Theses Doctoral

Unfeeling Empire: The Realist Novel in Imperial Britain

Glovinsky, Will

This dissertation considers the role of affective management in realist aesthetics and British imperial culture. Drawing on formalist analyses of English novels, nineteenth-century theories of emotion, and postcolonial accounts that identify the colonizer’s affective desensitization as the ground from which ongoing violence can be perpetrated, this study explores how domestic English novels developed new techniques for deflating the heightened feelings surrounding empire and distant intimacy. Through satires of sensibility, the replacement of epistolary style with impersonal omniscience, and newly dispassionate presentations of villains and protagonists alike, realist novelists explored affective restraint as at once a generic characteristic and an increasingly central element of British imperial and racial identities. This dissertation therefore argues, through readings of works by Jane Austen, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, and Joseph Conrad, for the deep influence of imperial culture on the realist novel’s distinguishing formal features. At the same time, it prompts critics to revisit longstanding accounts of the relationship between the novel and sympathy. Since the Victorian era, critics have readily understood the realist novel as concerned with the expansion of readers’ sympathies: this study reframes this important account by examining how the insistence on sympathy in novels often rerouted more turbulent reactions to empire’s dislocations—such as longing, desire for vengeance, and guilt—into cooler, more tractable feelings.

Geographic Areas


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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
March 22, 2021