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Tentative Futures: Ethics and Sexuality in the Nineteenth-Century Novel


This dissertation takes the ubiquity of nineteenth century narratives about young girls' development as an important sign, not of Victorian gender conformity or sexual unfreedom, but rather of the presence of a special force in this figure in flux. Looking at emblematic narratives of female development that hinge on plots about marriage and inheritance, this dissertation finds there articulated three sets of possibilities for queer futurity, one of which each chapter lays out. "Queer futurity," a term much bandied about in queer theoretical circles recently, is, according to some, impossible. This dissertation finds in novels by Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Henry James attempts at articulations of queer futurity, enabled by the figure of the girl, even amidst the seas of heteronormative trajectories in which characters in these novels are adrift. What on the surface seems so vehemently straight--for example a girl who reaches adulthood through marriage, a line of inheritance that must continue--is actually anything but: in the midst of some of the most important tropes of what Edelman calls "reproductive futurity"--Judith Halberstam's "family, inheritance, and child rearing"--what emerge are queer kinship, complex and refracted lines of desire. While others have also found vast areas of possible futures away from normative sexual structures, the tendency has uniformly been to assume that such possibilities are unequivocally ethically positive, which this dissertation, as well as the novels on which I focus, call into question.

The introductory chapter situates the problem of ethics and sexuality by surveying the queer theoretical landscape that invests in "the future" such strong ethical undercurrents. If for so many today the question of access to futurity defines the center of possible change, for equally many nineteenth century novelists, it seems that it was the figure of the girl that offered the most cogent chance for ethical difference. Beginning with a close reading of Henry James's story, "Maud-Evelyn," this chapter asks how gender, as imagined and represented by three of the nineteenth century's novel-writing luminaries, might figure into the current debate, as well as how the nineteenth century thinkers adumbrated some of the ethical problems of sexual radicalism, along with the promises, even within plots so adamantly focused on marriage. The introduction also situates the dissertation's relationship to queer theory, narrative, and the notion of becoming, from Nietzsche to psychoanalytic theory and beyond.

In chapter 1, I look at Jane Austen's final completed novel, Persuasion. This novel presents Anne Elliot, a young female character who resists the futural trajectories with which she is surrounded, instead opting throughout much of the novel for a relationship to the body, pain, and trauma that allows her access to sensation in a way detached from the relationships to narrative, figuration, and selfhood that define her contemporaries. By framing Anne's relationship to pain and representation through Jean-Jacques Rousseau's deliberations on language, property, and masochism in the age of rationality, this chapter shows how what is a major upheaval of mores in so many ways nevertheless also adheres to an unhappy relationship to the ethic of sympathy that such a break intended to expand. Deleuze offers to this deliberation an understanding of masochism that helps this chapter articulate the dubious benefits for self-determined womanhood of otherwise so disruptive forces.

Part of what muddies the waters of ethics in deliberations of futurity is, then, the question of how much the self can or must play a part in an other-oriented endeavor. The second chapter takes up this problem in a close reading of George Eliot's Middlemarch. Through its focus on one young woman's attempt to create both female agency and ethical sense, the novel surveys several different imaginations of futurity for their potential to weave together this conceptual amalgamation: the value of writing, primogeniture, and entailment as futural acts are evaluated for their capacity to create a different and less heterocentric way of life while still maintaining Eliot's complex ethical standard of interrogating claims to sovereignty at every step at the same time as she privileges a sense of personal responsibility towards others. I look toward both the deconstructive line of thought that undermines the author as sovereign and Nietzsche's elaboration of ressentiment in attempting to understand how it is that the novel both celebrates and honors what I call queer modes of life, at the same time as it sacrifices the seemingly death-drive-driven "queer" at its center, the infamous character Edward Casaubon.

Henry James in What Maisie Knew comes perhaps closest to what seems a workable queer novelistic ethic, positing rather than queer antisociality in the face of trauma the radical possibilities available in avowing vulnerability. Performativity, or iteration, ends up fueling this queer possibility, but also gives the novel the final capacity to derogate it, to turn queer tragic. Chapter 3 performs a close reading of this novel, focusing on the young girl at its center, who is both traumatized and comedic, sensitive and stalwart. In an assessment of the "negative turn" in queer theory, this chapter asks how a young girl who otherwise seemingly transforms the damaging sexual standards in which she is steeped, can nevertheless end up the object of derision and heartbreak. By framing the discussion through one of the psychoanalytic theories from which many of the so-called negative queer philosophies emerge, that of Laplanche, this chapter is able to examine the ways in which these queer theories of desire and futurity miss the centrally ethical--and indeed in many ways positive--part of the hypothesis of our unavoidable imbrication with the other. So too, of course, does this novel in some ways finally fail in its attempt at ethical possibility, suggesting that queer negativity has a long and vital history, if not necessarily a sturdy future.

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