The Ornamental Novel: Surface, Periphery, Excess in the Nineteenth Century
Chapman, Alison Georgina
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CitationChapman, Alison Georgina. 2017. The Ornamental Novel: Surface, Periphery, Excess in the Nineteenth Century. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractFrom Kant’s distinction between 'ergon' and 'parergon' through to the modernist desire for clean and simple forms, ornament has been both dismissed as superficial and condemned as obfuscating. But in “The Ornamental Novel,” I argue that Victorian thinkers imbued ornament with aesthetic, psychological, and even ethical significance, and I show how the kind of difficult looking demanded by decorative design helped to shape the nineteenth-century novel. This project brings together novelists who explicitly evoke ornament in their writing, including George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James. These authors named novels and characters after decorative objects or patterns; their narratives engage meaningfully with architecture or bric-a-brac shops; they wrote passionate polemics for ornament as a means of beautifying the everyday. More significantly, this dissertation reveals how these novelists drew upon the decorative arts to produce distinct narrative and aesthetic effects. Some of these novels are structured peripherally, deploying sub-plots and accessorial characters to manage ideas that cannot be represented in the narrative center. In other cases, these novels negotiate a complex relationship between their superficial style and their deep matters, and demand a doubled attention to surface and structure in order to be appraised. In each case, these authors use ornamental language to consider how art tries to capture experience, and what topics may elude the novel’s formal boundaries. “The Ornamental Novel” unites artists, authors, and craftsmen, and shows how very different forms — novels, architecture, bric-a-brac, and floral artworks — were participating in a shared aesthetic project.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:41142049
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