Thesis & Distinction
Students who demonstrate excellence in their major area of study may qualify for admission to the department’s or programs honors program. By successfully completing a senior honors thesis/project, the candidate will graduate with distinction in the major. Each academic department and program offering a major, as well as Program II, has established procedures and standards for determining Graduation with Distinction.
The English department offers its majors two options for earning distinction:
- Critical Thesis option
- Creative Writing option
- Spring-to-Fall theses are due by December 1.
- Fall-to-Spring theses are due by March 30.
What does distinction in English look like?
Why pursue distinction?
Thesis & Distinction
Either two Independent Studies or a "home seminar" and one Independent Study. (Fall/Spring or Spring/Fall.) Under most circumstances, a completed length of 35-70 pages. Home seminars entail enrolling in a course taught by your thesis adviser closely associated with your topic. You should first get your instructor's permission, and arrange to do extra reading and writing assignments for the class that translate the course work into the terms of your thesis. The home seminar option is only available the first semester you are working on your distinction project.
Distinction courses count toward the major. Students must complete 11 total courses to graduate with distinction in the major instead of the standard 10.
Independent Study Numbers for Thesis:
- Creative Writing Option: ENGLISH 495 and 496 Distinction Creative Writing Independent Study
- Critical Option: ENGLISH 497 and 498 Distinction Critical Research Independent Study
Eligible students must have completed (no later than the beginning of their senior year) at least five 200-level English courses (old 100 level) and must have a GPA of at least 3.5 in English courses.
Eligible students must submit:
- Critical and creative writing thesis application
- one writing sample of approximately 10 pages from an English course
- one letter of recommendation from an English faculty member
- a project description and basic bibliography (one page single spaced).
Applications must be submitted to the Director of Undergraduate Studies Offices (303AA). Applications are due November 15 for a spring-to-fall option and March 15 for a fall-to-spring option.
Upon approval by the instructor, the completed thesis is submitted to the Director of Undergraduate Studies Office (303AA) by December 1 (for a spring-to-fall honors project) or March 30 (for a fall-to-spring honors project) of the senior year for evaluation by the DUS, the thesis adviser, and one other faculty member.
Please submit 3 spiral-bound copies to the DUS office (303AA Allen), along with an electronic copy via email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
See these samples for help formatting and binding your thesis before submission:
Levels of Distinction
Three levels: Distinction, High Distinction, or Highest Distinction. Levels of distinction are based on the quality of the completed work. Students who have done satisfactory work in the seminar or independent study but whose theses are denied distinction will simply receive graded credit for their seminars and/or independent studies. Whereas the standard major in English asks for a total of ten courses, students pursuing honors in English will take nine courses plus either two independent studies or a home seminar to be followed by an independent study.
Class of 2017
- "Full and by the Wind" Louis Garza
- "The Resurrectionist" Ryan Eichenwald
- "Delusions of Controls: The V-2 in Gravity's Rainbow" Sean McCroskey
- "Surface and Symbol: Epigram and Genre in the Works of Oscar Wide" Sarah Atkinson
- "Woman, Nature, and Observer in Tess of the D'Urbervilles and To the Lighthouses: An Ecofeminist Approach" Elizabeth George
- "Creative Impulse in the Modern Age: The Embodiment of Anxiety in the Early Poetry of T.S. Eliot (1910-1917)" Anna Mukamal
- "Inventions of the Human: Othering Caliban and the Ethic of Recognition" Issac Rubin
- "F. Scott Fitzgerald's Women: Independence, Class, and the Superior Male" Margaret Booz
Class of 2016
- "Upon the Face of the Deep: The Voyage of the Sparkling Wave" Gwen Hawkes
- "Lelén: A Memoir for My Mother" Megan Pearson
- "The Car Wreck Album" Josephine Ramseyer
- "Bury Me at the Body Farm" Gabriel Sneed
- "Push, momentum" Isabella Kwai
"A Cicada's Sorrow" Madeline Pron
- "He Filled the Darkness with Fantasies" Dimeji Abidoye
- "The Anamorphic ‘Figure in the Carpet’: James, Kafka, Morrison and Mitchell " Jacqueline Chipkin
- "Politics and Poetics of the Novel: Using Domesticity to Create the Nation" Katherine Coric
- "Modern Poetry: A Single Genre" JP Lucaci
Class of 2015
