Confessional Subjects

Confessional Subjects: Revelations of Gender and Power in Victorian Literature and Culture

Susan David Bernstein
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Confessional Subjects
    Book Description:

    Susan Bernstein examines the gendered power relationships embedded in confessional literature of the Victorian period. Exploring this dynamic in Charlotte Bronta'sVillette, Mary Elizabeth Braddon'sLady Audley's Secret, George Eliot'sDaniel Deronda, and Thomas Hardy'sTess of the d'Urbervilles, she argues that although women's disclosures to male confessors repeatedly depict wrongdoing committed against them, they themselves are viewed as the transgressors. Bernstein emphasizes the secularization of confession, but she also places these narratives within the context of the anti-Catholic tract literature of the time. Based on cultural criticism, poststructuralism, and feminist theory, Bernstein's analysis constitutes a reassessment of Freud's and Foucault's theories of confession. In addition, her study of the anti-Catholic propaganda of the mid-nineteenth century and its portrayal of confession provides historical background to the meaning of domestic confessions in the literature of the second half of the century.A UNC Press Enduring Edition -- UNC Press Enduring Editions use the latest in digital technology to make available again books from our distinguished backlist that were previously out of print. These editions are published unaltered from the original, and are presented in affordable paperback formats, bringing readers both historical and cultural value.

    eISBN: 978-0-8078-3781-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)
    (pp. 1-14)

    This book is a study of an array of Victorian disclosures about domination and a method of reading I develop through a feminist theory of confession. My epigraph from Frances Bartkowski’s work on Foucault usefully underscores the political contradictions of gender in the “clos(et)ed space of confessional discourse.” This “clos(et)ed space” of disclosure and concealment is also a “coupled place of the inquisitor-victim,” one that accentuates the heterosexualized power relations that so often frame acts of confession. Bartkowski nonetheless allows for the restricted potential of confession as “liberating,” as a discourse “for those in the position of the dominated.” Whereas...

    (pp. 15-40)

    To theorize confession from the vantage point of the late twentieth century requires an encounter with its two master theorists Michel Foucault and Sigmund Freud.¹ For Foucault, confession means the police; for Freud, confession means the talking cure. For Foucault, confession guarantees ideological control; for Freud confession overcomes psychological repression. Thus, according to Foucault’s scheme, confession by any name at all—the religious sacrament of Catholic confession, the so-called unconscious discourse that emerges through psychoanalysis, the medical history of the examining room, an admission of guilt extracted by a representative of the law—is still a form of subjugation. But...

  6. 2 HISTORIES AND FICTIONS OF VICTORIAN CONFESSION: Anti-Catholic Rhetoric and Villette
    (pp. 41-72)

    InLetter to the Women of England on the Confessional,an anti-Catholic tract published in London in the mid-nineteenth century, W. J. Brockman cautions: “I know not another reptile in all animal nature so filthy, so much to be shunned and loathed, anddreaded by females, both married and single, as a Roman Catholic Priest or bishop who practices the degrading and demoralizing office of Auricular Confession.” Brockman’s warning typifies a perspective found in a spate of such cultural documents, namely that a dangerous intimacy troubles the relationship between a woman and her father confessor, the spiritual advisor who represents...

  7. 3 THAT NARROW BOUNDARY LINE: Figures of Female Degeneracy and Lady Audley’s Secret
    (pp. 73-104)

    From the title, through an elaborate plot of detection, to the confession scene itself, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s sensation novel,Lady Audley’s Secret, advertises the spectacular value of uncovering hidden transgressions. As a popular Victorian genre that trades on the power of the secret and frequently sexualized sins of its heroines, sensation fiction provides a resourceful perspective on the contradictions that frame these villainous victims who are simultaneously diseased, depraved, and socially and economically oppressed. Unlike Lucy Snowe’s cryptic and condensed church confession of one sentence, Lady Audley’s protracted confession—virtually her autobiography—occupies an entire chapter; unlike Lucy’s confession again,...

  8. 4 THE BONDS AND BONDAGE OF GENDER AND RACE: Paternal Metaphors of Confession in Daniel Deronda
    (pp. 105-142)

    Gwendolen Harleth repeatedly punctuates her confession to Daniel Deronda with frightful allusions to “his dead face,” that is, to the specter of her drowned husband’s gaze. InDaniel Derondathis haunting image highlights the spectacle of symbolic power that compels acts of confession from two female characters, both of whom have dared to trespass, whether imaginatively or materially, against the wills of their domestic masters. George Eliot’s microscopic interest in the rhetorical and psychological effects of surveillance as a sign for unmitigated domination transforms the confessions of Gwendolen and Leonora into scenes of torture. The varied occasions and structures of...

  9. 5 THE UN-INTACT STATE: Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Confessions of Sexual and Textual Violence
    (pp. 143-164)

    In his “Preface to the Fifth and Later Editions” toTess of the d’Urbervilles,Thomas Hardy elaborately defends his novel against what he construes as a vicious assault. He qualifies these critical assailants as “manipulators of Tess”,“professed literary boxers,” and “sworn Discouragers,” all of whom “pervert plain meanings, and grow personal under the name of practising the great historical method.”¹ By writing the four prefaces, Hardy too “grows personal,” not just because he retaliates against his critics but because he fashions himself as writer into a figure resembling his heroine.

    As the story of a woman’s rape,Tess of the...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 165-190)
    (pp. 191-198)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 199-208)