Award Date

May 2016

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Committee Member

Timothy Erwin

Second Committee Member

Evelyn Gajowski

Third Committee Member

Christopher Decker

Fourth Committee Member

Michelle Tusan

Number of Pages

269

Abstract

Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Brontë have long attracted sustained critical attention, in

large part because of their strong female protagonists. These strong-willed women self-assuredly reject oppression and model new paradigms for the Victorian woman to empower her subjectivity. This subjectivity serves, in turn, not only as the ability to form and express views counter to outworn social prescriptions, but it also serves as the centralized interior focus that allows their protagonists to think of themselves as the foremost subjects of their lives, rather than see themselves as pawns to be moved about in the games of patriarchal hierarchy. This study reads their female subjectivity as a form of religious belief to be understood in visual as well as verbal terms. In the chapters that follow I have tried to show how the various heroines of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), Shirley (1849), and Villette (1853); Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847); and Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey (1847) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) draw upon their sense of vision to assert their spirituality and express their religious faith through subjectivity. At times these women employ iconography to identify and subvert religious tyranny. At other times, the narrator shows us how the divine iconography of the natural world directs humanity away from error with a power and directness that language simply cannot reach. We also see how these images may serve to reinterpret the myth of essential female origin, arguing that women’s reproductive function is the driving force of civilization. In some of the Brontës’ more complex novels, like Villette and Wuthering Heights, images clarify a convoluted story of faith. At times their narrators can even promote a straightforward code of ethics that, through visual means, acknowledges and clarifies instances of domestic violence otherwise represented with euphemistic vagueness, for example. Drawing upon W.J.T. Mitchell’s theory of the imagetext as a mixed form of visual-verbal representation, and the post-structuralist theories of French feminists, I want to argue that the textual vision of the Brontës typically finds bodily expression. I also want to explore Christian spirituality as the force by which these women sanction their vision as subjects. In sum, my belief is that the Brontës have proven to be such immovable fixtures for studying religion and gender in the Victorian era because their heroines serve as distinctive voices that question women’s secondary place in society in order to take the full measure of their imaginative and moral possibilities. They shine as particular models of Victorian womanhood not only by rejecting patriarchal control but also by affirming their self-reflective religious faith. Across all the major works of all

three authors, we may recognize highly nuanced views of morality and faith, and through these narrative lenses, new and meaningful paths for individualized feminine faith.

Keywords

Jane Eyre; Shirley; Tenant of Wildfell Hall; Victorian; visual theory; Wuthering Heights

Disciplines

English Language and Literature | Gender and Sexuality | History of Religion | Women's Studies

Language

English


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