'A lifelong romance': male narcissism in fin-de-siècle culture

Easterby, Katharine
'A lifelong romance': male narcissism in fin-de-siècle culture. Doctor of Philosophy thesis, University of Liverpool.

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This thesis argues that British and French novelists and illustrators in the late nineteenth century frequently represent pathological narcissism as a defining feature of masculinity in the period. It states that depictions of men’s illness in decadent and middle-brow novels and illustrations of the fin de siècle do not chiefly reflect models of self-obsessive sickness in nineteenth-century psychology. Instead, they anticipate the early and mid-twentieth-century narcissism and schizoid pathology outlined by Sigmund Freud and the object relations theorists Harry Guntrip, Ronald Fairbairn, and Donald Winnicott. Rather than diagnosing authors and illustrators, or suggesting that the artworks reflect a ‘real-life’ sickness in the period, the thesis constructs a fictional male self-obsession. It asserts that novelists and illustrators portray this illness as the almost inevitable result of male characters’ fin-de-siècle socio-economic and intellectual context. Further, it suggests that the novelists and illustrators represent the whole of society as exhibiting pathological self-absorption, but depict the narcissism of fictional men as distinct from that of their female counterparts, and as varying with the male characters’ class. Artists convey the sickness, the thesis argues, through both characterization and style. The Introduction provides an overview of key developments in the theme of pathological self-obsession in psychology, psychoanalysis, cultural commentary, and literary criticism from the nineteenth century to the present day. It presents the Freudian and object relations theories which provide a theoretical framework in subsequent chapters, and the socio-economic and intellectual factors which fin-de-siècle writers and illustrators portray as causes of male narcissistic illness. Chapter one constructs a pathology of male self-absorption in two novels often labeled quintessentially decadent: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890, 1891) and J.-K. Huysmans’s A Rebours (1884).The fictional male aristocrats mistakenly believe that their choice to be ill distinguishes them from women and the masses, and qualifies them for membership of an elite. This portrayal of upper-class men’s sickness is contrasted with that of the Duke’s illness in Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Phocas (1901) in order to demonstrate how decadent representations of pathological masculinity changed during the late nineteenth century. Chapter two discusses two middle-brow novels: George and Weedon Grossmith’s illustrated The Diary of a Nobody (1888-89, 1892) and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889). The lower middle-class male characters exhibit the same schizoid illness as the aristocratic men in Dorian Gray and A Rebours. The way that the sickness manifests itself, however, is lower middle-class: unwittingly or otherwise, the men emulate the upper-class male’s illness whilst consciously celebrating health. Chapter three considers Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson (1911) and the illustrations and additions the author made to his copy of the novel in the two months after its first publication. It argues that Beerbohm looks back at the late nineteenth century and parodies its satire of pathological masculinity. The thesis emphasizes the fact that men in decadent and middle-brow novels and illustrations share the same illness, even though in the former the sickness is explicitly stated, and in the latter the pathology, for fear of destroying the novels’ light-hearted tone, is only intimated and is overlooked by critics. By considering these supposedly disparate genres alongside one another, I argue, the features of characterization and style which convey male narcissistic illness become evident in middle-brow novels and illustrations. The thesis, that is, interrogates the labels ‘decadent’ and ‘middle-brow’ and thereby provides fresh insights into both late nineteenth-century depictions of masculinity and fin-de-siècle aesthetics.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy)
Additional Information: Date: 2013-03 (completed)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Male narcissism, object relations theory, schizoid pathology, Donald Winnicott, W. R. D. Fairbairn, Harry Guntrip, Sigmund Freud, fin de siècle, decadence, middle-brow comic fiction, Oscar Wilde, J.-K.Huysmans, Jean Lorrain, Paul Duval, Jerome K. Jerome, George and Weedon Grossmith, Max Beerbohm
Subjects: ?? PE ??
Divisions: Faculty of Science and Engineering > School of Engineering
Depositing User: Symplectic Admin
Date Deposited: 27 Aug 2014 10:57
Last Modified: 16 Dec 2022 04:41
DOI: 10.17638/00014275
  • Marsden, Simon
  • Birch, Dinah
  • Llewellyn, Mark
URI: https://livrepository.liverpool.ac.uk/id/eprint/14275