Date of Award

Spring 2022

Degree Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

English, PhD


School of Arts and Humanities

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Eric Bulson

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Patricia Easton

Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member

Sarah Raff

Terms of Use & License Information

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.

Rights Information

© 2022 Melissa S Bishop-Magallanes


While some might consider epistolary novels of the long-eighteenth century as the sentimental purview of women readers, this research proposes that many of these epistolary novels serve as powerful markers in the gender wars of this era. While an overall sense of optimism pervaded Britain’s long-eighteenth century, people still grappled with foundational moral questions. These questions came to be addressed in increasingly secular ways by moral philosophy. As these philosophers occupied influential government, law, and publishing positions, their ideas and works greatly influenced the public imagination. The publications of moral philosophers—such as John Locke, the third Earl of Shaftesbury, Joseph Butler, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Jeremy Bentham—sparked the imaginations of some of the era’s top epistolary novelists who dramatized their philosophical theories in fictional moral experiments. This project investigates how and why the novelists Aphra Behn, Samuel Richardson, Sarah Fielding, Frances Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mary Shelley literalized the dialectics of certain moral philosophers. This research asserts that the novelists adopted the structure of the three-stage moral dialectic found in moral sentiment theories and patterned their novels and their characters’ psychological processes to be a literalization of the moral-philosophical dialectics. As the novelists use the realist epistolary genre, they capture real-world settings and complex psychologies with startling accuracy, prompting interpretive questions regarding character ethics and credibility. Literary analysis reveals that the novelists designed fictional plotlines that facilitate inevitable moral dilemmas for the characters to contemplate and determine their moral actions. These plotlines and character dilemmas follow a three-stage moral dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. While no one to one pairing of novelist and moral philosopher is identified or argued for, the literary analysis reveals undeniable mutual influences and metatextual responses across the works chosen for this project. In the thesis stage, novelists have their characters literalize the philosopher’s process of contemplation. For example, Aphra Behn designs her characters to dramatize John Locke’s focus on applying experience-based knowledge in the process of refuting received social customs. This novelist-philosopher connection also appears in Samuel Richardson’s characters who emulate Shaftesburean principles when they depend upon their innate moral sense to ascertain the virtuous path in a precarious situation. After the contemplative thesis stage is played out, the novelists move to the antithesis stage, which expresses a state of skepticism wherein the characters are unwilling or unable to bridge the gap from moral knowledge to moral behavior. The novelists then dramatize the synthesis stage, which resolves the unstable condition of the antithesis state, through some external regulatory structure. The specifics of the resolution vary across the novels depending on which moral philosopher’s stance is adopted. For instance, Frances Burney’s warning novel of The Wanderer; or, Female Difficulties (1814), literalizes the importance of everyone adhering to David Hume’s General Rule and of respecting class boundaries. This project uses narratology focused on diegetic framing levels and voice styles to analyze how the novelists shift first-person epistolary voices and third-person omniscient voices to convey their perspectives regarding the social benefits of living out these moral philosophies. Specifically, the novelists assert how the external regulatory structures impact women, eliciting praise or criticism from the various authors. In these designed fictional worlds, this research asserts that several novelists develop narrators who emulate a moral philosopher’s specific concept of an “imagined internal entity.” This entity functions as a self-reflexive tool for thinking and assessing a situation’s holistic moral implications and potential actions. For example, this entity refers to Shaftesbury’s “critical self,” Butler’s “conscience,” and Smith’s “Impartial Spectator.” This project ultimately asserts that the stage three synthesis presents the most significant social commentary posed by the novelists. In this stage three turn to external regulatory structures, such as marriage in particular or the law in general, some of the novelists—such as Samuel Richardson, Sarah Fielding, and Frances Burney—applaud the philosopher’s proposal for regulating social harmony. However, other novelists—such as Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mary Shelley—use their fictional works to dramatize how this turn to external regulatory structures led to gender and class discrimination, to the point of women experiencing social condemnation, unjust imprisonment, and capital punishment.