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Title:Matters of verisimilitude: transitional and transnational realisms in Ireland, 1880-1940
Author(s):McLeer, Heather A
Director of Research:Mahaffey, Vicki
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Mahaffey, Vicki
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Hansen, James; Gaedtke, Andrew; Saville, Julia
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Irish literature
Irish theatre
British literature
Literary realism
20th-century Irish literature
Modernist literature
Abstract:Critics often narrate the Irish Literary Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a rejection of literary realism, specifically its English incarnation. Critics such as David Lloyd and Terry Eagleton have argued that the conditions of colonial Ireland – social instability, the absence of an independent middle class, bilingual culture, and the alternative expectations of plot and narrative engendered by a primarily oral culture – were at odds with the conditions conducive to the realist novel, resulting in half-formed attempts at realism or a stunted naturalism. I argue instead that these narratives reproduce the cultural nationalism and anti-realist prejudices of leading figures of the Revival and do not satisfactorily account for the debates among Irish writers of this period of the nature and value of realism for an Irish literary project. This project argues that a class of Irish writers working during what is generally considered the transition from realism to modernism drew on the resources of transnational models of realism and adapted them to the “semiperipheral” space and subject of Ireland to develop an emergent Irish realism. In effect, this Irish realism allowed for a form of literary triangulation between Ireland, England, and the Continent that challenges the notion that literary realism at this time was a strictly metropolitan form. Irish realism, as an often Catholic and indigenous attempt to engage with broader, transnational definitions of realism, shifted the definition of realism in ways that carried the potential to remedy the parochialism common to French and English realisms. A second concern of this project is to explore the fraught emergence of a realist literary project in Ireland at a moment when the very nature of an Irish national literature was being contested. David Lloyd observes that “matters of verisimilitude” were at stake in the formation of an Irish national identity and literary canon, an observation that highlights the sociopolitical stakes of incorporating nationally bounded realist traditions into an emergent Irish literature. I argue that an explicit debate about the value of realism took place in Ireland, one that attempted to reevaluate and articulate what realism meant under different national headings and the ideological implications of adapting those realisms to new national contexts. I begin by addressing how George Moore, a proponent of French realism in Ireland, staged the failure of Bildungsroman tropes in the context of colonial Ireland in order to propose an alternative realism that could respond to Irish conditions. I then trace W.B. Yeats’ early (and failed) attempts to privilege Symbolism as a non-realist, non-English transnational influence on the Abbey Theatre and the broader Revival project. I furthermore consider how Yeats’ aesthetic project positioned the Abbey Theatre as a site of troubled realist appropriation, arguing that J.M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World adopted a deliberately oppositional hybrid mode of comedy and realism in order to resist the cultural nationalism of the literary Revival. I conclude with an analysis of how these instantiations of an Irish realism informed the emergence of high modernism in Ireland through an examination of Elizabeth Bowen’s experiments with the interior monologue and psychological realism. By tracing the emergence and contestation of literary realism over the course of the literary Revival and the years following, this project uncovers how realism in Ireland functioned as a counterweight to romanticized cultural nationalism and proposed broader, more inclusive notions of Irishness.
Issue Date:2017-04-14
Rights Information:Copyright 2017 Heather McLeer
Date Available in IDEALS:2017-08-10
Date Deposited:2017-05

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