- "How to Run Away Without Moving" Mary Hoch
- "The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The Dangers of Metaphorizing Ebola as War in the United States" Roshini Jain
- "Dear Master: A Screenplay" Jamie Kessler
- "A Hawk from a Handsaw: "How Historical Perceptions of Madness Dictated Portrayals of Insanity in British Literature, 1300-1900" Danielle Muoio
- "Every Dram of Woman’s Flesh: "Paulina’s Role and Remedy in The Winter’s Tale" Bailey Sincox
- "The Violence of Alienation in Morrison and Faulkner: A Study in Family, Religion, and Class" Meredith Stabe
Class of 2014
- “Breaking and Entering” Audrey Adu-Appiah
- “Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, and the Birth of Modernism” Christopher Broderick Honorable Mention: Bascom Palmer Literary Prize
- “Forms of Femininity: A Modernist Approach to Female Psychology” Grace Chandler
- “This is the Hour of Lead: Emily Dickinson in 1862" Shibani Das
- “Presidential Persuasiveness in Justifying Use of Force In the Post 9/11-Era” Maureen Dolan
- “A Harvard Man” Amanda Egan
- “A Light in the Stairwell” Sarah Elsakr
- “Women in Medicine: What Medical Narratives Reveal About Patriarchy in the Medical System” Jennifer Hong
- “In Your Own Bosom You Bear Your Heaven and Earth Interiority and Imagination in William Blake’s Jerusalem: The Emanation of Giant Albion” Emmie Le Marchand
- “A Shakespearean Ecology: Interconnected Nature In A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Winter’s Tale” Paige Meier
- “It is I you Hold and Who Holds You: The Persuasive Grip of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in the Age of Slam Poetry” Haley Millner
- “Bright Grey: an Unfinished Novel” Lindsey Osteen
- “Once Upon Our Time: Five Fairy Tale Retellings” Nicholas William Prey
- “Crumbling” Emily Schon
- “Fashion Cues: Visual Politics of Liminality in Quicksand and Quartet” Allison Shen
- “The Search for Transcendence: W.B. Yeats and His Dance Plays” Caitlin Tutterow
- “Soul Power: The Psychology and Politics of Asian American Melancholia” Katherine Zhang
Independent Study Courses
- ENGLISH 491 Independent Study - Independent projects in creative writing, under the supervision of a faculty member. Open to juniors and seniors. Consent of both the instructor and the director of undergraduate studies required.
- ENGLISH 493 Research Independent Study - Individual research in a field of special interest under the supervision of a faculty member, the central goal of which is a substantive paper or written report containing significant analysis and interpretation of a previously approved topic. Open to juniors and seniors. Consent of both the instructor and the director of undergraduate studies required.
You must apply for approval to register for independent study. The procedure, approval process and application form are posted on the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences web site here: http://trinity.duke.edu/undergraduate/academic-policies/independent-study
Completed applications must be submitted to the Director of Undergraduate Studies by one week prior to drop/add. Please bring to 303AA Allen. The Undergraduate Assistant will give a permission number to students whose applications have been approved by both the professor and the Director of Undergraduate Studies.
The Faculty of the English Department have agreed on these desiderata: tutorial and independent study must not duplicate available course offerings the subject of study must be in the instructor's general field of professional competence the amount of work required must be approximately equivalent to that required in a regular course the student must have had 200-level course work in the general field of the proposal or otherwise have made acceptable preparation to study independently in that area.
To maintain a high quality of independent study, the faculty member directing the study must have sufficient time to give the course careful attention. The Department has therefore decided that no faculty member shall direct more than three independent study courses in any semester. No student with an incomplete (I) in a course in independent study will be permitted to enroll in a second course. The application (one page only) must include the following information:
Name; year; mailing address, email, student ID (non English majors), and phone number; Semester of study, English courses taken and in progress (with the instructor's name) and any other courses that bear upon the proposed study; title of the independent study, including an abbreviated title of twenty five spaces (including blanks) that will appear on registration records; description of the proposed study including a tentative plan of reading and procedure; the signature of the supervising professor.
