This dissertation examines how writing and publishing serial fiction exacerbated nineteenth-century authors’ concerns about their obligations to the reading public. As authors produced original fiction for publication in part, they acknowledged that the serial format encouraged readers to emotionally invest in their work. While they appreciated and profited from the public’s attachment, authors simultaneously worried that their readers would fail to fully intuit the moral messages latent in their fiction. This concern for readers’ moral welfare prompted them to fashion narrators who openly attempted to guide readers’ emotional reactions to their texts. As authors monitored how readers responded to installments in real time, they modified their narrative strategy to encourage “proper reading” and crafted narrators that could serve as guides and guardians of the reading experience. I claim that this way of composing fiction, of writing and responding to contemporary criticism, creates a feedback loop that connects authors, readers, and narrators, and reveals authors’ anxieties about fiction’s ability to inspire moral behavior. I examine five authors – Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Makepeace Thackery, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot – who were explicitly concerned about the ways their fiction resonated in the public sphere. All of these writers accepted morality as a function of artistic purpose and crafted strong narrators that openly attempted to mediate readers’ emotional reactions to their fiction. However, their earnest efforts could not ensure the reactions they desired. As I trace the development of narrators throughout the period, I detect a growing unease with the idea that authors and their narrators could govern readers’ emotional responses. While Victorian authors consistently structured their texts to prompt moral reflection, they grew increasingly skeptical of their ability to ensure that readers grasped the nuances of their fiction, and as the century progressed, their narrators reflect their growing skepticism that art could be mediated by a creator.
Language and Literature, English and American
Number of Pages
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McWilliams, Katelyn, "Feedback Loops: Authors, Readers And Narrators In Nineteenth-Century British Literature" (2022). English Theses and Dissertations. 14.
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