Theses Doctoral

In the Mind's Eye: Associationism and Style in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel

Aschkenes, Deborah

In the Mind's Eye: Associationism and Style in the Nineteenth-Century British Novel argues that the British novel, in its syntactic, grammatical, and rhetorical strategies, incorporated associationist premises about reading comprehension. Associationism, as a term, encapsulates a series of theories during the period that attempted to explain the ways in which external stimuli were "represented" in the mind and linked with other ideas. Inquiries into the association of ideas spanned numerous fields but shared a core belief: everything an individual touched, saw, smelled, or read, was translated into a secondary representation in the mind. Since all objects--whether a phrase, a misty moor, or a character's face--were thought to be experienced through mental "miniatures," the association of ideas was the mechanism of the reading experience and of phenomenal experience. Associationist theories delineated how words evoked images, and the ways in which these images became linked to form holistic ideas in the course of a sentence, a paragraph, and throughout a work of fiction.
In this project, I show how four canonical nineteenth-century authors--Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot--created prose styles intended to evoke, enhance, or even resist the spontaneous associative mechanisms considered essential to the comprehension of language. In order to trace the contours of an associative stylistics during the period, I pair each author with associationist theories contemporary with their fiction. In Chapter One, I demonstrate how Jane Austen's techniques in Persuasion, Northanger Abbey, and Sense and Sensibility incorporated the tenets of the dominant model of associationism in Austen's day: those of David Hartley. Austen's mode of representation is highly metonymic, capitalizing on of principles of language comprehension proposed in Hartley's work. The great degree of stylistic control so often attributed to Austen's prose is inextricably rooted with the Hartleyan paradigm: a strategy of representation to depict a social world and its objects according to an associationist epistemology. In Chapter Two, I read Sir Walter Scott's Waverley with the theories of his teacher Dugald Stewart. Walter Scott studied with Dugald Stewart at the University of Edinburgh and in Stewart's Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind, Stewart develops literary-aesthetic guidelines based on the mental models posited in his work. Stewart recommends that a writer delineate in the form of an "outline," a "minimum" required for the reader to comprehend a represented object. Stewart's theories about language cognition and literary technique, I argue, provide guidelines for Scott's development of his own style of literary outline. In Chapter Three, I unfold how Charles Dickens's style in David Copperfield draws on the associative principles in Lindley Murray's English Grammar. In Murray's Grammar, the sentence is a unit of cognition: a precise capsule in which our thoughts are both formed and transmitted. Grammar is an external representation of links between thoughts: the association of ideas in its most tangible form. In Chapter Four, I show that George Eliot integrates a number of discourses about the human mind into her style, with the goal of developing a technique to manage the spontaneous actions of mental associations. The work of James Mill, John Stuart Mill, and Alexander Bain influenced Eliot's view of associationist psychology, and Eliot, in turn, develops her own associative theories of language in her essays and journals. Eliot's associative model of reading incorporates principles of chemistry. Elaboration, a term important to both literary and scientific discourse, provided Eliot with a syntactic style closely aligned with the structure of associative links. More importantly, elaboration afforded Eliot a strategy of cognitive delay; a stylistics intended to subvert the spontaneous action of the mind. By providing "raw materials" for the reader in the form of concrete nouns, and elaborating with a series of extended prepositional phrases, Eliot demands that the reader slow down the automatic action of association and redraw the mental picture.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Dames, Nicholas J.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 7, 2015