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(Dis)orienting the Reader: Literary Impressionism and the Case of Herman Bang


This dissertation examines the ethical stakes of Herman Bang’s (1857–1912) literary impressionism using both his critical and fictional writings. Against previous scholarship, which argues that Bang’s impressionism was predominantly a nervous stylistic tendency, I contend that his impressionism variously implements a technique I call disorientation, which is in the service of an evolving ethical concern over character. Bang’s distinct employment of disorientation can be read as bearing in mind the reader in an aesthetic logic that recasts impressionism as an ethically concerned aesthetics of fiction. Understanding that Bang’s goal is to disorient the reader can account for the gaps, fissures, ambiguities, and strangeness in his work. He attempts to disorient by manipulating the narrative (e.g., via unusual narrative closure, violent literary language) such that perception is disrupted and made difficult or strange, jolting readers into a reconsideration of what they have just read. In this way, disorientation creates the possibility for a reader to be reoriented to the impression left behind by a character.

In four chapters, I trace the ethical inflections within Bang’s writings. Chapter one outlines a historical and conceptual framework for apprehending literary impressionism, detailing how Bang’s emerging critical writings engage with an ethically concerned aesthetic logic. In chapter two, I compare Bang’s strategic use of the partial literary portrait in his unpublished “Manuskript til foredrag om Ivan Turgenjev” (ca. 1885, Manuscript for a lecture on Ivan Turgenev) with Henry James’s references to Turgenev both in “Ivan Turgénieff” (1884, 1888) and in his 1908 preface to The Portrait of a Lady. I argue that this comparison reveals Bang and James’s shared interest in a method of capturing and recording their impressions of characters by employing as a model the “literary portrait.” In chapter three, using “Irene Holm” (1886, 1890) and Ved Vejen (1886, By the wayside) as evidence, I look to Bang’s experimentation with disorientation in both the short story and the novel to demonstrate that he is wrangling with the tension between the need for formal closure and the need to preserve the integrity of the impression left by a character. Chapter four offers a close reading of Bang’s novella “Les quatre Diables” (1890, “The Four Devils”) where formal disorientation is taken to such an extreme that the language itself becomes violent. While the first two chapters are concerned with situating Bang’s impressionism as a method rooted in character, the last two chapters discuss specific instantiations of Bang’s use of disorientation.

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