Date of Award
Open Access Dissertation
School of Arts and Humanities
Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member
Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member
© 2019 Mona M Syed
19th century English Literature, British Literature, English fin-de-siecle, Henry James, Modernism, Victorianism
English Language and Literature
Henry James once described emergent self—awareness of individual consciousness as an “illimitable power” that enables personal survival within a world that is, by default, unpredictable and volatile. Subsequent analyses of narrative subtleties and character evolution in James’s major works of fiction have often been considered through constructs of psychological realism. One particular aspect of the majority of early Jamesian criticism highlights the connections between stringent Victorian social mores and contemporaneously shifting perceptions of life in England toward the end of the 19th century. In the decades that followed, correlations between the Jamesian narrative and psychoanalytical theory became more prominent within mid— and late— 20th century critical reviews of James’s major works since Edmund Wilson’s seminal essay “The Ambiguity of Henry James” (1934); however, no critic has yet shown how James’s representations of the human mind as a cognitively dissonant entity within these narratives disrupt the imposition of adverse Victorian cultural sanctions. Thus, by introducing Leon Festinger’s 1957 theory on the concept of cognitive dissonance as a paradigm, I will examine how the bifurcated mindsets of four Jamesian characters — specifically Isabel Archer (The Portrait of a Lady), Fleda Vetch (The Spoils of Poynton), and Milly Theale and Kate Croy (The Wings of the Dove), respectively — meaningfully reflect an acceleration of tensions, complications, and obstacles that underlie the perpetuation of social homogeneity versus the burgeoning notion of autonomous identity at the end point of Victorianism.
Festinger defines the notion of cognitive dissonance as the human mind’s innate tendency to ensure all its metaphysical components (one’s personal thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, and opinions) are consistently harmonious at all times. When disruptions to this default commitment to psychic symmetry occur, Festinger posits, the mind will automatically rely upon certain drive states (such as denial, repression, projection, and irrational reasoning) in its attempts to reestablish a sense of cognitive equilibrium. As a literary framework, then, dissonance theory provides deeper insight into the discordant dualisms that are inherent within James’s own resistance to the Victorian dynamic. The depictions of internal strife within these four protagonists illuminate what has been described as James’s own efforts to convey that “realism is as much a mode of being as it is a form of art” by depicting how “estranging dehumanization can coexist … as it detaches, disorients, and reorients” via genuine portrayals of cognitive dissonance. At the fore of these conflicts is the Angel of the House — New Woman dichotomy that fractured and then redefined constructs of “ideal” femininity by the end of the 19th century. In this context of James’s narratively metonymic anticipation of a transitionally fraught fin de siècle, I will trace each character’s journey through cognitive dissonance via her center of consciousness. By giving his readers access to the heroine’s interiority (her “stream of consciousness,” in the terminology of James’s renowned psychologist brother William), James accentuates an ultimately irresolvable paradox: the desire for independence and acceptance that consistently drive Isabel, Fleda, Milly, and Kate toward their destinies is constantly subverted by the deceptively oppressive Old World social forces which they struggle against. What emerges is four distinct portraits that underscore fin de siècle ambivalence regarding change, self—identity, individuality, morality, virtue, and the increasingly tenuous sustainment of social conformity.
Syed, Mona Moin. (2019). The Role of Cognitive Dissonance in Fin de Siècle Jamesian Narratives. CGU Theses & Dissertations, 511. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgu_etd/511.