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Detective Narrative and the Problem of Origins in 19th Century England

Murray Twyning, Amy Rebecca (2006) Detective Narrative and the Problem of Origins in 19th Century England. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Working with Fredric Jameson's understanding of genre as a "formal sedimentation" of an ideology, this study investigates the historicity of the detective narrative, what role it plays in bourgeois, capitalist culture, what ways it mediates historical processes, and what knowledge of these processes it preserves. I begin with the problem of the detective narrative's origins. This is a complex and ultimately insoluble problem linked to the limits of historical perspective and compounded by the tendency of genres to erase their own origins. I argue that any critical reading of the detective story beginning with the notion that real crime and working class unrest are the specters that the detective story seeks to exorcise misapprehends the real class struggle that is evidenced in, but also disguised by, the detective story: the struggle between the ascendant (though never assuredly so) bourgeoisie and the receding (though, again, never assuredly so) aristocratic and post-feudal ruling classes. Instead, I argue that it is this class struggle that is apparent in the detective narrative's special structure—the double structure by which it can pose any-origin-whatever as a moment of history and construct that history forward while appearing to uncover it backward. The detective narrative erases precisely the problem of the bourgeoisie's lack of origins (from a feudal perspective) and counterfeits history. For this reason, I locate the detective narrative's beginnings in specific sites where the transfer of power from traditional institutions to bourgeois institutions or institutions reformed by the bourgeoisie, including the Chancery court (in Charles Dickens' Bleak House), the construction of the New Poor Laws of 1834 (in Wilkie Collins' The Dead Secret), and marriage and inheritance in Bleak House and Collins' The Moonstone. Ending with a study of the commonly acknowledged first detective novel, The Moonstone, I conclude that this novel and the generic paradigm of the detective narrative it exemplifies succeed in encrypting the historical discontinuity between post-feudal modes of production and capitalism and that, ultimately, crime is just an alibi for the work of historical reconstruction that the detective narrative carries out.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Murray Twyning, Amy
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairMacCabe, Colinmaccabe@pitt.eduMACCABE
Committee MemberSeitz,
Committee MemberLandy, Marciamlandy@pitt.eduMLANDY
Committee MemberCondee, Nancycondee@pitt.eduCONDEE
Date: 6 October 2006
Date Type: Completion
Defense Date: 1 March 2006
Approval Date: 6 October 2006
Submission Date: 15 March 2006
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > English
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: capital; Chancery; crime; enclosure; innocence; legacy
Other ID:, etd-03152006-165849
Date Deposited: 10 Nov 2011 19:32
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2016 13:37


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