Humankindness: Illness, Animality, and the Limits of the Human in the Victorian Novel

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This project posits a link between representations of animals or animality and representations of illness in the Victorian novel, and examines the narrative uses and ideological consequences of such representations. Figurations of animality and illness in Victorian fiction have been examined extensively as distinct phenomena, but examining their connection allows for a more complex view of the role of sympathy in the Victorian novel. The commonplace in novel criticism is that Victorian authors, whether effectively or not, constructed their novels with a view to the expansion of sympathy. This dissertation intervenes in the discussion of the Victorian novel as a vehicle for sympathy by positing that texts and scenes in which representations of illness and animality are conjoined reveal where the novel draws the boundaries of the human, and the often surprising limits it sets on sympathetic feeling. In such moments, textual cues train or direct readerly sympathies in ways that suggest a particular definition of the human, but that direction of sympathy is not always towards an enlarged sympathy, or an enlarged definition of the human. There is an equally (and increasingly) powerful antipathetic impulse in many of these texts, which estranges readerly sympathy from putatively deviant, degenerate, or dangerous groups.

These two opposing impulses—the sympathetic and the antipathetic—often coexist in the same novel or even the same scene, creating an ideological and affective friction, and both draw on the same tropes of illness and animality. Examining the intersection of these different discourses—sympathy, illness, and animality-- in these novels reveals the way that major Victorian debates about human nature, evolution and degeneration, and moral responsibility shaped the novels of the era as vehicles for both antipathy and sympathy. Focusing on the novels of the Brontës and Thomas Hardy, this dissertation examines in depth the interconnected ways that representations of animals and animality and representations of illness function in the Victorian novel, as they allow authors to explore or redefine the boundary between the human and the non-human, the boundary between sympathy and antipathy, and the limits of sympathy itself.