UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The use of myth as metaphor for private experience in nineteenth-century autobiography Egan, Susanna


This thesis explores two apparently contradictory problems. It assumes that the autobiographer would like to "tell the truth" about himself as no one else could tell it. If this assumption is just, however why does the nineteenth-century autobiographer so commonly use formal literary conventions in order to describe large stretches of experience? In particular, why does the myth of paradise and paradise lost so frequently describe childhood and the end of childhood? Why does a journey represent the maturing youth? What sense do standard descriptions of conversion and confession make of private experience? Attempting to reconcile this contradiction between the expression of personal experience and the use of stereotypical forms, this thesis looks first at the inevitability of fiction in any written account. Fiction is inevitable because words act as translation for experience and because the individual translates every experience into the altered form of his perception. Altering himself and his life by the primary acts of perception and writing, the autobiographer translates himself into a character in a book and the events of his life into a story. Autobiographical works by William Hale White and George Moore exemplify the translation of the living man into the fictive narrator. Newman's sickness in Sicily and De Quincey's departure from school exemplify the translation of variegated experience into the particular and familiar narrative forms of conversion and confession. If the fictive character and story are inevitable results of any attempt to write autobiography, then it makes sense to examine these literary conventions that recur so frequently in autobiography as myths described by Frye as the typical forms for typical actions or by Jung as forms without content. They are explored here, each in turn, as metaphors for private experience in a few core texts. Autobiographical works by Rousseau, Wordsworth, George Moore, and Thomas Carlyle provide basic exemplary material which is extended in particular instances by examination of autobiographical works by William Hale White, De Quincey, and John Stuart Mill. For exploration of childhood, I have turned to some Russian autobiographers who pay significant attention to childhood. For confession, some early confessional works provide an historical context. In order to understand why and how the myths of paradise, the journey, conversion, and confession can serve as metaphors for private experience, each form is examined in turn in its relation to myth, religion, and human psychology. Paradise and paradise lost, for example, examined in the light of other creation myths and of certain generally accepted truths about child psychology, can be seen to describe with considerable efficiency some essential truths about the life of every child and the problems inherent in recreating one's own childhood. Similarly, the heroic journey, which derives from myth, epic, and religion, and which takes the hero quite literally through hell, describes significant aspects both of maturation, the development of a coherent identity, and of the process of writing an autobiography. Confession, or the narration of the heroic tale, describes the return of the hero and represents the autobiography itself. This narration takes the form of metaphor at every stage precisely because its subject, the individual identity, is unique and inaccessible and because events and endings are less significant than meanings and identity; the character and his story depend on such complex representation for their hidden truths to be made manifest. Deriving from myths, which provide the forms for recurrent experience, and from those common psychological conditions from which the myths themselves derive, these metaphors are the servants of individual need and are efficient purveyors of intersubjective meaning.

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