Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award

5-2022

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Major

English

Major Professor

Nancy Henry

Committee Members

Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud, Urmila Seshagiri, Mary McAlpin

Abstract

This dissertation investigates the production of physical disability and the function of prosthesis in nineteenth-century British fiction. My intervention in disability studies readings of Victorian literature attends to the prosthetic object and prosthetic body not only as the dual products of medicine and art, but also as catalytic elements of fiction and culture. I read reciprocal developments in medical technology and disabled characterization in the Victorian novel to demonstrate how the artistic translation of the prosthetic object effected a set of criteria for defining people through both bodies and things and, in so doing, revealed the ways in which the modern body is not insular but codependent. To trace the coalescence of physically-othered bodies with prosthetics in nineteenth-century fiction, then, is to consider, more broadly, the human body as embodied and embedded in a wider, material world—to parse our coevolution with medical and technological tools.

In pursuit of this project, I look to deployments of the prosthetic object, such as artificial limbs and mobility aids, in the works of Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and Wilkie Collins. The human-object nexus in their novels—the way in which the disabled body is entangled with or enhanced by assistive technology—underscores how these authors anticipated the ethics and terms of corporeal difference. The aesthetic redefinitions of what it means to be (or counts as) human in the primary texts of this dissertation, I argue, continue to influence our interpretation of bodily alterity.

While this study also takes up texts from earlier nineteenth-century British authors (like Mary Shelley) and nineteenth-century authors from beyond the British Isles (like Edgar Allan Poe and Gustave Flaubert), it focuses primarily on the Victorian novel’s capacity to register and respond to the evolution of the prosthetic object as it intersects with the disabled body. Ultimately, in reading prosthetics in the novel as dynamic, integral features of disabled characterization, we can acknowledge the complex state of disunity, patchwork extension, and contingency that we all occupy as human bodies circulating though the world.

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