Date

2016

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

English

First Adviser

Kramp, David M.

Other advisers/committee members

Keetley, Dawn; Dolan, Elizabeth; Rice, Amber

Abstract

This dissertation traces the nineteenth-century establishment of the canary as an emblem of domesticity, violence, and sentience, analyzing the transatlantic cultural phenomenon that influenced British and American authors from a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. My work reanimates an archive that has faded over the centuries, restoring the “little saffron immigrant” to its place on a pedestal. In doing so, I show how authors grappled with the ethical implications of nonhuman animal representation. By examining Victorian-era appropriations of the canary, I reveal the domesticating powers of literature itself: the ways in which authors used—and continue to use—the written word to exercise conservative, even occasionally violent, control over certain populations. The multiple discourses of the canary also often defy the very domesticating impulses they describe: in moments of contradiction and inexpressibility, readers confront the familiar and yet utterly foreign presence of an animal who exceeds the bounds of human control, whose identity refuses to be circumscribed by traditional generic and expressive norms. Literary depictions of canaries take many shapes, promote various ideologies, and carry multiple symbolic registers. But, regardless of authorial intention, they also force their readers to grapple with the presence of a nonhuman animal who is not ever completely captured or contained by the words on a page. Ultimately, I argue that studying the effects of the nineteenth-century literary canary demonstrates how literature can be an ideal mode through which to lay bare and raise provocative questions about the limits of “the human.”

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