Creative Impulse in the Modern Age: The Embodiment of Anxiety in the Early Poetry of T. S. Eliot (1910-1917)
– Anna Mukamal (2017)
My principal concern in this work is to investigate whether, and if so, how anxiety may be worthwhile or particularly constructive for poetic production in the modern context. I have approached this question from a variety of epistemological perspectives, including but not limited to 19th and 20th century philosophical theories of anxiety, formalist readings of poetry and fiction from the late Victorian and early modernist periods, and contemporary scholarship engaging with principal figures representing the “inward turn” of modernist literature. At stake is the salient and complex concept of the mental and physical state most conducive to the production of timeless art.
Evoking the fundamental tension between individual desire, predilection, and emotion and universal truth, my work “worries” over what Eliot intends to accomplish by writing worried poetry. I have chosen to focus on the verse written and published between 1910 and 1917 in part because it coincides with Eliot’s most direct engagement with the tormented, self-plagued persona whose persistent self-questioning leads to no future remedial action. In this sense, Eliot’s early verse objectifies—by its very rhetorical embodiment—a crippling array of symptoms of the physical, moral, and spiritual devolution that he observes in European society and in which he takes an ambivalent part.
Limiting my textual analysis to this early period is also a way of treading humbly in the domain of ultimate questions and taking Eliot’s own advice, since “it is easier for a young poet to understand and to profit by the work of another young poet, when it is good, than from the work of a mature poet” (MTP 217). While varying in self-proclaimed literary quality and critical reception, the poems with which I engage consistently probe the question of whether the modern person—facing rapid and seemingly irrevocable political polarization, a materially-oriented consumerist culture, and an increasing distrust of God, among other prevalent and distressing modern developments—must necessarily be sick, miserable, anxious, intellectually stunted, and spiritually vide.
Remarkably, in the first phase of his poetic enterprise Eliot creates personae embodying and refracting the ambient anxieties of an era simultaneously increasing in empirical knowledge and declining in certitude. To provide the historical context of these issues, the first chapter, “Global and Individual Anxiety pre-Waste Land,” traces 19th century philosophical inquiry with which Eliot would have been familiar and by which he was likely influenced. Kierkegaard’s concept of global anxiety and Nietzsche’s “man of resentment” constitute two central theories of the modern person’s intellectual and physical predicament. The transition between a faith-based and empirical proof-based society in part explains the pervasive global anxiety, as does the broader spiritual uncertainty engendered by a fomenting distrust of truths subjective, and hence necessarily objectively unverifiable. I argue that the state of mind in which Eliot writes The Waste Land in 1922 cannot be fully understood without tracing the spiritual and moral concerns pervasive in the poet’s early poetic enterprise. Is pain a prerequisite for the modernist artist’s creative impetus?
The first and second chapters demonstrate through close textual analysis that Eliot’s early verse is both generative and remedial of anxiety. The second chapter, “The Rhetorical Embodiment of Anxiety,” further explores the connection between pain and artistic production by analyzing the presence of skepticism, inaction, solipsism, and despair in Eliot’s self-lacerating and overly conscious personae. In poems such as “The Burnt Dancer” and the well-known “Portrait of a Lady,” I analyze the rhetorical means by which Eliot conveys disembodied agency, stunted volition, and seemingly irredeemable self-possession. His evocation of repetitive thought processes—mirroring self-paralysis as actions are dissociated from agents—coincides with his search for an overarching morality to transcend the banal propriety of his sociocultural milieu. Eliot writes, in other words, to discover an authentic communicative mode even while acutely aware of the inherent ineffability of subjective truth and the linguistic limitations of an arbitrary, imperfect system of language. Eliot’s self-locating within the modern petit-bourgeois cultural sensibility renders even more convincing his poetic evocation of the Faustian myth of human love and high artistry. The resonance between his ultimate questions and those of both Nietzsche and Mann indicates that aggression may be a necessary effect of persistent inner doubt and self- loathing. This helps to explain why the age’s pervasive sexual anxiety may correspond with a general decadence of communicability in the context of a transactional consumerist culture in which actions are increasingly devoid of deeper meaning.
