At its primary level, this thesis aims to explore areas of incongruity (or tension, “friction zones,” etc.) between the Judeo-Christian narrative and narratives that are strictly and decidedly outside of the Judeo-Christian narrative as they appear together in two representative pieces of Victorian literature: Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (although, as required for additional context, this thesis will likely reference other primary works by these authors as well). In my survey of recent scholarship from this literary period, I believe the interplay of the Church and that which is decidedly not a part of the church (i.e. pagan and folk narratives and customs) is oft overlooked, yet its potential to reveal ambiguities in the literature and points of contention in the culture that has generated these texts cannot be overstated. Furthermore, seeing as though influences from 19th century British Empire continue to echo throughout its former colonies—including the United States—I believe this analysis has the potential to offer insights not only into Victorian culture but beyond it as well.
At this point in time, I see my thesis taking shape with four to six chapters as follows:
- An introductory section of (1-2 chapters) that
- clearly defines contentious terms (Judeo Christian Narrative, Pagan, myth, legend, folklore, etc.)
- Contextualize with historical moment of these terms – what do these terms mean for the Victorians?
- constructs the theoretical lenses that will drive the analysis of the subsequent chapters
- Methodological approach:
- Hermeneutical (revisiting or revising this tradition of looking at literature from the viewpoint of interpretation)
- Theoretical approach?
- Historical? Cultural?
- Structuralist (myths have structures)
- Post-structuralist (structures exist and characters either exist within them and are accepted or can not)
- Terministic screens – language selects and simultaneously deflects reality
- Think about Tess and her terministic screens re: Angel’s parents.
- reviews relevant scholarship and anticipates entering into scholarly dialogues thereof
- Literature review and scholarly dialogue – incorporate into introduction of body chapters.
- A body section of 2 chapters
- Analysis primarily of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King contextualized with recent scholarship (that asks…what? Refer to 1a)
- Analysis primarily of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles contextualized with recent scholarship (that asks…what? Refer to 1a)
- A conclusion section of 1-2 chapters that
- reconciles and synthesizes analyses from the previous chapters including
- textual analyses that show not merely similarities but distinct differences within those similarities and the significance thereof
- (maybe, though this might be the labor of future work) push the overall thesis toward relevance in 2014
- narratives as flexible movements toward understanding, inclusion, and peace
- vs. narratives (JCN particularly) as rigid movement the Truth, toward inclusion (with a decided exclusion and thus separation).
Body Chapter 1 (Tennyson)
The importance of religion in both Tennyson’s day and the Medieval culture which he is invoking cannot be overstated. The culture that generated the Age of Chivalry which Camelot is intended to epitomize lived its religion in its daily life. Rituals, proselytizing, praying, and engaging in the sacraments were every day occurrences. Jim Rhodes explains that religion was “an integral part of work, play, and significant events in the calendar year.” Knights, who were at the center of the Arthurian milieu and the culture that generated it, held piety as one of the primary tenants of their chivalry. The Romance genre, including Arthurian Romance, was not merely escapist literature, either: Richard Kaeuper explains how Romance literature and the chivalry which it glorified was in practice a two-way exchange between authors and audience. “Knights, in sum, say that they have read this literature, show[ing] that they have read it by using it in their own writings.” So bearing in mind that a central tenant of chivalry is Christian piety—in the literary, practical, and social senses—the mythological and pagan images that contribute to the construction of Arthurian Romance while simultaneously contradicting its ideals deserve much more attention than they have received in recent scholarship.
As other scholars have pointed out, at least part of Tennyson’s purpose in producing the Idylls is clearly aimed at social commentary. Perhaps as a reaction to Victorian anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty, Tennyson—through a re-working of nationally sacred narratives—explores these problems thematically and symbolically in Idylls of the King most specifically in the idylls “The Coming of Arthur,” and “Merlin and Vivien.” In particular, these two idylls reveal how the Celtic and pagan aspects of the Arthurian milieu are overshadowed and deemphasized—even marginalized—by the privileging of the impossible ideals propagated by the Judeo-Christian orthodoxy and chivalry by the denizens of Camelot. I suspect that the un-sustainable nature of Camelot and her ideals, chivalry being a chief ideal among them, and the disproportionate valuing of the Judeo-Christian value system over paganism (in a culture that has its roots in Celtic, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, and Greco-Roman paganism and folklore) are interrelated, perhaps leading to the cultural system’s undermining and eventual destruction of itself. Exploring these tensions may reveal why there was such cognitive dissonance and anxiety in Victorian England’s national consciousness with regard to England’s own unsustainability during a period of vast and unprecedented change.
Body Chapter 2 (Hardy)
Subjection and oppression in Victorian England indeed happens on a variety of fronts, and I contend that Hardy exposes several of these fronts in Tess of the D’Urbervilles: the subjection of women and their sexuality to Victorian cultural scripts is visible from the onset of the novel; there is the subjection of the natural world and rural landscapes (and the people who live and work there) to mechanization, industrialization, and urbanization (by the people who wield this new power); and there is the subjection of pagan values from country denizens like Tess by the Christian orthodoxy. While all of these aspects happen symbolically throughout the novel, I propose that each front is also figuratively represented by specific characters: Tess represents the dwindling rural and pagan world while Alec represents encroaching urbanization, mechanization, and a corrupted sense of the Christian orthodoxy. Hardy situates Angel Clare in the middle of this subject-object friction which shows that the only way to survive in the fault line of fin de siècle England is through close self-examination (demonstrated by Angel’s character growth throughout the novel). Ultimately, a synthesis of these distinct readings of Tess has the potential to uncover a crucial message embedded in Hardy’s narrative—that a sense of rape is occurring on all three of these levels. With this reading of Tess, Hardy forces us to reflect on the trajectory of 19th century sexuality, spirituality, industrialization, urbanization and their effects on Anglo Saxon and Celtic England, leaving us to question the nature of the existing and the emerging hierarchal power structures from his time.
A Note on my Intertextual Approach (working thesis for conclusion section)
An obvious point of inquiry I anticipate and wish to address is my choice to take with this thesis a comparative approach, and my reasons for doing so are multifold and will likely be made fully manifest in either a comparative chapter or a conclusion chapter . I want to show that this analysis is not just an esoteric peculiarity in one author and one point in time. By taking a comparative approach across multiple authors and genres, I hope to show that this analysis both deep and wide into the literature of the time. The two texts represent different points in time both in their content and in their publication dates. Idylls, published in 1859, concerns Arthurian Romance and legend, Tennyson’s oar in the conversation of the Victorian Medievalist movement. Tess, published 32 years later, concerns life mostly in rural southwest England (what Hardy refers to as Wessex) roughly during the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society, i.e. relatively close to Hardy’s own time. Both texts, however, I would submit as being timeless in their own rights: Tennyson recounts narratives that are nationally timeless, and Hardy’s narratives—Tess being no exception—are frequently absent of specific date stamps, yet they use a sense of both the ancient and recent past to illuminate the narrative’s present. Thus I see potential in these texts’ ability to illuminate each other from the sense of their respective timeframes and their timeliness. Further, a textual approach to both texts has the potential to reveal complimentary connections between the texts’ forms (Idyll and novel) and their own intrinsic tension points between the Judeo-Christian narrative and non-Judeo-Christian narratives.
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