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Title: Doorstep Moments: Close Encounters with Minor Characters in the Victorian Novel
Authors: Starkowski, Kristen
Advisors: NunokawaSalamon, JeffGayle
Contributors: English Department
Subjects: Literature
Issue Date: 2021
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: Doorstep Moments focuses on three questions that influence our understanding of literary character and novel form. (1) Who counts as a minor character? (2) What is the role of the minor character across nineteenth-century fiction? And (3) does character position align with theories of the minor in Victorian society—women, the poor, the non-white? To address these questions, I adapt a term from Erving Goffman’s sociology—the doorstep—to describe how minor characters undermine the fictional worlds they inhabit by distracting readers from main scenes. These characters allow readers to peek into underdrawn narrative spheres and glimpse life on the fringes of society, whether due to gender, working-class status, vagrancy, or disability. By combining my training in literary studies with digital humanities approaches, I intervene in recent debates about character position by supplementing analysis of page space with network analysis: whether characters are major or minor has as much to do with their connection to other characters and objects as it does with their presence on a specific number of pages. Chapter one of Doorstep Moments distinguishes fictionality from functionality through close readings of the servants and laborers in Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend: these characters are so busy working that they disregard the primary settings of the novel and gesture toward a teeming social world just out of reach. Chapter two uses archival findings from the penny periodical press to track the effect of the 1838 Amendment to the Vagrant Act on the history of characterization in working-class literature. Chapter three pinpoints how the changing economy of female caregiving labor in the Victorian period connects to the place of disabled minor characters in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. Chapter four spotlights butlers, cooks, valets, and footmen who refuse to keep their proper place in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Looking to re-negotiate class boundaries, these minor characters leave the space of the doorstep and muddy the markers of bourgeois domestic sensibility. Together, these chapters map moments when narrators invite readers into residual textual spheres, exposing worlds that are never entirely revealed. Throughout the dissertation, I challenge the notion—offered by critics such as E.M. Forster, Alex Woloch, and Deidre Lynch—that minor characters are unfinished figures. In the process, I align considerations of a character’s minorness with social marginality—both in the 19th Century and today. Among nineteenth-century novels written in England, little has been said about the minor character as an intersectional positionality and on character space in the working-class canons, and so the stakes of the research are high. The project (1) articulates a theory of minorness: Victorian novelists used minor characters to integrate or segregate impermissible subjects in order to facilitate new political agendas, (2) combines techniques of page space and network analysis to reframe how we define a minor character, revealing that characters, whether “major” or “minor,” must be rethought in terms of relation and not frequency of appearance in the text, (3) expands the archive of relevant nineteenth-century materials to show a pre-history of fan fiction that both undermines and predates 20th- Century arguments about minor-character elaboration, and (4) demonstrates how characterological minorness aligns with nineteenth-century social debates surrounding labor, vagrancy, and disability.
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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