Through the Looking Glass Darkly: Episodes from the History of Deviance

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Through the Looking Glass Darkly: Episodes from the History of Deviance

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Title: Through the Looking Glass Darkly: Episodes from the History of Deviance
Author: Gavranovic, Altin
Citation: Gavranovic, Altin. 2012. Through the Looking Glass Darkly: Episodes from the History of Deviance. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: This dissertation is a cultural history of deviance in the United States. I use a series of case studies to examine the way deviant figures have been represented and experienced within American culture. The dissertation covers four historical eras and examines a representative deviant figure in each of them. The first chapter deals with the figure of the witch in Puritan New England, the second examines the libertine in the early American republic, the third deals with freaks in Victorian America and the fourth studies the flapper in the roaring twenties. Each of these chapters is focused on a particular historical crisis, trial or scandal that produced a rich body of historical evidence for study and analysis: the Salem Witch Trial of 1692, the Apthorp-Morton Scandal of 1788, the sensational Beecher-Tilton Affair of 1875 and the Ruth Snyder Trial of 1927. My overarching thesis is that representations of deviants reveal a deep cultural preoccupation with failure and inadequacy, which are projected onto deviant figures. This interpretation is an attempt to move beyond viewing representations of deviance as simply being attempts to repress those who do not conform to societal norms, or to shore up fragile social identities by creating ‘others’ against whom the normal American could be negatively defined. Instead, I argue that representations of deviance were compelling to the Americans who created them primarily as powerful fantasies about failure, lack and inadequacy. On to the rich symbolic canvas of the deviant figure, Americans projected their anxieties about personal and social failure. In different ways at different times, deviants have been used to articulate the various possible ways in which a person could fail to meet their society’s ideals and expectations, and to imagine the consequences of such failures for both individual personhood and society as a whole. The deviant has therefore historically served as a kind of mirror to the culture which produced him or her: a mirror in which a culture might darkly glimpse its own values, distorted by the terrifying failure to achieve that which is most prized.
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