Skip navigation
Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item:
Title: Strange Likeness: Modernist Description in James, Proust, and Woolf
Authors: Zhang, Dora
Advisors: Heller-Roazen, Daniel
Contributors: Comparative Literature Department
Keywords: Aesthetics
Narrative theory
Transatlantic and continental modernism
Subjects: Comparative literature
Issue Date: 2013
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: This dissertation traces a transformation in the status and forms of literary description during the modernist period, when questions about what, how, and whether to describe emerged as urgent aesthetic and epistemological problems. As the first means of making an object available, <italic>how</italic> we describe something determines how it can be understood and interpreted. But the role description plays in assigning value and producing meaning is continually naturalized and effaced, and critics have usually overlooked its importance. <italic>Strange Likeness</italic> approaches this problem both philosophically and historically, tracing how descriptive modes change, interrogating what they seek to do, and uncovering the epistemological assumptions that they reveal. Numerous modernist polemics predicated their theory of the "modern" novel on a rejection of the long descriptive set-pieces (typically depicting objects and rooms) that had become hallmarks of nineteenth century fiction. I show that description - understood as the impulse to observe and record the surfaces of things - formed a focal point for the critique of a naive positivism that assumed looking at the world was a reliable way of knowing it. At the same time, I also contend that despite these disavowals, modernist novels themselves evince more descriptions, not less. In shifting their attention to rendering what does not look like anything at all (e.g. atmospheres, relations, and sensations), writers demote the authority of visual evidence, but do not break with empiricist commitments. Through focused chapters on Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf, I trace the emergence of a new ideal of aesthetic attention and a rethinking of the very idea of "likeness." As the notion of describing becomes uncoupled from depicting, I argue that the modernist descriptive paradigm shifts from relying on a principle of correspondence to a principle of equivalence. The project concludes with a Coda that considers the limits of describing first person experience in Woolf, Bertrand Russell, and William James. At once everywhere and nowhere in literature, description is a central site where fiction negotiates its relationship with reality, and the history of descriptive paradigms is an essential part of a broader history of changing understandings of knowledge and perception.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Comparative Literature

Files in This Item:
File Description SizeFormat 
Zhang_princeton_0181D_10806.pdf19.77 MBAdobe PDFView/Download

Items in Dataspace are protected by copyright, with all rights reserved, unless otherwise indicated.