Theses Doctoral

Luminous Pasts: Artificial Light and the Novel, 1770-1930

Gibson, Lindsay Gail

Over the course of the nineteenth century, gaslight supplanted the candles and oil lamps that had brightened Europe and America for centuries, and, by 1900, electricity would attain decisive dominance over both. In their narrative figurations of lighting, however, novels of the same period often arrest this march of progress, lingering in an Arcadian past organized around the rhythms of the solar day and the agricultural year. Mining works by Frances Burney, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Marcel Proust, and others, my dissertation argues that novelists employ obsolete lighting technologies not merely to provide historical texture, but to express narrative impulses that run counter to the realist mode, to dramatize transgressive forms of ambition within the rural communities they depict, and sometimes even to voice ambivalence about the commercial constraints of the serial form. Characters in these novels who avail themselves of artificial illumination alter the rhythm of the workday in order to satisfy desires inconsistent with the interests and pursuits sanctioned by their neighbors: by the light of lamps and candles, they pursue cross-class romance, literary aspirations, or professional goals that fall outside the parameters dictated by social class and the historical moment. For Proust’s narrator, this entails a series of adjustments to his evening schedule over the course of the Recherche, first to accommodate an aristocratic social calendar, and, later, to facilitate the nocturnal composition of his own novel. In Eliot’s case, the inclination to stay awake after nightfall—whether the illicit romantic fantasies of a Hetty Sorrel or the workmanlike resolve of an Adam Bede—constitutes a meaningful challenge to the author’s narrative realism. By examining the formal innovations these technologies provoke in nineteenth-century fiction, my research unearths a pervasive counter-realist tendency in novels often famed for their fidelity to the protocols of realist representation.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Davidson, Jenny M.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 29, 2016