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Dread: The Literary History of a Political Affect, 1750-1900


This dissertation analyzes the cultural urgency of dread—a profound feeling of fear about the future—in a range of canonical and popular British novels, poems, periodicals, and philosophical treatises. In our own time, we tend to think of dread as a negative, paralyzing affect. Yet I elucidate the many ways in which nineteenth-century authors, philosophers, political reformers, and theologians regarded this feeling as an impetus for bringing about a better future. The anticipatory qualities of dread served as a catalyst for ethical and political transformations in the Enlightenment all the way through the Victorian era. Beginning with David Hume and ending with H. G. Wells, I examine the ways in which dread entered into and shaped philosophical thought, popular culture, and political life, especially radicalism, through shifting literary forms, many of which stemmed from the Gothic mode. While numerous studies have investigated fearful affects such as terror, horror, and anxiety, my dissertation is the first sustained examination of dread, which reconceptualizes the Gothic’s literary and political significance. While it is a critical commonplace that Gothic fiction stages encounters with the past, I show how the Gothic stimulates dread in order to orient its readers toward future possibilities.

Part I presents an intellectual and aesthetic genealogy of dread, disclosing how this feeling animated philosophical discussions and literary depictions of sympathy, the moral sentiments, and conscience from Adam Smith to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Victorian psychologist Alexander Bain. Part II explores shifting understandings of dread from early Gothic novels to Victorian penny dreadfuls, Bram Stoker’s fiction and journal articles, and Wells’s scientific romances and essays. These chapters show how the slow-paced and expansive nature of dread precipitated deep reflection for fictional characters and real-world thinkers alike. Because of its galvanizing properties, dread was instrumental in mobilizing thoughtful, non-violent, and progressive political reform during three pivotal historical moments. Gothic dread counteracted political alarmism during the revolutionary 1790s, united Chartists advocating for working-class enfranchisement in the 1840s, and informed critiques of settler-colonialism, including the Irish Home Rule movement, in the 1890s.

A brief coda attempts to reconcile the historical sense of dread’s rousing and progressive potential with the dominant present-day belief that dread makes people passive, intolerant, or reactionary. Although this emotion is largely viewed in a negative light today, I explore several alternative artistic and political attempts to represent dread as a vital and productive aspect of the human condition.

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