Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Allen R. Dunn

Committee Members

Mary E. Papke, William Hardwig, Harry F. Dahms


In an 1896 essay, Frank Norris wrote that the reading world should abandon those “teacup tragedies” to which it had grown accustomed and embrace a new literature that would depict a “vast and terrible drama.” Realism, Norris claimed, could not be used to achieve an earnest portrait of the conditions that mark individual lives under capitalism. Instead, the world needed a romantic wrestling with the forces of existential inscrutability. Also, the perceived need for literature to depict a clear ethical system needed revising from the perspective of American literary naturalism, a school long denigrated for apparent moral vacuity. Through excruciating “drama,” naturalism therefore confronted the economic conditions that subject individual lives to the whims of a world wherein moral values seemed either the business of religious groups or of rationalist Enlightenment thinkers. The writings of Norris and Stephen Crane, as well as later naturalists like John Dos Passos and Nathanael West, refuse moral systematization and depict human beings in extraordinary predicaments that question reductive evaluations of human relationships. These traumatic encounters offered by naturalist fiction provide a route for us to think about the works of the French ethicist, Emmanuel Levinas. In Levinas, we find the ethical encounter traumatic, gut-wrenching, and overwhelming. No course of action is provided because every person demands of us a unique response that cannot be met. Levinas offers a means for us to expand our understanding of literary naturalism and think of its relevance in our own day, wherein value relativism makes moral response increasingly difficult. Such an approach allows us to find the similarities between such disparate authors as Norris and Crane, Dos Passos and West, all of whom find the ethical relationship troubling and painful. In naturalism's scenes of trauma, inarticulacy, and paralysis, we find the origins of a radical ethical alternative, one that does not deny ethical possibility in its refusal to systematize, but, rather, finds it in the the breakdown of language and cognition – in other words, the complete dissembling of the self and the familiar structures that tend to give it precedent in the ethical relationship.

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