Na�vet� and the British Novel (1770-1830)
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Na�vet� and the British Novel (1770-1830)

  • Author(s): Lu, Lillian
  • Advisor(s): Deutsch, Helen E.
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation investigates the trope of the na�ve protagonist in the British novel from 1770 – 1830 and its many narrative uses, ranging from feminist satire in Frances Burney’s novels to masculine-coded novels about imperialism such as Waverley. I argue for a reading practice that is more aware of na�vet� and its active formal novelistic qualities. Na�vet� is not simply a state of not knowing or lack, a tabula rasa that must be corrected through experience; instead, protagonists’ na�vet� functions meaningfully to ironize, critique, unveil, and uphold state power in turns. Just as knowledge is a form of power, na�vet� has a complex and active role in shaping power. In the chapters that follow, I argue that these protagonists’ lack of knowledge actively influences novelistic form and becomes a scholarly problematic. I begin with Frances Burney’s first three novels, Evelina (1778), Cecilia (1782), and Camilla (1796), in which na�vet� is a vehicle for feminist satire against violent masculinity and the patriarchy that works to keep women ignorant. In my second chapter, I investigate how na�vet� operates in two Gothic novels produced in the 1790s: William Godwin’s Things as They Are; or, the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794) and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (completed 1798-1799). I argue that for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged protagonists of these novels, na�vet� is the epistemological tool that leads them to discover systems of oppression that work to keep them ignorant, but stops just short of revolution. In the third chapter, I argue that na�vet� is an important trope in the national tale, used to absolve English subjects of acts of imperialism, and I do so by close reading three novels: Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale (1806), Walter Scott’s Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814). Finally, in chapter four, I examine the powerlessness of knowledge systems in Mary Shelley’s apocalyptic tale, The Last Man (1826), which posits that, in the face of the apocalypse and the collapse of the British Empire, na�vet�—an admission of unknowing—may be the only viable epistemology for the English subject.

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