The Redemption of Allegory

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Fisher, Julia, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Edmundson, Mark
McGann, Jerome
Ogden, Emily

Samuel Taylor Coleridge doomed allegory to the dustbin in the early 19th century—or at least he tried to. He alleged that allegory is uninteresting for its lack of richness or complexity. But across the pond, only a few decades later, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville wrote texts that, though they profess not to be, are undeniably allegorical, and far from simplistic, mechanical, definite, or easy. This dissertation argues that, despite the romantic taboo against allegory, allegory emerges as a potent way to test the limits of how figurative meaning is transmitted. I trace the story of how Shelley, Hawthorne, and Melville reveal allegory to be more complicated, more lasting than Coleridge imagined. I argue that Hawthorne and Melville do not simply attempt to move beyond allegory. Shelley’s figures offer a glimpse of how one might bypass Coleridge’s critique. But Hawthorne and Melville both write fiction that takes up the problem of allegory head-on, considering, often with allegory as a method as well as a subject, the nature, purpose, and efficacy of allegory. I read their fiction, which often has an epistemological bent, as not just failing to move beyond allegory but as actually being about allegory. Hawthorne sees allegory as an incarnation of the Unpardonable Sin, but he also sees that it is a sin the literary tradition dooms him to perpetuate. I argue that Hawthorne’s messier allegories grant his reader a new kind of freedom, and perhaps a small window of escape from the Unpardonable Sin of traditional allegory. Melville’s characters are vexed by just the kind of epistemological questions that allegory and allegoresis raise, and their inability to land on any solid answers means they can never stop teasing out whether allegory is an appropriate mode of thought. In Hawthorne and Melville’s hands, allegory takes on new forms. But these more difficult, more anxious allegories, suited to their new landscape, offer redemption for the whole mode of allegory. Allegory becomes far more interesting when, in these writers’ hands, it becomes a problem.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
19th century, allegory, Hawthorne, Melville, romanticism, American
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