Constructing identities : analyzing dress, appearance, and mental illness in Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White Public Deposited

http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/concern/graduate_thesis_or_dissertations/wp988p234

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  • The purpose of this study was to determine how the popular writer Wilkie Collins used dress and appearance to bring to light concerns about mental illness in his 1859-60 sensation novel The Woman in White. The method of narrative analysis was used to complete this study. Data sheets were developed to record references to dress, appearance, and mental illness in the novel. References were examined, coded, and eventually developed into three key themes. These themes were analyzed through theoretical perspectives related to the role of literature in suggesting social change.Through analysis of two central female characters in the novel, dress and appearance were found to be vehicles not only for creating and promoting identity but also for transforming identity. Through changes in dress and appearance, seemingly distinct categories of identity, such as mental illness, are challenged. Collins suggests that identity is both socially constructed and fluid, with dress and appearance being two major ways to enable that construction and fluidity. The notion of identity as socially constructed and fluid coincides with contemporary Victorian fears of and unease with identity transformations, which could occur through new access to mass-produced clothing and through differing definitions of what constituted mental illness. By creating a world similar to the one for which he is writing, Collins is able to suggest ideas about the concept of identity that would have been new and unsettling for readers of his novel.
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