Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

The Case of the Self-Conscious Detective Novel: Modernism, Metafiction, and the Terms of Literary Value
by Eisenberg, Mollie Copley, Ph.D., Princeton University, 2020, 259; 28002218
Abstract (Summary)

In this project, I read the self-conscious formal elements of the detective fiction of Dorothy L. Sayers, Raymond Chandler, and Agatha Christie as critical engagements with the literary aesthetics of canonical literary modernism (Joyce, Woolf, Eliot). I argue that this offers new understandings of modernist epistemics and undermines both the critical consensus of antithesis between the two forms and the constructions of literary value and aesthetic experience that consensus supports.

My first chapter reads the “metafictional shadow plot” of Sayers’s Harriet Vane novels—and her rehearsal for them in the set piece of the interrogation of a Bloomsbury bookcase in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. I argue in this chapter that the investigatory apparatus of detection, in a subversion of “backwards construction,” allows Sayers to play out an exploratory aesthetic investigation into the literary value of her own genre that ultimately precipitates her departure from it—perhaps in part because she does not have the socioaesthetic standing to generate new positions in the field of cultural production that might be occupied by what she imagines as “another kind of book.”

My second chapter moves across the Atlantic to observe Chandler remapping the genre’s terrain in “The Simple Art of Murder,” replicating the formal self-consciousness of “British” detective fiction even as he defines the emergent hardboiled against it. I then argue that in The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely Chandler’s metatexts stage a critique of shallow elite aesthetics, representing and enacting the power dynamics of socioaesthetic distinction and intertextually elegizing the literary hero. 

My final chapter traces the evolution of self-conscious textuality over the long arc of Agatha Christie’s career. I argue that Christie’s early metatexts resist cohesion into narrative or argument, insisting instead on the irrelevance of textual surfaces. New epistemic stakes and concerns emerge in the metatextual elements of Christie’s detective late novels, though, and I argue that these link epistemic and aesthetic abstractions to lived experience and suggest new understandings of the relationship between literary modernity and postmodernity.

In my conclusion, I begin by reading Sayers’s first and last novels as a theologically influenced rejection of modernist epistemics that illustrates the stakes of criticism. I situate the self-conscious detective novel as a meeting place for formalist and materialist accounts of twentieth-century literary aesthetics. Demonstrating the implication of academic literary criticism in the production of socioaesthetic distinction that coheres around modernism and detection, I argue for a reevaluation of critical understandings of truth value and the uses of literature in light of the epistemic, aesthetic, and cultural dead ends to which they have led in the contemporary moment. 

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: DiBattista, Maria
Commitee: Gleason, William, Widiss, Benjamin
School: Princeton University
Department: English
School Location: United States -- New Jersey
Source: DAI-A 82/4(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: British and Irish literature, Modern literature, Aesthetics, American literature
Keywords: Detective Fiction, Metafiction, Modernism, Sociology of Literature
Publication Number: 28002218
ISBN: 9798684653506
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