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Masochistic pleasures of detection in the sensation novels of Wilkie Collins Page, Leanne Nicole


This study analyzes and accounts for the mixed emotional responses to three Wilkie Collins novels: The Dead Secret (1857), The Woman in White (1860), and The Law and the Lady (1875). Contemporary reviews of these novels, in addition to Collins’s comments on the reception of his works, suggest that these novels elicited both positive and negative emotions in readers who took a “masochistic” pleasure in reading frustrating and often terrifying texts. In the role of detective, Collins’s reader is placed in the uncomfortable and untenable position of disciplinarian (ferreting out secrets and restoring moral order) and of transgressor (reading secret diaries, adopting disguises, eavesdropping, and spying). Collins’s novels portray scenes of masochistic reading: faced with the impossibilities of detection or interpretation resulting from the instability of text, Collins’s characters mimic the reader’s own frustrating interpretive activities. Detection that relies on the text as dependable evidence becomes a psychologically painful activity when texts do not open themselves up to easy interpretation. In addition to the mixed emotional responses produced by acts of detection, the act of reading novels generally (and the sensation novel in particular) has produced strong emotional responses in both literary critics and non-literary observers. The historical context of sensation novel adds an additionally masochistic “layer” or dimension to the reading of these novels. If sensation novels were considered guilty pleasures in of themselves, separate from the guilty pleasures of detection and interpretation of private secrets and criminal activities within the narratives, the guilty pleasure of reading sensation novels would reinforce the reader’s position as transgressor, in addition to his or her position as snooping amateur detective. My project engages existing scholarly works while approaching the subject of emotional responses to literary interpretation (mimicked by the detection in which the novels’ characters are engaged), and while looking at the affective combination of pleasure, terror, anticipation, and guilt, and its role in the popularity of Collins’s novels. This study employs contemporary and historical theories of emotion and masochism as well as scholarship on detective fiction to explain why detection in Collins’s novels is masochistically pleasurable for both readers and characters.

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