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Truth and Conjecture: Forms of Detection in Eighteenth-Century British Fiction

Sahni, Rashmi

This study tracks tensions between different modes of knowledge in a body of eighteenth-century fictions centered around themes of detection and punishment of crimes, exemplary among which are Aphra Behn’s The History of the Nun (1689), Daniel Defoe’s Roxana (1724), Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748), Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), and William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794). Focusing on crimes as varied as forgery, rape, and murder, this set of fictions raises important questions about eighteenth-century narrative techniques and formal elements. For example, why is the narrator of Aphra Behn’s The History of the Nun at once omniscient and limited? Why does the ending of Defoe’s Roxana seem abrupt and inconclusive? Critics struggle to find satisfactory answers to these questions because they often read intrusive narrators, abrupt conclusions, and disconcerting tonal shifts as stylistic faults or as ineptitude at realistic narration. I argue that formal peculiarities of eighteenth-century fiction about criminal investigation are in fact revealing narrative symptoms of an attempt to resolve conflicts between competing theories of knowledge rooted in theology, empirical philosophy, probabilistic reasoning, and other modes of understanding.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Davidson, Jenny M.
Degree
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
September 11, 2015
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