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Literature and Feminine Singularity: 1850-90

  • Author(s): Chatterjee, Ronjaunee
  • Advisor(s): Bristow, Joseph E
  • et al.

“Literature and Feminine Singularity: 1850–90” argues for the emergence of a mathematically-defined and serially-oriented vision of femininity that is singular in nineteenth-century literary texts. My project calls attention to feminine singularity as irreducible and not beholden to the structures of liberalism, capitalism, and bourgeois patriarchy that typically frame gender in binary oppositional terms. Singularity has been part of the language of philosophy, physics, and mathematics since Kant’s aesthetic theories. In nineteenth-century literature, singularity vitalizes the political urgency of femininity beyond the limited agenda of suffrage movements. The works I analyze—Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, Christina Rossetti’s poetry and short fiction, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, and Charles Baudelaire’s poetry and prose—imagine a form of feminine radicalism that is an explicit counterpoint to emerging Continental theories of liberal individualism and the modern citizen-subject. My project thus concentrates on the ways in which lateral affiliations of likeness (such as the minimal, non-reproductive difference between sisters) and numerical lines of thinking generate feminine singularity. In participating in alternative conceptions of counting a “one,” or conceiving of the many, these works consider femininity outside the oscillation between particulars and universals that has been the defining paradigm for understanding the self and the other.

Drawing on the work of feminist political theorists such as Bonnie Honig and Linda Zerilli, and literary historians of liberalism such as Elaine Hadley, my dissertation observes that femininity is on the outer limit of nineteenth-century democratic thought. But as the literary imaginary attests, femininity is also capable of articulating a different vision of human freedom. My first chapter begins by discussing a photograph of Alice Liddell that appears in Carroll’s manuscript bracketed by the hand-drawn symbol for infinity. I argue in this chapter that the Alice stories imagine her girlhood as a number in a series moving toward infinity, rather than an uneasy precursor to Victorian womanhood. My second and third chapters, on Rossetti’s Speaking Likenesses and Goblin Market, and Collins’ The Woman in White, respectively, propose that relationships between sisters generate forms of likeness that bypass restrictive notions of gender difference. For my fourth chapter, I consider how counting produces femininity in Baudelaire’s prose and poetry. I argue that counting – in a manner that recognizes the limitations of nineteenth-century ideas of the individual – requires Baudelaire to dissolve the masculine poetic self and engage in a poetics of feminine singularity.

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