Stilted Boys and Very Plucky Girls: Melodrama, Irony, and Englishness in Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford

Murphy, John, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Levenson, Michael, English, University of Virginia
Arata, Stephen, English, University of Virginia
Chase, Karen, English, University of Virginia

This dissertation takes up ways in which key archetypes and emblems of English melodrama – English seamen, Tory gentlemen, and Anglican saints; damsels-in-distress and suffragettes – are staged, then restaged, in innovative ways, in the midst of existential crises in the parallel careers of the sometime literary partners Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford – personal crises that echo the cultural crises of “The Death of Liberal England” and The First World War. These stagings and restagings draw on prior Continental-European and British literary modes – the Polish gaweda in Conrad’s case and the English pantomime in Ford’s own – to proffer in the English novel an unexpected modernist or even post-modernist mode, one in which ironic modernity and modernist irony are ironized and modernized themselves, in ways that show the reciprocity, the reversibility of all the ironies, ironic hierarchies, and generic trajectories on which such stagings depend. Conrad’s gawedic mode in the novel Chance (1914), then Ford’s pantomimic mode in the novel-sequence Parade’s End (1924-1928), discover means of romantic pursuit of “the moral occult” in the course of melodramas out at moral extremes, adventures like those of stilted boys and very plucky girls. And they likewise discover novel means of comic resolution of those moral crises, means that mark one version of an end to the modernist trajectory, and with it the start of something new. Conrad’s crisis in Chance, then Ford’s in Parade’s End mark crises in English fiction and literary culture more generally, ones resolved by comic and romantic means, resolved through reciprocal, reversible senses of ironic modernity and modernist irony both, which open up a space for new adventures out beyond those same terms.
Chapter One, “Between Jest and Earnest: Chance, Englishness, and Irony,” treats Conrad’s emigration to English domestic melodrama in his final Marlow tale, the best-selling Chance, which draws on Conrad’s prior sense of Polishness to stage his adopted Englishness by means of a complicated irony that mediates “between jest and earnest” in uncanny ways. Chapter Two, “Pictures from Dickens: Chance, Melodrama, and Irony” details the comic process by which Marlow’s staging of the “damsel” Flora de Barral in terms of a satirical burlesque on Dickensian themes is finally satirized itself by Flora’s unexpected irony at Marlow’s expense. Chapter Three, “Creatures of Light Literature: Chance, Melodrama, and The Moral Occult” concerns the novel’s restaging of itself in the fairy-tale terms of comic romance, as Flora turns away from an intended suicide to seize life’s chances for love and hope against depression and despair.
Chapter Four, “The ‘Ind Legs of The Elephink: English Pantomime and Parade’s End” treats Ford’s more sustained elaboration of Conrad’s discoveries in Chance, by means of a fictional mode derived from English pantomime, a mode with a native poise between earnest and jest. Chapter Five, “Prophecy and Tosh: Eirons, Alazons, and Parade’s End” details Ford’s pantomimic staging of his “mealsack elephant” Christopher Tietjens as poised between the status of an alazon or object of irony and the status of an eiron, or agent of irony, in pivotal turn. Chapter Six, “It’s Boon To Tak Up!: From Tragic Satire to Comic Romance in Parade’s End” concerns the pivot of the whole novel-sequence toward a final resolution as comic romance, set against the tragic satire of The First World War and the militant modernity Ford’s series transcends, like Conrad’s Chance.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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