To walk with you through Vanity Fair : the rhetoric of satire and sentiment in the novels of Thackeray, Trollope, Gaskell, and Dickens.

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2016-08-03

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My dissertation examines the interaction of the literary modes of satire and sentiment in four nineteenth-century British novels. I challenge dominant critical consensus which holds satire and sentiment to be contradictory modes, directly opposed to one another in aim and outlook. I argue that the modes of satire and sentiment are not contradictory, but compatible; they share important formal characteristics and work towards similar rhetorical ends. Though satiric and sentimental fiction arose out of differing conceptions of human nature, they are both inherently rhetorical modes that have as their goal the moral reformation of the reader. Though the satirist believes mankind to be predisposed to wickedness and the sentimentalist to goodness, they both endeavor to encourage the reader to turn from the vicious and act with virtue. Central to my argument is the notion that both modes share a reliance on sympathy as the primary weapon to combat the vices of vanity and affectation that result in a world devoid of compassion. The similarity of rhetorical purpose and conventions leads me to propose that nineteenth-century authors incorporate satire and sentiment together as a single rhetorical tool, what I call the Rhetoric of Satire and Sentiment. I adopt this term to denote a particular rhetorical and stylistic model available to writers that enables them to achieve a particular rhetorical end within a narrative text. Drawing upon recent work in genre theory, I propose that the Rhetoric of Satire and Sentiment performs a social action by creating and shaping an understanding of the world off the page. The authors my dissertation explores employs the Rhetoric of Satire and Sentiment in order to expose the viciousness of the morally treacherous social world, and encourage the reader to virtue by engendering compassionate identification. The world of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, for instance, is so morally bankrupt that the reader must look to the narrator for a moral standard. The narrator’s combination of satiric ridicule and sincere compassion for his characters encourages the readers to form an extra-textual community of readers bound by a shared sympathy and longing for a better world.

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