Doctor of Philosophy
Keep, Christopher J.
This dissertation examines the waste ecologies that appear in Victorian literature, from the canonical realist novel, to the Irish Imperial Gothic ghost story, and to practical prose works on garden designs and amateur horticulture. Specifically, I discuss two of Dickens’s novels, Our Mutual Friend (1865) and Bleak House (1853), alongside Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Green Tea” (1869) and a selection of William Robinson’s horticultural prose and journalism that appeared between 1869 and 1892. The primary texts examined in this dissertation all suggest a profound fascination with and awe of emergent and complex ecological structures over self-contained, ordered systems. My chapters can be grouped conceptually into two halves: the first dealing with Dickens’s representation of social structures that function as large and small waste ecologies; the second, with the individual interactions with waste ecologies that in Le Fanu’s and Robinson’s works manifest as both occult and apocalyptic. Chapter 1 reads Our Mutual Friend for the strange material entanglements surrounding the Harmon dust-heaps and the River Thames, offering a portrait of waste that is uncontainable, is uncategorizable, and develops agency. Chapter 2 takes up Bleak House’s depiction of three social systems that function as waste ecologies—Krook’s rag-and-bottle shop, the High Court of Chancery, and Tom-all-Alone’s—as loci of excessive accumulated material that in their rampant proliferation objectify, devalue, and homogenize everything within. Chapter 3 examines “Green Tea,” which depicts the human body’s spectral reaction when it itself is the intersection of the indigestible waste ecologies involving the contaminated tea panic, the counterfeit tea trade, and the mingled nationalism and Orientalism orbiting a product of imperial trade that was both prized and held in suspicion. Chapter 4 takes up Robinson’s prose and follows the logic of his aesthetic to the inevitable conclusion that human life cannot truly join the garden ecology except in death. Moving from broad ecosystems that influence all of Victorian London down to the individual British subject, tea-drinker, or plant, this project situates waste ecologies at the rich analytical intersections of Victorian literary criticism, the new materialisms, and the environmental humanities.
Summary for Lay Audience
This dissertation begins with the problem of waste in Victorian England (1837-1901). The rapid and large-scale urbanization and industrialization of cities like London led to massive challenges relating to the containment and disposition of waste in all its forms: human sewage, animal excrement, discarded household effects, industrial equipment, and the continual smoke and soot from coal fires kept up in homes and in factories. Waste affected English society at virtually every level and in every location. My project analyses how waste and its complex impacts are imagined in Victorian English fiction and non-fiction, focusing on two novels by Charles Dickens, a ghost story by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and the books and journalism of the Irish-born horticulturist William Robinson. My analysis reveals in these authors’ work an unexpectedly complex understanding of waste and of our social and environmental relationships to waste. I offer the term “waste ecology” to define and assess these understandings of waste that so profoundly shaped these written works. The dissertation ends, like the beginning, with the problem of waste, but with this difference: waste is a concept that challenges us to revisit how we determine value, how we relate to our environment, and how the things that we reject as waste can lead to new growth.
Lee, Nahmi, "Refusing Interpretation: Waste Ecologies in Victorian Fiction and Prose" (2021). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 7616.
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