The reinterpretation of biblical symbols through the lives and fictions of Victorian women: “To come within the orbit of possibility”

Pickens, Kara Lynne (2012) The reinterpretation of biblical symbols through the lives and fictions of Victorian women: “To come within the orbit of possibility”. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis argues that nineteenth-century shifts in hermeneutics enabled women to re-vision Victorian conceptions of womanhood by reinterpreting biblical narratives within fictional texts. Due to these shifts, the meaning of biblical symbols was increasingly tied to the personal experience of the reader. This enabled women to reinterpret these symbols to reflect their own experiences as women. This hermeneutic approach was formulated out of critical enquiry into the nature of the biblical text which resulted in questioning the authority of the Bible. Questions regarding the authority of scripture opened up the possibility for Victorian authors to use fictive texts in order to reinterpret biblical symbols, resulting in the constant re-visioning of biblical symbols by readers and writers. As the authority of scripture became unstable, gender roles, which were rooted within a biblical symbolic, also became destabilized. The novels of female authors who reimagined biblical symbols gave voice to these authors’ own experiences as women as they embodied these symbols within their life and work, resulting in new understandings of Victorian womanhood.

George Eliot was particularly conscious of the hermeneutic shifts which were taking place throughout the century due to her extensive involvement in the philosophical and theological movements of the era, and her novels demonstrate how these shifts influenced her work. The reinterpretation of biblical narratives within her novels also reflects how she embodied these female biblical symbols within her own life. While Eliot’s awareness of the shifts taking place within hermeneutic practice is evident in her work, she was not alone in adopting this hermeneutic practice. Novelist Elizabeth Gaskell also reimagined and embodied biblical symbols, yet her experience as a Victorian woman was strikingly different from Eliot’s own and led her to distinct reinterpretations of these symbols in her life and novels. Likewise, social activist Josephine Butler reinterpreted female biblical narratives in order to understand her life in relation to the ‘fallen’ women she worked with. These three women have been chosen for this project because of how they represent nineteenth-century shifts in hermeneutic practice toward biblical symbols in addition to the shared affinities and prominent differences between them.

To explore these issues requires a theoretical framework which encompasses literature, philosophy, sociology, history, theology, and feminist theory; however, fundamentally this project is concerned with theological hermeneutics and the nature of biblical symbols. This project examines the influence of nineteenth-century theologians David Friedrich Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach on Victorian hermeneutics and applies more recent work by Paul Ricœur, Jacques Rancière, and Caroline Walker Bynum to formulate a framework through which to understand the Victorian interpretation of biblical symbols. As Victorian women readers re-visioned female biblical symbols as encountered through sacred and fictive texts, the fresh interpretations of these symbols enabled women to negotiate new ways of understanding gender. These hermeneutic shifts toward biblical symbols created a symbolic understanding of womanhood which was able to better convey the complexity of female experience, providing women with an understanding of womanhood that better correlated with their own experience as women.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Hermeneutics, literature, theology, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, Ludwig Feuerbach, David Strauss, Victorian, feminist theory, feminism, Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, gender, fallen woman, nineteenth-century, Matthew Arnold, George Henry Lewes
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BT Doctrinal Theology
P Language and Literature > PE English
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > Theology and Religious Studies
Supervisor's Name: Jasper, Dr. David and Walton, Dr. Heather
Date of Award: 2012
Depositing User: Dr. Kara L. Pickens
Unique ID: glathesis:2012-4093
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 26 Apr 2013 12:26
Last Modified: 09 Mar 2016 10:58

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