Wasting Romanticism: Melancholic Hunger and Maternal Remains in Mary Shelley, Thomas De Quincey, and Emily Brontë Open Access

Markley, Hannah Halpin (2017)

Permanent URL: https://etd.library.emory.edu/concern/etds/ng451j341?locale=en


This dissertation examines the works of three nineteenth-century authors for whom acts of eating not only fail to nourish the body, but systematically waste and destroy it. Thomas De Quincey's "opium-eating" is an exemplary case, but gustatory fixations also appear in the work of Mary Shelley and Emily Brontë. Characters in Frankenstein, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and Wuthering Heights reject most actual foods reaching instead for drugs, alcohol, body parts, and inanimate objects. By reading theories of mourning alongside the peculiar consumption patterns of these texts, I join together literary interpretations of bodily experience, representations of eating and its privation, and psychoanalytic, as well as deconstructive accounts of mourning and melancholia. To this end, I explore the ways in which pathological dietary regimes in each of these three authors displace explicit representations of mourning, producing ruptures in language, memory, and perception. My project explicitly intervenes in Romantic literary studies by exposing how these three texts problematize eating as a symbolic and even literary act. That is, for these authors eating is not merely an index of cultural preference, class consciousness, political allegiance, or historical contingency. Rather, Shelley, De Quincey, and Brontë redefine eating by linking oral consumption and digestive processes to melancholic repressions of reproductive sex and, more broadly, to the symbolic roles mothers play in these processes. Drawing from "Mourning and Melancholia," as well as psychoanalytic theory since Freud, in each chapter I show the ways that melancholic eating represses the loss of a mother and simultaneously materializes that loss by wasting the body. Deriving the contradictory actions of eating and wasting from the mother's early role as a food source, I read melancholic repressions of mothers in the proliferation of discourses of eating and hunger in the absence of any actual foods. Through tales of addiction, anorexia, and alcoholism, Shelley, De Quincey, and Brontë negotiate these maternal substrates of mourning and melancholia and they do so over fifty years before the invention of psychoanalysis. However, I am less interested in reading psychoanalysis as one of Romanticism's legacies, than in how the works of Shelley, De Quincey, and Brontë explore the entanglement of language, memory, perception, and reproduction in ways that at once illuminate - and can be illuminated by - psychoanalytic and deconstructive theories of eating, mourning, and survival.

Furthermore, I argue that the dynamics of melancholic eating and survival illuminate the peculiar historical moment these authors inhabit between the Romantic and Victorian periods. Shelley, De Quincey, and Brontë survive Romanticism, living and writing well into the Victorian period. However, they are not exactly Victorian authors. Rather, they curate the major figures and themes of the Romantic period for the Victorian era in narratives of wasting and wasted consumption. Their significance for defining the Romantic period in relation to the next can be perceived in literary history's inability to classify these figures as strictly Victorian or Romantic. I call this uneasy situation their "wasted Romanticism."

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Apple Core 1

1. Remorse: Frankenstein's Eating Disorders 26

2. "Sister, sister, sister!": Sudden Death, Opium Dreams,

and Reproduction in Thomas De Quincey's Confessional Writings 85

3. Emily Brontë's Tears: Hunger and Suicide in Wuthering Heights 123

4. Afterlives: Eating, Technology, and Waste in the Twenty-First Century 183

Bibliography 225

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