Date of Award

4-30-2018

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English

First Advisor

Paul Schmidt

Second Advisor

Leeanne Richardson

Third Advisor

Melissa McLeod

Abstract

This project offers a comparative analysis of Charlotte Bronte’s fiction and British folk tradition, juxtaposing Bronte’s female protagonists with the myth of the selkie (seal-humans of the North Sea) to highlight elements of Bronte’s feminist vision that are otherwise inconspicuous through existing methods. In Scottish, Irish, and Faroese folklore, the selkie is a marine seal who is trapped by a fisherman in her human form and is forced to live as his wife on land. To ensure submission and obstruct her return to the sea, the fisherman hides her seal-skin. Forced to live an alternative existence in a surrogate home, the selkie is thus much like the individualistic women in nineteenth-century England compelled to forgo their inner natures and submit to becoming “the angel in the house.” Selkie tales invariably conclude with the selkie finding her seal-skin and leaving a grieving family on land to return to her original home, the sea. I argue that the Bronte heroines’ continual search of a space that grants them the opportunity to explore their subjectivity resembles the selkie’s search for her seal-skin. An in-depth character study of the female protagonists of Jane Eyre (1847), Shirley (1849), and Villette (1853), “A Selkie Tale” demonstrates Bronte’s use of three homeless, single, and most importantly, non-fallen women to protest the loss of female subjectivity in three prominent Victorian institutions: the home, the family, and the literary circle. In three chapters, I analyze how a Bronte heroine passes through three characteristically Victorian spaces to gain individuation: the home, the trained female mind within the home, and the community around that home. Each chapter presents these domains alongside their reversals to illustrate Bronte’s understanding of the paradoxes present in nineteenth-century gender norms and gendered spaces. Hence, as the chapters explicate the theories of, what I term, home and anti-home, self and anti-self, community and anti-community, to corroborate my argument, I use the three stages of a selkie’s life in the mythical narrative where she experiences the conflicts of home, self, and community.

Available for download on Wednesday, April 22, 2020

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