The father refigured: Formal transformations in the British novel, 1840–1880
Four nineteenth-century realist novelists—Elizabeth Gaskell, George Meredith, William Makepeace Thackeray, and George Eliot—transform the British novel as they invent new strategies of representing fatherhood. In this dissertation, I show how their analyses of the father in fiction correlate with growing uncertainties about the place for the father in culture. Although home was idealized as a place of both refuge and control for the father, the importance of domesticity in everyday life contradicted the cultural myths associating the father-figure with heroism and the masculine figure with adventure. Even novels that begin with more traditional conceptions of the father— Dombey and Son and The Way of All Flesh, for example—reflect on the limits of the paternal voice.
In their attempts to understand the Victorian father, these novelists found little use for the precedents set by the eighteenth-century foundling narrative, the gothic novel, the romance, or the allegorical morality tale. Each chapter of this dissertation, therefore, traces a narrative of encounter: a discovery by a Victorian novelist of another "way of writing" that alters the nature of his or her literary output. I argue that these authors find their bearing through experiments with extra-literary modes of discourse. In taking on the father, these novels simultaneously transform various modes of discourse by and about fathers.
Realist authors use fragmentation to manage these texts, which makes their experiments in realism important forerunners of modernism. Whether through deliberately truncated structures, dispersed or multiple narrative perspectives, or expressed anxieties about mechanical production and printing, the authors in this study break down patriarchal monuments by breaking apart their own texts. This dissertation analyzes these two aspects of these novels about fathers—thematic difficulties and structural innovations—in order to consider the connections between form and function.