Stiles, Ronald Peter
An examination of selected binary oppositions in the work of Elizabeth Gaskell which serve to demonstrate the author's response to unitarianism and other prevalent influences within mid-Victorian society.
PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.
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This dissertation examines in detail the work of Elizabeth Gaskell, a mid-Victorian English author. It establishes that she was significantly influenced in her writing by the Unitarian social milieu to which she belonged during her lifetime, and by a wide range of other dominant influences, such as Romanticism and the rise of Darwinism. It demonstrates that conflicting doctrinal strains within Unitarianism, and emphases in Unitarianism differing from that of other prevailing influences within society, jointly contributed to the particular nature of her literary output.
Elizabeth Gaskell's work is characterised by a series of binary oppositions, a feature of her fiction which serves to illustrate her individual response to conflicting values or concepts. Rather than dogmatically resolving the series of antinomies revealed throughout her work, she maintains their co-existence in such a manner that the mutual interdependence of each set of polarities is perpetuated. This suggests that she preferred, despite varying emphases at certain points, an intelligent open-endedness regarding opposing views. In fact, her work infers an acceptance that textual vitality and purpose is fostered by allowing such tensions to exist.
The binary oppositions exhibited in her work that are discussed in this dissertation are varied in nature. In Chapters Two and Three, the Priestleyan notion of necessarianism, a form of moral determinism, is set against the equally evident notion of free-will and divine benevolence. In Chapter Four, the radical edge of her Unitarian faith is balanced by an equally strong appreciation of the benefits of social respectability. Elizabeth Gaskell's work reflects a recurrent commitment to the Unitarian espousal of truthfulness, but she also understands the textual benefits of concealment and deception.
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