Crossing boundaries : transatlantic readings of sentimental strategies in selected antislavery texts
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This dissertation study examines the sentimental tradition in Maria Edgeworth’s The Grateful Negro, Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno, Mary Prince’s The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. The introductory chapter lays the foundation of my argument. As a rhetoric and convention, sentimentalism provides a public forum for each author’s political agenda as well as a "private" one that is revealed as a subtext in their narratives. Also, in the transatlantic nature of my choice of authors, I argue that their texts should be read as complements of each other, not just thematically speaking but also in terms of the sentimental strategies and techniques they use to address slavery, race and gender. Chapter One offers a discussion of Maria Edgeworth, in which I challenge the reading of her novella as an antislavery text. Because of her ambivalence towards abolition, I argue that sentimentality serves to mask an apologist agenda. Consequently, her tale is rendered suspect. The next chapter addresses Herman Melville’s novella as a critique of sentimentality and sentimental abolitionist literature. My analysis examines how Melville exploits nineteenth-century racial attitudes and stereotypes of blackness in order to expose the dangers of sentimental discourse and to destabilize the sentimental reader’s faith in it. Chapters Three and Four examines the slave narratives of Mary Prince and Harriet Jacobs, respectively. The Prince chapter explores how her narrative can be read within the sentimental tradition and the way she challenges it through her use of language and the addressesing of her physical and sexual abuse. The Jacobs chapter examines the sentimental strategies she employs simultaneously to reveal and to conceal the delicate details of the female slave experience. Focusing on the silences and whispers surrounding her sexual victimization and transgressions, I explore how her reticence as a technique allowed her to access the sentimental identities of sentimental heroine and the good mother. In the Afterword, I demonstrate the intertextual relationship between all four works by highlighting the connections between them.