Chapter 3, “The Anxiety of Artistic Production,” poses the question of how the modernist artist may presume, to employ an idiom germane to Eliot, to produce art in the modern world. Is it even possible in such a chaotic environment to create ordered art, and must art necessarily denote order or must it instead evolve to fulfill another function more compatible with modern sensibilities? Preceding Chapter 4’s delineation of the physical and psychological health effects once the artist has committed himself to the actual generative process, this chapter traces anxieties with a dilatory function before the art’s conception, relying in part on Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence. Public reception of the work, the elusiveness of finding a cohesive voice, and the near-impossibility of justifying a poetic enterprise as meaningful in the face of national instability and even tragedy: these are just a few of the anxieties plaguing the modernist artist, perhaps preventing him from even attempting to reflect the neuroses of his time. Even if the artist determines that there is something new to be said, he must overcome the metaphysical reality of death—which, for Eliot, represents the ultimate inability to connect with others— believing that timeless art lends meaning to the vast expanse of time beyond his own death.
The fourth chapter extends fluidly into the relationship between sickness and poetic productivity, interrogating the physical and psychological health effects once the poet has sacrificed himself to active artistic production. Does attained artistic sublimity necessarily presuppose perverse health? In this chapter I examine Eliot’s concept of the sacrifice of the self to art, offering a reading of Mann’s Death in Venice (1912), concomitant with Eliot’s early verse, to demonstrate that the artist’s ambivalently divided self—between a bourgeois and bohemian sensibility—manifests at the level of aesthetic form. Both Eliot and Mann create personae representing the “delicate heroism suited to the times” and thus epitomizing the man of the era, for better or for worse (DV 46). I have chosen to incorporate early Mann because both writers subtly lament the modern age’s lost telos of beauty, evoking the tension between the finite body and the (perhaps) immortal mind through a tangible anxiety about mortality and a notable coupling of spiritual sublimation and physical deterioration. I argue that the artists’ depiction of sickness is a commentary on the moral, physical, and psychological downturn of Europe at the turn of the 20th century. The feckless and sick Herr Spinell of Mann’s “Tristan” and Emma Bovary of Flaubert’s classic novel epitomize, in turn, the potential for a tragically scripted consciousness to devolve into aggression and violence as well as the loss of action and spiritual, rather than material comfort, as meaningful categories of existence.
The final chapter, “Anxiety and the Bourgeois Sensibility,” investigates the purpose or objective of interrogating anxiety through poetry, determining the “work,” in a non-material but rather intellectual and spiritual sense, that Eliot’s early verse accomplishes for his age. What is at stake in Eliot’s poetic unveiling of the volatile psychological state hidden by the placid surface of bourgeois propriety, and how may he address its unsavory effects from within that very culture? Probing the ambivalence of the bourgeois sociocultural marker, I argue that Eliot’s early verse reveals the inauthenticity of scripted communicative modes. Preventing modern people from engaging with eternal truths, moral conformism supplants independence of thought—while material success in a consumerist culture obscures the normative good—and these developments are not only detrimental for social discourse, but also for literature. The modernist artist more broadly, and Eliot in particular, aims to combat the general societal ignorance of the insidious social tyranny that engenders a widespread dissolution of the causative link between feelings and agency. Communication in the modern world, Eliot’s early verse contests, is a parody of authentic interpersonal communion. Yet ever-present in the poetry are glimpses of hope resisting the tempting idea that subjectivity of experience implies the fundamental incommunicability of human souls.
As a developing artist, Eliot relies on the poetic medium to probe the essential question— later adumbrated in Heidegger’s 1927 Being and Time—of whether boredom and anxiety are more authentic affective ways of being in the world than happiness. As a whole, my work continues and honors this question’s seeming insolubility. I hope to show that anxiety—Eliot’s individual anxiety, the ambient anxiety of his era, the accrual of global anxiety over time— constitutes an underexplored and undeniable creative impetus for Eliot and his contemporaries.
Not in the clinical sense, but rather as a quotidian force with which the thoughtful individual necessarily grapples, modern anxiety is paradoxically both inhibitive and generative. This work, in addition to demonstrating the young Eliot’s engagement with profound existential questions of meaning, affirms that anxiety is a valuable framework for analyzing the conditions of timeless artistic production in the modern world.
