Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2019

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Comparative Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



The historical novel has been shaped by and was actively involved in the construction of dominant cultural narratives. This analysis traces the formation of the historical novel from its beginning stage in the early nineteenth century (Sir Walter Scott, James Fenimore Cooper) to some of its high points (Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy). Paratexts, such as prefaces and afterwords, as well as the use of the author’s name as a prototype, played an important role in the inauguration of the new genre, as did the invention of a new kind of a central protagonist, which Georg Lukacs defined as the “middling hero.” Paratexts also helped to give rise to new sub-genres such as the City Mystery (Eugéne Sue, Heinrich Börnstein). The political implications of memory and narration for nationbuilding and reflection on society, moreover, constitute principal sujets of historical fiction; these sujets are constructed by and evaluated by this fiction. In its extreme form the historical novel becomes apocalyptical; its deconstructive potential (Wilhelm Raabe) critiques the entire genre. I have introduced the metaphor of “contact zone” (Mary Louise Pratt) as a useful means of describing the figurative, spatial, and temporal meeting of oppositions and clashes of cultural concepts, to analyze conflicts, which drive historical fiction. Institutions such as courts and trials play a special role in historical novels — a finding allowing a reading of the historical novel as a complex “action situation” (Martina Löw), based on a spatial arrangement of characters and social goods, a description that brings together sociology, literary criticism, memory-theory and ethical discourse.

The examples taken up in the dissertation show a wide array of historical circumstances from which the respective historical novel arose, highlight the formal elements of each, and the implications of these for the impact of each novel in its own times. The historical novel shows an ironic tension between the time of its writing and the historical time evoked. A scholar of any historical novel must consider the complex attitudes of the fictional world and its author toward the time in which it was written and toward the period about which it was written. It is a task quite often reflected and problematized by the novelists themselves in their writing, mostly in prefaces and afterwords, but also in other paratexts.

Historians will seek to make generalizations, to find a formula for a set of facts, novelists will seek a different form of synthesis and will try to (re-)construct a world, to make readers understand how it felt to have lived in the past, offering a mirror to the present.

The relation to the past and to the present is controlled by facts, the concept of truth, devices of storytelling, rules of the literary market, the taste of the time, ethics, generic conventions, religion, and social or critical theory. What both, the novelist and the historian do, is finding meaning in otherwise meaningless data, to rethink and complete the rationale of covert and often duplicitous behavior, to reconstruct the nexus of past actions. This hybrid dissertation ends with reflections on the writing of an historical novel by the author and a sample from that novel, Die Sprache der Sonne (The Language of the Sun). It shows how critical discourse and poetical practice can overlap and in fact inform one another.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Lynne Tatlock

Committee Members

Matt Erlin, Ignacio Infante, Rob Henke, Gerhild Williams,


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Available for download on Monday, May 15, 2119