The Ethics of Materiality: Sensation, Pain, and Sympathy in Victorian Literature

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McClure, Elizabeth Ann
Cohen, William A.
Taking as my point of departure the generally accepted version of Victorian sympathy predicated on distance, imagination, and vision, I identify within Victorian literature an alternative, far more corporeal, version of sympathy predicated on immediacy, sensation, and touch. In discussing representations of bodily sensation and the ways in which such sensation functions within Victorian literature, my dissertation addresses the connections between sensation, particularly pain, and moral development by examining how psychological and emotional experience is represented in physiological terms. As a supplement to recent studies concerning vision, my dissertation focuses on touch in order to address the fundamental problems of sensory perception, materiality, and psychological experience in the Victorian period. This connection between physiological sensation and ethical development suggests a fundamental connection between corporeality and morality, an alignment that resists the totalizing equation of spirituality with morality and of materiality with sin present either implicitly or explicitly within much of Christian orthodoxy during the nineteenth century. My first chapter explores the connections and points of resistance between and among scientific and theological explanations of human existence both physical and emotional. My second chapter reinterprets Charlotte Brontë's Villette as a novel not about vision and surveillance but about touch and materiality, one which presents writing as the ideal, even sacramental, form of embodiment. My third chapter, on George Eliot's "The Lifted Veil," considers Latimer's mind-reading in relation to the vivid representations of his experiences of his own body as well as of the bodies of his companions, suggesting that clairvoyance for Latimer consists more accurately of acute sensitivity to his own bodily experience. My fourth chapter explores the consequences of symbolic and realistic representations of bodies in poetry by A. C. Swinburne and D. G. Rossetti in connection to both Christian orthodoxy and alternative moral systems. My final chapter, on H. G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau and Gerard Manley Hopkins's terrible sonnets, argues that these texts insist upon material embodiment as a necessary precondition for morality, and equate the non-materiality of a purely spiritual existence with amorality.