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Title: The Sensation of Language: Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, Mary Shelley
Authors: Quinn, Megan Helen
Advisors: Wolfson, Susan J
Schor, Esther
Contributors: English Department
Keywords: Body
British literature
Philosophy of language
Subjects: English literature
Issue Date: 2018
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: A familiar critical narrative of Romanticism describes its preoccupation with the inadequacy of language to signify the elusive experience of the mind and spirit. In The Sensation of Language, I shift focus from the word as a representation of the immaterial world to its material impact, on the reader or writer, as physical sensation. My chapters show how Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley adapted materialist ideas of the origin of language and revised sentimental models of feeling in response to the problems of linguistic mediation. I argue that these writers addressed concerns about the authenticity of language and emotions by conceiving words as agents of immediate physical sensations, and thus sources of newly visceral sympathy. I begin with an introduction on eighteenth-century philosophy of language and sentimental literature and theory. While John Locke claimed that words derive from sensory experience, the “cult of sentiment” placed sensation and emotion at the center of moral judgment and the reading experience. But for later philosophers like Lord Monboddo, sense perception was degraded by embodiment, and, by the late eighteenth century, sentimental literature was stigmatized as clichéd, emotionally inauthentic, and feminine. My subsequent chapters examine each writer’s attempt to develop a “genuine” language of sensation. Austen replaces the compulsory tears and feminine fragility of the sentimental novel with prose that imitates rapid motion in her juvenilia, or that immerses us in Anne Elliot’s stoic sensory experience in Persuasion. Across Lyrical Ballads and The Prelude, Wordsworth conceives his poetry as transmitting sensations such as rhythm, sound, and motion. In this way, he attempts to correct the taste for a poetic diction estranged from authentic emotion, and to engage his readers’ sympathy for the rural poor. In the teeth of Adam Smith’s theory of sympathy that prioritizes the imagination over physical experience, Shelley’s fiction from Frankenstein to “Transformation” reforms sympathy as sensations shared through language. As I chart this movement away from conventionalized sentiments and towards simple sensations, my project offers a fresh materialist view of Romantic-era language and its critique of sentimentalism.
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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