Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation


Queer Materiality: Freaks, Ghosts, and Madness in Victorian Culture and the Novels of Charlotte Brontë Public Deposited

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  • This thesis offers a theory of queer materiality as a way of understanding the interconnectedness of freaks, ghosts, and madness in Victorian culture, and how these elements coalesce in Victorian literature to destabilize the knowable materiality of normative social structures and forms of embodiment, leading to the production of queer material worlds. Queer materiality is my term for a theory of perception and embodiment that is historically specific to the mid-nineteenth century: it denotes a gap between the material and immaterial— a bridging of a binary logic that attempts to constitute matter, both of bodies and of objects, as either present or absent— an idea that finds embodiment in the figure of the ghost. Additionally, it underscores the way that freak shows and madness posed real and haunting threats to the stable materiality of the normative social order, as these revealed that beneath the veneer of gentile Victorian society lurked things queer, mad, and freakish. In the mid-nineteenth century, bodies are not in fact perceived as stable material realities; instead, as a result of the expanse of empire and its intimate contact with “Othered” bodies, and as a result of the anxieties that the freak show stoked, such as the need to produce “normal” and “abnormal” embodiment as visibly differentiated, the contours of the Victorian body/mind wavers at its edges, threatening to materialize as a ghostly abnormality. The first half of this thesis fleshes out the theory of queer materiality through cultural research on the freak show to show how the exhibition of nonwhite, disabled, queer, and mad bodies haunts normative embodiment and destabilizes knowable material reality. I show the applicability of this theory through a reading of Jane Eyre’s (1848) Bertha Mason as a “mad freak” whose haunting presence in Thornfield Hall destabilizes the bourgeois home and threatens to materialize Jane and Rochester’s normative body/minds as mad and disabled. Afterwards, the second half of this thesis pivots into a consideration of the significance of queer materiality to queer, mad Victorian subjects— how queer materiality creates the possibility for queer, mad resistance and the materialization of queer worlds. I exhibit this through a reading of Charlotte Brontë’s final novel, Villette (1853), showing how Lucy Snowe’s melancholy and ghost-seeing mad senses allow her to create queerly material spaces outside of the surveilling techniques of disciplinary power, where her queer thoughts and feelings can exist as a queer materiality that connects her to other queer subjects across the strictures of normative linear space and time.
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