’s feminist project in that it provides forms of maternity outside of the socially mandated wifehood and motherhood that Schreiner so resents for stripping women of their autonomy. For chapter 3, I seek to complicate readings of Count Fosco, the compelling villain of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (1860), to show the disquieting sympathy that privileges odd women and animals. Heeding Count Fosco shows that valuable sympathy is not a pretty picture of a lovely woman walking with her purebred dog, but rather the excessively grotesque images of an unattractive woman holding a dying dog in her arms and mice and birds erotically clamoring over a fat man’s body. The final chapter considers the violent sympathetic touch evidenced in the practice of mercifully killing grieving dogs in Frances Power Cobbe’s animal advocacy texts. I argue that Cobbe’s schema recognizes gender fluidity as she posits a feminized animal grief marked by excess, while she concurrently masculinizes human sympathy by making it violent through mercy killings that complicate our accepted understandings of nineteenth-century sentiment.
In contrast to other scholars of nineteenth-century animal studies who look at how humans understand and treat animals, my focus on the reciprocity of human-animal touch keeps animals at the center of my analysis. I argue that nineteenth-century sympathetic and sentimental texts, often dismissed as trite or as creating distance between the sympathizing subject and object of sympathy, demonstrate theoretical and political complexity through representations of shockingly intimate touch. In doing so, Victorian writers anticipated and even transcended recent theoretical conversations in the field of feminist animal studies.
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Stevens, Valerie L., "NINETEENTH-CENTURY PETS AND THE POLITICS OF TOUCH" (2019). Theses and Dissertations--English. 96.