Explaining the Depiction of Violence Against Women in Victorian Literature. Applying Julia Kristeva’s Theory of Abjection to Dickens, Bronte, and Braddon

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Examines the causes of the abject response in canonical novels such as Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd and Lady Audley’s Secret. In Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva outlines her theory of abjection as a simultaneous fascination and horror stemming from sensorial reminders of the subject’s primal, psychological relation to the mother. The author suggests that these psychological perspectives can potentially result in acts of physical violence, which are called “abject response”. By developing Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection as a model for reading physical acts of violence against women, the book yields specific answers to its overriding questions: Why was a female body so threatening in nineteenth-century fiction? The answer lies in social constructions of women as powers of horror, which the male subject imbibes and which lead to domestic violence if improperly balanced.


“Professor Karen Tatum’s study of violence against women in Victorian fiction examines the implications of an unusual insight. Victorian novels represent the abusive behavior of males as a product of their own illusions about the women they threaten, intimidate, punch, or strangle. Thus the feminist analysis of novelistic violence against women has to begin with a look at the male abusers and their represented motivations. The key element in that critique is Professor Tatum’s compelling argument for the trope of an “abject response”. This important modification of Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection reinterprets male characters who react violently against their own memories of early childhood and its association with the maternal, which they project onto the female(s) they abuse. “What particularly strikes the reader of this original study is the broad implications of its findings. While examining several well-known overt scenes of misogynistic violence, like Syke’s murder of Nancy in Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, Professor Tatum draws attention to a subtler pattern of implicit violence against women that permeates Victorian fiction. As Tatum notes, most violence is reported indirectly, occurring outside the immediate narrative, either in the past or at some other narrative distance, or through threats of violence, and it is this broader culture of violence that she isolates and analyzes in the novels under consideration. The nineteenth century that saw the emergence of The Woman Question as a prominent subject of debate; it also saw a host of legislative responses to the problems faced by married women—the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Acts of 1857 and 1878, the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882, and the Summary Jurisdiction (Married Women) Act of 1895, which protected women driven from their homes by spousal abuse. Once attuned to the pervasive climate that Professor Tatum at last identifies, the reader’s view of fiction written during this time period will be indelibly changed.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) Peter Melville Logan, Associate Professor of English, Temple University, Philadelphia

“Dr. Karen Tatum’s strength as a theorist lies in her bodied re-definition of Victorian sacrificial ideologies of womanhood – her filtering of Julia Kristeva’s concept of objection through the dialectics and feminist argument posed by such figures as Judith Butler and Lillian Faderman Tatum’s contribution to studies of Victorian fictional texts as representations of cultural ideology is likewise a forward projection of original synthesis.…This is a first class scholarly book, combining theoretical sophistication with superb powers of reading out into new and important critical and cultural studies discoveries. I recommended to any reader interested in issues of sexuality and power relations in modernist literature and culture.” – Professor Philip D. Beidler, University of Alabama

“Dr. Tatum’s work–with its polemical edge and sincerity, its grounding in real-life concerns such as domestic violence and the sexual stigmatizing of women–will revivify the critical discourse, reminding us just how much bodies and books really matter.” – Professor Celia R. Daileader, Florida State University

"A welcome supplement to [abjection studies]." - The Years Work in Critical and Cultural Studies

Table of Contents

1. Hollowing Out Abjection
2. “Something Covered with an Old Blanket” Nancy and Other Dead Mothers in Oliver Twist
3. The Domestication of Violence in Jane Eyre
4. Bearing Her Secret: Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd
5. Lady Audley’s Secret: The Angel in the House is “Dangerous!”
Conclusion: Hollowing Out Abjection Through The Crisis of the Word
Bibliography: Works Consulted
Works Cited

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