Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Tilottama Rajan


Dark Sympathy: Desiring the Other in Godwin, Coleridge, and Shelley explores how Romantic writers took up and responded to eighteenth-century discourses of sympathy in the context of an increasingly influential materialist epistemology and ontology. In its formulation by David Hume and Adam Smith, sympathy plays a central role in society, using the imagination to smooth over uncertainties about the status of the self and its relation to the world that might otherwise paralyze human activity. Sympathy therefore carries a twofold purpose: on the one hand, it provides a feasible substitute for personal identity; on the other hand, it facilitates social interaction. While these ends are not incompatible in Hume’s work, given his pragmatic suspension of any overly idealistic desire, the effect of an emerging materialist discourse upon English Romantic writing is to widen the representational gap between the self and the external world. In its insistence upon a hard distinction between human ideas about the world and its potentially inaccessible true constitution, the threat of materiality conflicts with the socializing conceit of the sympathetic imagination. If sympathy is the key vehicle for social cohesion in the modern era, then “dark” sympathy recalls the rejected or unmanageable strands of desire for the other. The Romantic fascination with negative affects, anti- or counter-social thought, and limit-experiences prompts them to find means of representing these transcendent desires.

Where the dissertation’s first two chapters undertake an intellectual history of sympathy and materialism, the last three chapters on William Godwin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Mary Shelley read their works as attempting to sublimate this conflict by experimenting with forms of what Jean-Luc Nancy calls “community,” which is the bare relation of being-with-others uninformed by any common bond, as a substitute for the social harmony implied by sympathy. In addition to participating in the growing critical interest in the cultural and historical evolution of sympathy, Dark Sympathy attempts to contribute to the scholarship on ethics and literature by exploring the sources and figurations that have contributed to a more radical understanding of alterity.