Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Amy J. Elias

Committee Members

Allen R. Dunn, Tom Haddox, Stephen Blackwell


This dissertation will define the contemporary American encyclopedic novel and the significant role that irony plays in shaping meaning. The dissertation constructs a model of the encyclopedic novel based upon the history of the encyclopedia – from Denis Diderot's Enlightenment influenced Encyclopédie – and Northrop Frye's conception of the encyclopedic form. It claims (1) that the contemporary encyclopedic novel continues in the cycle of modal progression toward mythic integration that Frye proposes in Anatomy of Criticism; and (2) that the encyclopedic novel utilizes different forms of irony to challenge authoritative discourse and elevate marginal discourse.

The first chapter defines the encyclopedic novel by examining the history of the encyclopedia and existing criticism on the encyclopedic text in literature. It draws on theorists such as Denis Diderot and Richard Yeo to define an “encyclopedic project” that adopts a dialogic rhetorical style and seeks to democratize access to information. This chapter also defines the encyclopedic novel as a generic form that combines other forms into a unified whole and utilizes irony as a tool for integration.

The second and third chapters form a thematic pairing that shows the self-reflexive progression of the encyclopedic novel from individualistic to humanistic focus. The second chapter argues that Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow is an “anarchistic encyclopedic novel” that promotes associational thinking – in the form of paranoia, open forms, and horizontal transmission of knowledge. Gravity's Rainbow adopts a disintegrative irony to empower the oppressed individual against industry-state collusion in the post-WWII era. The third chapter argues that David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest seeks to reinvent irony as an integrative force and redirect Pynchon's individualistic anarchism toward an inclusive humanism.

The fourth chapter demonstrates a break from both of the preceding chapter and argues that Leon Forrest's Divine Days adopts a syndetic model of composition that further works to incorporate forms and integrate irony. Using Northrop Frye's “interpenetration,” I argue that Divine Days integrates competing traditions and discourses by demonstrating their mutual-necessity. In the concluding chapter, I examine “meta-encyclopedic” by Jorge Luis Borges and Roberto Bolaño as an extension of the dissertation.

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