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Fictions of Life and Death in Wilde, Gide, Strachey, and Woolf

Branson, Scott Justin (2011)
Dissertation (254 pages)
Committee Chair / Thesis Adviser: Robbins, Jill
Committee Members: Caruth, Cathy ; Felman, Shoshana ; Rabaté, Jean-Michel (UPenn);
Research Fields: Literature, Comparative; Literature, English; Literature, Modern
Keywords: Aestheticism; Modernism; novel; narrative theory; queer theory; British literature; French literature; Decadence; life-writing; psychoanalysis; Bloomsbury; aesthetics;
Program: Laney Graduate School, Comparative Literature
Permanent url: http://pid.emory.edu/ark:/25593/b4fh1

Abstract

Fictions of Life and Death reconstructs the legacy of Aestheticism by tracing its self-destructive formal imperative into Modernist experiments in the novel. Beneath Oscar Wilde's claim that life imitates art, I argue, there is a wish to confront death that simultaneously provides a critique of traditional narrative form and motivates a new idea of how fiction enables us to understand life. Wilde's literary legacy has often been overlooked in favor of the looming shadow his life and personality cast over the fin-de-siècle. However, in the aftermath of Wilde's tragic downfall, writers like André Gide, Lytton Strachey, and Virginia Woolf continued his work by using the form of the novel to explore the desire for death. These Modernists take up the radical aesthetics Wilde dramatizes in The Picture of Dorian Gray by reinventing the novel as a genre in which the Bildungsroman disintegrates into splintering plotlines and reflexive literary moments.

Drawing on queer theory's recent reevaluation of the political potential Aestheticism has to disrupt identity, I uphold the Aesthetic emphasis on momentary pleasure to counteract the understanding of life as a linear narrative from beginning to end. The aesthetic novel alters our understanding of life and death by overlaying anticipation and retrospection in order to expose narrative's promises of stable meaning as dependent on fleeting time. My project counters the recent emphasis on mourning in Modernist Studies by highlighting the novel's relation to death as desire. At the same time, this view replaces a redemptive aesthetic with one of dissipation.

Chapter one examines Wilde's alteration of the time of the novel in the form of a paradox as he figures death as retroaction. Chapter two looks at Gide's approach to death as an empty point of representation, where the comprehension of the world promised by realism meets a destructive desire for the unexplainable. Chapter three uncovers Strachey's biographical principle of death as repetition that fits individual existence into historical patterns. Finally, chapter four explores Woolf's model of death as communication, an impersonal narrative procedure that builds and disperses the contours of self, plot, and meaning.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Acknowledgements

I. Introduction...1

II. The Novel's Paradox: Time and Death in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray...22

III. Gide, Death and the Unexplainable End of the Novel...76

IV. Lytton Strachey and Biography as Learning How to Die...137

V. Death as Communication: Narrative Desire in Mrs. Dalloway...202

Works Cited...235

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