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Romance: The Emulation of Empire

  • Author(s): Bonilla, Martha Elizabeth
  • Advisor(s): Gillman, Susan
  • et al.

Romance: The Emulation of Empire

This dissertation offers a symptomatic reading of romance and explores the ideological force of the genre’s chiastic structure. The trajectory of this project follows the temporal and spatial migration of romance from the colonial context of early seventeenth England, beginning with William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, then enters the American post-revolutionary context of the early and late nineteenth century with James Fennimore Cooper’s The Pioneers, Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno,” and ends with Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don. This study examines the contradictory narrative desires within romance. While the genre is identified with foundational narratives that bespeak a desire for national unification, it is also associated with a desire for conquest and empire. I argue this paradoxical genre constructs an equally paradoxical heroic national identity that forgets its tragic beginnings by imperialistically asserting its right to rule (its authority) in emulation of those whose rights it would usurp.

The heroic figure, after tragically losing his authority and identity to a rival, begins as a desiring subject whose quest for fulfillment and recognition initiates the romance plot. The hero finds recognition by emulating the actions of the rival who originally usurped his identity. Through the pathos of emulation, the hero is able to forgive and share the bonds of national kinship with his rival. By imitating the actions of his rival, the hero is translated into a representation of his rival. The hero’s earlier tragic identity is foreclosed and projected onto another who is foreign to the hero’s struggles. This “foreign” other becomes a representation of the hero who is himself a representation of the rival. Hence, the apparent threatening other is transformed into a representation of a representation, the rhetorical condition of the genre itself. The dark intent projected onto the foreign other in these romance narratives indeed originates with the hero, but the hero’s dark design is in fact an emulation of the antagonist’s or rival’s action. The imperialistic quality of the genre is a result of its repetitive and crossed structure that calls into being more imperial subjects, but the inclusion promised by national romances is dependent on the tragic exclusion of objectified others.

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