Modern epiphany from Wordsworth to Joyce

Losey, Jay Brian, Department of English, University of Virginia
Langbaum, Robert, Department of English, University of Virginia

In this dissertation, I trace the origins and development of modern secular epiphany. In chapters devoted to Wordsworth, Pater, Conrad, and Joyce, I note the subtle changes that have transformed the romantic moment, what Wordsworth termed a "spot of time," into an aesthetic concept Joyce named "epiphany." Its versatility as a psychological concept--one that transcends generic boundaries--distinguishes modern epiphany from religious moments and discloses a continuity in British literature from romantic to modern, connecting such diverse works as The Prelude and Marius the Epicurean, Heart of Darkness and Ulysses. These four writers employ different versions of the epiphanic mode to dramatize and transform their characters' experience. The varieties of direct, delayed, and dream epiphanies--three specific types of modern epiphany-- all point toward a gathering emphasis on individual consciousness, a primary motif in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature. To convey impressions, a writer usually describes a specific, commonplace object that becomes a highly charged image in the moment of transformation. Each writer further dramatizes the nonrational nature of epiphanic experience by making the transformation occur simultaneously in the reader's imagination. Whether defined as Wordsworth's "spots of time," Pater's "privileged moments," Conrad's "moments of awakening," or Joyce's "epiphanies," modern epiphany highlights a shift from social to private vision in the poetry and prose I examine. Wordsworth receives credit for establishing modern epiphany because in his poetry he secularizes those divinely inspired moments characteristic of Augustine's Confessions. Pater transposes this poetic device into his fiction. Conrad dramatizes epiphany as psychological self-exploration. And Joyce extends epiphany into the subconscious realm of dreams. I begin my study by defining epiphany, examining its various types in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, and explaining Rousseau's pre-epiphanic moments in the Confessions. The post-Enlightenment obsession to understand the disparity between objective time--measured by clocks and calendars--and subjective time--measured by the inner duration of our thoughts--suggests the centrality of epiphany to Romantic, Victorian, and modern literature.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
English literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism, English literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism, Epiphanies in literature
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