Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Primitive marriage: Anthropology and nineteenth-century fiction
by Noble, Mary Agnes, Ph.D., Princeton University, 2010, 322; 3428547
Abstract (Summary)

In Primitive Marriage, however, I show that “primitivism” in imaginative literature emerged in the 1870s, when writers such as George Eliot and Thomas Hardy respond to anthropology in their fiction. These novelistic responses reflect the intensive focus of Victorian anthropology on myth and marriage, inaugurated by two influential works: Edward Burnett Tylor's Primitive Culture (1870), which focused primarily on myth, and John McLennan's Primitive Marriage (1865).

Victorian anthropologists were influenced by Walter's Scott's folklore recovery projects, since he was the first writer to apply theories of cultural evolution to the detailed study of folk culture. Under Scott's influence, moreover, novels became a unique medium that could integrate the poetry of primitive cultural forms with the naturalistic interpretive lens of the anthropologist, a productive fusion of romance and scientific social analysis. Chapter One examines precisely how Scott's fiction responds to anthropological themes and concerns raised by own folklore researches and by the proto-anthropological work of late eighteenth-century conjectural historians.

Eliot's interest in the evolution of marriage and sexuality is entirely absent from Scott's fiction, and only appears fleetingly, and suggestively, in his introduction to Roy Roy (1817), as I discuss in Chapter One. However, influential works of mid-Victorian anthropology, including McLennan's Primitive Marriage, lent scientific authority to an emerging popular association between “savage” life and sexual violence. Eliot and Hardy invoke the anthropology of marriage only to subvert it.

In Chapter Two, I explore the implications Middlemarch's allusions to anthropological descriptions of “primitive” male courtship behavior involving ritualistic fights over women. The novel aligns these ritualized expressions of desire with rhetorical forms such as chivalric love literature, and so draws attention to the culturally-constructed nature of a wide range of socially-sanctioned expressions of desire. Eliot thus stresses the commonality between diverse cultures, suggesting not only that desire transcends cultural difference, but also that human societies generally create comparable aesthetic forms to structure desire's public expression. Thus in Middlemarch, Eliot is careful to historicize everything except heterosexual relations, which are deliberately dehistoricized and transcendentalized.

Like Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda (1876) invokes an idea of “prehistoric” human emotion that is a source of ethical and loving relationships with others. However, whereas Middlemarch subverts cultural evolutionary readings of sexual behavior, Daniel Deronda reintroduces cultural evolution to explain its heroine's sexual psychology, and rejects universalizing Darwinian claims about women's biological nature, as I show in Chapter Three. Daniel Deronda's allusions to Darwin's arguments about motherhood and maternal infanticide are intertwined with allusions to the Medea story, and I argue that the novel makes these rather shocking allusions in order to expose the ways in which nineteenth-century discourse constructed womanhood as a choice between ideal motherhood and monstrosity. The novel instead dramatizes the idea that women's “primitive” or “natural” propensities are as diverse as men's, and that primitive emotions like irrational and quasi-religious fear can be harnessed as a form of conscience.

Hardy, too, was interested in the value of the primitive belief, but for its aesthetic rather than for its ethical potential. My fourth chapter shows that Hardy, along with Walter Pater and Andrew Lang, looked to Tylor's account of myth's development as a theory of literary evolution, and found in it an implication that contemporary literature might be revitalized by recuperating primitive cultural forms. I show that Hardy's research and thinking in these areas developed in early novels such as A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), and came to fruition in The Return of the Native (1878). In Chapter Five, I show that Hardy recuperates other primitive cultural forms, including the folk dance and the ballad, in The Return and in Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891). These novels present folk dancing in sensualized aesthetic terms as a source of primitive ecstasy and “pagan-self-adoration,” implicitly celebrating folk culture as a source of resistance to Victorian sexual mores.

Hardy more explicitly invokes anthropology in the service of social critique in Jude the Obscure (1895), as my concluding chapter shows. In dramatizing contemporary debates over sexual politics, the novel's heroine, Sue, uses the terms of cultural evolutionism to denounce her society's sexual mores as “barbarous” or “savage.” In this respect, the novel reflects on a major trend in 1890s public debates over sexuality and marriage: the prevalence of appeals to anthropological theories to support normative claims. The anthropologist Edward Westermarck contributed to these debates with his History of Human Marriage (1891), which suggests that sexual reform will need to accommodate inherited instincts. My chapter shows that Jude engages with Westermarck's ideas in its staging of the conflict between Victorian marriage laws and the protagonists' desires for sexual freedom, which the novel codes as Pagan and primitive. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: DiBattista, Maria, Nord, Deborah
School: Princeton University
School Location: United States -- New Jersey
Source: DAI-A 71/11, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: British and Irish literature
Keywords: Anthropology, Eliot, George, Hardy, Thomas, Marriage, Nineteenth century, Novel, Primitivism, Victorian
Publication Number: 3428547
ISBN: 9781124280172
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