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Modernity and Affliction: The Making of British Bourgeois Tragedy


The middling sort was often thought to be immune or ill-suited to tragedy, its modest, commercial way of life ensuring, in the words of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), that those in the middle station went "silently and smoothly thro' the World." This project assembles an archive of eighteenth-century text and performance that contradicts this optimism. In contrast to the familiar critical narrative of tragedy's demise or stagnation in the eighteenth century, Modernity and Affliction argues that a body of work depicting the afflictions of the middling sort was vital to a series of cultural debates concerned with imagining modes of ordinary suffering and collective grief. Whereas heroic and neoclassical tragedy had rarified and idealized the afflicted subject, bourgeois tragedies probed the relation between existential misfortune and the emerging values that would define the everyday experience of the middle rank in Britain--among them domesticity, privacy, capitalism, and Protestantism. Far from triumphalist or complacent in its ideology, the very emergence of the genre suggests that the Crusoevian "rise of the middle class" was met with ambivalence, haunted by the possibility of that newfound value's loss and anxious about suffering's lurid portrayal in various experimental forms of early realism. The dissertation ranges across a body of works that includes George Lillo's pioneering domestic dramas, The London Merchant (1731) and Fatal Curiosity (1736), Samuel Richardson's landmark novel, Clarissa (1748), Edward Moore's prose tragedy, The Gamester (1753), Sarah Fielding's sentimental novel, The Adventures of David Simple (1744), Laurence Sterne's ironic exploration of bourgeois mourning in A Sentimental Journey (1768), and several others largely absent from our critical histories, redefining bourgeois tragedy in order to better account for its energetic movement between page and stage, as well as the changing aesthetic conventions that governed the archive's production and reception in the period. Modernity and Affliction thus ultimately historicizes modes of bourgeois affect through which suffering was embodied, represented, and consumed in the period, tracing a process whereby the narrowly defined poetics of tragedy gave way to a broader, melancholic sense of the tragic as a condition of all modern life.

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