The Anamorphic “Figure in the Carpet”: James, Kafka, Morrison and Mitchell
– Jackie Chipkin (2016)
How does fiction challenge readers to expand their definitions of human life? For my honors thesis, I want to investigate forms of fiction that approach this question from an eccentric angle. At first, these texts’ unconventional vantage points seem to defy what the reader considers “realism,” aligning his or her view with what Giorgio Agamben says of the contemporary author: those who truly “belong to their time” neither “coincide with it nor adjust themselves to its demands” (Agamben 40). Just so, rather than ignore the reality of their moment, the novels I consider in this thesis question the conventional way of looking at it. The characters whose experiences will shape my study are neither confined to the human body nor limited to its natural abilities and traditional habits of mind; they elude normative notions of form and cognitive faculty. At the same time, the reader cannot dismiss the palpable plasticity of these characters as primitive or fantastic. Alongside their parents, siblings and lovers, these characters inhabit familiar worlds shaped by the same everyday practices and socio-economic force fields that shape the human figure under realism. They exist in relation to, rather than outside of, the world as it is depicted in novels more squarely in the tradition of European realism. These characters push the envelope of realism farther than any traditional work of realism from a position within it.
My love of reading and analysis has been motivated by a desire to understand the world around me. Since childhood, I have been drawn to works that push me to examine and reimagine my environment. The characters I meet are my guides and the fulcrum of my literary experience. My world and a protagonist’s world are components of a reality I imaginatively share with that character and other readers. These characters’ thoughts, emotions, conversations, relationships and actions embody the ebb and flow of human experience across time and space. Through them I inhabit alternative worlds and, in turn, better understand my own.
As I immersed myself in the novels of Hemingway, Melville, Dickens, Austen, James, Woolf and others, I discovered how different novels produced the cultural boundaries within which readers have to live in order to imaginatively inhabit the worlds of fictional characters. Working to reconstruct the essential differences that distinguish culture from nature, I came to understand how the novel contributed to the concept of the modern individual. Once the novel had created this figure, readers understood themselves in terms of a narrative that produced a self-governing subject (Armstrong 25). For me, the novel became the paramount literary form through which I could explore fiction’s varying, shifting definitions of human life. I first encountered and was drawn into this project in a survey course of gothic fiction. From Shelley’s Frankenstein to Wilde’s Dorian Gray, gothic works drove me to question the parameters that define human life and reality.
Similarly, as an aspiring physician, I strive to make sense of my environment through the stories of those who occupy perspectives different than my own. As an avid reader and writer, I have chosen to approach medicine through narratives of illness. From Bolivia to North Carolina, from pediatric hospitals to hospice centers, I have asked the patients I have met to share their medical experiences with me. As they have entrusted me with their memories and emotions, I have strived to honor their stories with my words. Just as a character’s world is not my world, I must recognize that a patient’s experience is not my experience. As a doctor interacting with patients—like a reader interacting with characters—I must understand the “literary” rules governing the patient’s world in order to understand how the patient feels and what his or her “normal” condition is. These narratives drive me to pursue a career in medicine—to partner with patients to write stories shaped by their notions of health and recovery.
Though in strikingly different ways, all of the eccentric novels I will analyze in my thesis make the same formal variation on traditional realism; namely, they bind together two absolutely incompatible views of the same literary world. These works challenge readers to confront incompatible perspectives—that expected of the normative reality and reader and that of the eccentric character—simultaneously. These novels consequently make us see the same world as two worlds that cannot be synthesized. Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, presenting two incompatible perspectives, models this phenomenon. From one perspective, the novella is a traditional British ghost tale, a chilling account of an unnamed governess’ fantastic delusions and psychotic demise. But from another—that of the governess—the story is factual recount of a lived experience that defies scientific explanation. James begins to layer these perspectives within the novella’s first pages. The Turn of the Screw is a story thrice told: first from the governess to Douglas, then from Douglas to the narrator, and finally from the narrator to the reader. The narrator describes these types of stories as a form of entertainment, intending to “hold” an audience and render listeners “breathless” (James 1).
