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Title: Visible Plots, Invisible Realms
Authors: Johnson, Daniel Jonas
Advisors: Wolfson, Susan
Contributors: English Department
Keywords: apparitions
eighteenth century
novel studies
the supernatural
Subjects: English literature
Issue Date: 2016
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: Visible Plots, Invisible Realms exposes the spectral imagination at the heart of eighteenth-century English narrative. Since probability prohibited overt portrayal of God and ghosts in new, “realistic” genres such as newspapers, medical narratives, and novels, authors confined interactions with the spiritual world to characters’ minds through hints, dreams, and premonitions. Prevailing criticism tends to treat these signs either as a natural response to terrifying phenomena (and thus explainable by psychological analysis) or as evidence of distant providential benevolence, which is useful only for retrospective interpretation of events. Yet, major authors constructed plots that are actively guided by characters’ (mis-)apprehensions of spiritual communication. This equivocal but potent invisible agency was mirrored in the effect of verisimilar stories on audiences. A reader could not always tell whether fictional humans were “real,” but their virtual presence in society elicited powerful response, from correspondence with “Mr. Spectator” to public celebration of the wedding of novel-heroine Pamela. Apparitions were transformed into actors, while flesh-and-bone characters led a spectral life outside of their literary frames. When the Gothic genre emerged, the vogue for spooky stories did not resurrect a long-dead supernaturalism but finally removed it from everyday life by turning ghost-belief into an aesthetic experiment rather than a possible encounter with the invisible realm. Yet, even this disenchantment was provisional. The later Gothic novel, and particularly the work of America’s first major novelist, Charles Brockden Brown, transformed the supernatural subtlety of earlier authors into a subversion of materialism, spectralizing physical life itself. The rise of the novel and its related genres was as much about mystification as enlightenment: the teasing prospect of “reality” is an apparition of writing that haunts to this day.
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:English

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