UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Imagination and mediation: eighteenth-century British novels and moral philosophy. Wells, Michael


This study provides a new account of the evolution of the eighteenth-century British novel by reading it as a response to contemporary interest in, and self-consciousness about, print communication. During the eighteenth century, print went from being a marginal technology to being one with an increasingly wide circulation and a diverse range of applications. The pervasive adoption of print generated anxiety about its positive and negative effects, prompting a series of responses from writers. Examining the work of five British novelists from across the long eighteenth century, this dissertation investigates the influence of eighteenth-century philosophical thinking about human understanding and social interaction on the assumptions that these novelists made about the way their work would be received. In particular, this thesis explores the ways in which these novelists respond to contemporary philosophical ideas about the cognitive functions of the imagination by experimenting with the form of their work in order to generate new kinds of reception. But this study also shows that, while these five novelists drew on the tenets of eighteenth-century moral philosophy, their work exposed a number of the limitations of that philosophy by putting it into practice. Each chapter in this study focuses on a different aspect of the intersection of mediation and imagination. Chapter One considers the ways in which Locke's understanding of probability informed Richardson's attempts to promote specific affective reading practices with his epistolary fictions and editorial commentary. Chapter Two reads Sterne's manipulations of the material page in Tristram Shandy as an attempt to expose the limitations of print communication and to suggest new ways of reading that could overcome those limitations. Chapter Three examines the writing of Smith, Kames, Mackenzie, Reeve and Godwin in order to illustrate both the promise and the danger that these authors attribute to imaginative sympathy and to the reading practices that promote sympathetic reactions. Chapter Four explores Scott's experiments with a form of fiction that could collapse the distance between writing and orality in order to force readers to reevaluate the complex relationship of sound and writing in the establishment of communities in an age of print.

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