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  • 2018murenzhangphd

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Neo-Victorianism and empathy: time, affect, and the ethics of reading

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

  • Muren Zhang
Publication date2018
Number of pages266
Awarding Institution
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This thesis argues that recent cultural-theoretical research on narrative temporality, empathy and affect can be usefully brought to bear upon one other in order to interrogate the ethics of reading neo-Victorian literature. I present neo-Victorian literature as a genre defined by its contemporary exploitation of, and experimentation with, ‘empathetic narrative’ (Sylvia Adamson, 2001) and, in contrast with the historical preoccupation of much neo-Victorian criticism, focus instead on what is distinctive about the ways in which readers of these texts are positioned. In so doing, I open the texts up to the work of a wide range of literary, cultural, philosophical and psychoanalytic theorists including Lauren Berlant, Amy Coplan, Mark Currie, Marshall W. Gregory, Suzanne Keen, Melanie Klein, Jean-Paul Sartre, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Silvan Tomkins. In contrast to the popular understanding of neoVictorianism as a genre that seeks to explore the afterlife of the Victorians, my focus is on the wide-ranging ethical and political implications of its ‘empathetic narrative’, both with respect to the representation of intra-diegetic characters and the text-reader relationship. The authors I use to explore these ideas include Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Michael Cox, Jane Harris and Sarah Waters whose texts complicate and unsettle reader-pleasure by making empathy into an uncomfortable and ethically challenging experience. Despite these discomforts, the thesis combines empathy studies, ethical criticism, affect studies and the philosophical interrogation of temporality in order to provide a future-orientated, reparative and politically meaningful way of reading neo-Victorian literature. Each chapter brings in an approach to empathy from disciplines as various as psychology (Heinz Kohut), phenomenology (Edmund Husserl, Edith Stein and Dan Zahavi) and aesthetics (Robert Vischer, Harry Francis Mallgrave and Eleftherios Ikonomou) in recognition of its contested meaning and significance. By considering the concept of empathy in relation to the affective landscape of neo-Victorian texts, this thesis thus shifts the study of neo-Victorianism from a postmodern critique of historiographic metafiction to an ethical interrogation of the reader-text relationship. This is with the aim of breathing new life into the debates associated with the genre and demonstrating new ways of reading and valuing the texts.