Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
In The Uses of Character: Modernism and the Politics of Characterization, I analyze experiments with character in the British and Irish fiction of the early twentieth century. I argue that, though they are frequently treated as monolithic and apolitical, such experiments are heterogenous attempts to rehabilitate or revise national identities in response to historical and political pressures. Taking two emblematic figures of high modernism, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and another figure who is frequently left out of discussions of modernism, Flann O’Brien, I demonstrate that a shift in the construction of character reveals a shift in the author’s relationship to contemporaneous political and philosophical discourses such as egoism, cosmopolitanism, feminism, and fascism.
I begin by identifying the origins of modernism’s exclusion from a recently reinvigorated disciplinary exploration of character, arguing that modernism’s institutionalization in the academy and relationship to critical theory have foreclosed a more historically engaged consideration of character in the period.
In the first chapter, I consider James Joyce’s three Stephen Dedalus novels—Stephen Hero (written 1905, published 1944), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and Ulysses (1922)—to map their shift away from sovereign subjectivity. I position that shift as an attempt to craft an Irish identity that recognizes the contingent, inconsistent, and diasporic nature of Irishness in the early twentieth century. This shift is coterminous with Joyce’s own interest in and reevaluation of egoism throughout his career and Ireland’s transformation from colony to Free State.
In the second chapter, I argue that Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922) and The Waves (1931) use characterization to alter the ways the bildungsroman form contributes to national identity. This generates space for women in such narratives and challenges narratives of national superiority that undergird imperialism. I also outline the ways characters in her work substitute discourses of cartography and capitalism for narratives of imperial superiority which had previously secured their senses of self.
In the final chapter, I consider character in Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), The Third Policeman (written 1940, published 1967), and The Dalkey Archive (1964) to elucidate the ways O’Brien used character to undercut the literary historical narratives that contributed to Irish identity. The chapter engages with the idea of agon as it is traditionally used in literary scholarship to show that the relationship O’Brien constructs with James Joyce is part of a broader anti-authoritarian politics for O’Brien.
My brief coda explores the ways this more politically and historically engaged understanding of modernist character might help critics read continuity with contemporary British and Irish authors (like Tom McCarthy) rather than crafting a literary history that ends modernism with the second World War (and authors like Samuel Beckett).
Chair and Committee
Melanie Micir, Miriam Bailin, Guinn Batten, Kurt Beals,
Klemp, Jared Matthew, "The Uses of Character: Modernism and the Politics of Characterization" (2020). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2325.
Available for download on Friday, August 15, 2025