The melodrama of subjectivity: genre as social fantasy in Henry James

Helscher, Thomas Patrick, Department of English, University of Virginia
Apprey, Maurice, MD-Psch Psychiatry and Nb Sciences, University of Virginia

This dissertation uses Henry James's career-long engagement with melodrama to describe the way genres serve simultaneously as necessary fantasy structures and alienating social institutions. Using as a model Freud's description of the working through of a neurotic complex, I trace the dynamic trajectory of James's work with melodrama.

Chapter one describes a theory of genre as a dialectical process that allows us to preserve a text's historicity while at the same time acknowledging our participation in the ongoing constitution and regulation of generic systems. Chapter two constructs a psychoanalytic theory of fantasy derived from Freud, Lacan, and Castoriadis to account for the way genres serve as psycho-social institutions that stage and pose solutions to fundamental questions about desire and identity. In chapter three, I describe the origin and development of melodrama as a fantasy response to the anxiety created by revolutionary social change. Using Lacan's seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, I argue that melodrama represents a transformation of revolutionary desire into the masochistic passivity of providentialism.

In chapters four, five, and six, I trace the process by which Henry James works through and thus transforms melodrama's passive masochistic dynamic. In chapter four, I argue that James attempts consciously to disavow melodrama in "Daisy Miller" only to find himself compulsively reenacting its unconscious logic of the primal scene. Chapter five describes the way James uses melodrama's renunciation of desire in his play "Guy Doraville" to create a heroic homosexual subject. I argue that James's use of melodrama in this work represents a flight from compulsory heterosexuality that opens up the possibility for the (re)emergence of desire as homoerotic. Chapter six argues that The Golden Bowl transforms passive masochistic suffering into active desire through the agency of speech. James's final novel thus offers us a melodrama grounded in an intersubjective speech community rather than a providential universe. The case of James and melodrama offers us a way of describing the process by which genres entrap us, how we can work through what James calls being "beguiled" by fantasy, and finally the limits to our ability to reconfigure our socially constructed fantasies.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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