Romantic incest: Gender, desire, and defiance
This dissertation examines the representation of consanguineous incest in eighteenth-century and Romantic literature its relation to questions of gender, sexuality, and challenges to authority. I consider the significant recurrence of themes surrounding this most forbidden of sexual desires as they are taken up and qualified by writers of the “long eighteenth century,” ranging from Defoe and Horace Walpole to Matthew “Monk” Lewis, Byron, and the Shelleys. A crucial difference between the Romantics and their eighteenth-century predecessors, with the notable exception of Horace Walpole, is their willingness to present incest as a conscious desire rather than an unwitting act.
Building on the work of Eve Sedgwick and Martha Nussbaum in their theories of the emotions and of Peter Thorslev and Alan Richardson in Romantic studies, I investigate how selected writers confronted the challenge of presenting the violation, especially the conscious violation, of one of the strongest sexual taboos. Contesting critical claims that incest is treated in Romantic-era literature as the epitome of self-reflexive and narcissistic love, I argue that it must rather be understood as related to the Romantic destabilization of normative gender roles and exploration of alternative political conditions.