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Title: Life Writing As Care of the Self: Fictional Autobiographies in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century French Literature
Authors: Verhey, Melissa
Advisors: Blix, Göran M
Contributors: French and Italian Department
Keywords: Autobiography
Care of the Self
Nineteenth-Century French Literature
Twentieth-Century French Literature
Subjects: French literature
Issue Date: 2018
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: This dissertation defines fictional autobiographies as novels featuring a fictional character writing an autobiography, and it argues that these novels contribute to autobiographical theory. Whereas these texts have often been read as veiled accounts of the author’s life, reading them as fictional autobiographies shows that they recount an imaginary life in an autobiographical mode while sustaining a meta-reflective inquiry into the processes of autobiography. This research demonstrates how fictional autobiographies combine the distance of fiction and the specificity of life writing to illuminate the intersection of selfhood and narrative. This project analyzes four French epistolary fictional autobiographies from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. The first chapter argues that the lackluster spiritual autobiography in Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve’s 1834 Volupté makes a case against rigid modes of interpretation, whether they be the conventions of the Christian life or of traditional literary criticism. The second chapter argues that Paul Bourget’s 1889 Le Disciple functions as a laboratory of moral thought, allowing an open-ended exploration of the moral responsibility of the writer in society. The third chapter argues that François Mauriac’s 1932 Le Nœud de vipères innovates the literary trope of religious conversion, by representing conversion in the present tense and emphasizing the role of writing in personal transformation. The fourth chapter argues that Marguerite Yourcenar’s 1951 Mémoires d’Hadrien presents a secular alternative to the Christian tradition of life writing by imagining the emperor Hadrian contemplating his life and approaching death through the lens of freedom. Collectively, these fictional autobiographies represent the writing subject and the written autobiography as co-creative forces in identity formation. In each novel, life writing draws the subject into care of the self: an ethical quest for self-knowledge that challenges preexisting beliefs and offers new insights. Introspection brings the possibility of both self-knowledge and delusion. In these novels, the lack of response to autobiographical letters implies that what is missing is an interlocutor whose questions can prevent solipsism, which would mean that the self depends on others for self-knowledge. By dramatizing writing, these fictional autobiographies propose life writing as a spiritual exercise for secular times.
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:French and Italian

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