James warns us that storytellers do not necessarily adhere to fact, but rather strive to elicit emotional reactions. The governess’ tale, however, is a “written” document (3), a permanent record that lays claim to archival credibility. While the narrator assures readers that “this narrative” is an “exact transcript” of that evening (3), James does not clarify whether the original story—rather than merely its repetition—is the product of empirical observation or bad affect. Holding the governess’ perspective beside that of the story’s narration, James’ novella is simultaneously a ghost tale and a “manuscript” documenting the preternatural events at the country estate where she was the chief guardian of two privileged but orphaned children (3). The author’s cues do not indicate whether we are to regard this tale as true to the facts to which it testifies, true to what the governess feels, or both.
As the novella unfolds, James’ irreconcilable perspectives continue to clash. The governess asks how she will “retrace…the strange steps of [her] obsession” (80). She frequently mentions her vivid imagination and the emotions that she allows to actively control her thoughts, admitting that she is “rather easily carried away” (31). If the spirits that once inhabit Bly can still be detected there, self-doubt and mania are reasonable responses for these extenuating circumstances. Under these conditions, readers can justify why the governess tries to discredit these apparitions by invoking “obsession” and “imagination” (80). If we take the governess’s descriptions of herself as true, then the ghosts are creations of her imagination. But can we trust the words of a woman who claims that her own words are untrustworthy? James’ protagonist is not inherently an unreliable narrator; rather, she is only unreliable in that readers cannot assess whether she is reliable or not. Thus, James’ text neither supports nor refutes the governess’s judgment by indicating what is actually there to be seen; rather, he embeds her story within a landscape of normative reality so that it not only calls the governess’ view into question but calls the normative view into question as well.
Most criticism from 1921-1970 approaches James’s text psychoanalytically. Overall, these theorists argue that the ghosts and attendant horrors are figments of the governess’ neurotic imagination. The reasoning goes that because “there is never any evidence that anybody but the governess sees the ghosts” (James, Esch and Warren 172), the ghosts must be delusional, arising from factors implied but not established by her tale. A number of readers in this tradition, such as Edna Kenton, bring Freudian analysis to bear on this account, transforming it into a case history. Kenton state that the governess is “trying to harmonize her own disharmonies by creating discords outside herself” (169). The literary critic argues that the governess’ story stems from the trauma of unrequited love; the ghosts represent the governess’ repressed sexual passion for her master. Alternatively, Harold Goddard accredits the governess’s psychosis to an unwholesome childhood, as “the young woman’s home and early environment…point to its stifling narrowness” (161).
While there is no evidence that anyone besides the governess sees the ghosts, neither is there any evidence that the children she supervises do not see or communicate with the ghosts of their former governess and groundskeeper. Given the lack of evidence to show that the governess is insane, and thus the ghosts imaginary, these critics almost uniformly begin by declaring that the ghosts are imaginary in order to classify the governess as psychotic. On the assumption that the ghosts cannot be real, they lace their arguments with diagnostic diction. They label the governess a “victim of insomnia” (161). They declare that her “overwrought condition” leads to “insanity,” “hallucinations” and “mania” (163-64). These terms and the conditions they label (for example, a manic episode) are all clearly defined by bodies of medical literature. In this context, however, criticism uses these terms rhetorically; they are technical terms that, albeit persuasive, are not substantiated by the text. Because James does not provide textual evidence for the governess’ psychosis, we cannot establish her insanity; indeed, we cannot even prove that the ghosts are “exquisite dramatizations of her little personal mystery” (170). The critics succeed in normalizing one view of the world by delegitimizing another. They apply psychoanalysis to a fictional character in order to establish the authority of modern secular realism as if to insist that there can only be one reading of reality. Any reality that resists that reading is consequently reduced to the status of ignorance or pathology, if not unreliability. This interpretive imperialism refuses to acknowledge that at any point in time, the same world may be an entirely different world for a different person bearing different cultural baggage. Through the interpolation of discrete perspectives within one another, James’ novel form works to equip readers with more flexible, critical cultural tools.
In order to develop such an approach, I use the figure of anamorphosis as a way of explaining how novels such as The Turn of the Screw employ eccentric characters to revise the novel form. Anamorphosis is an image that appears distorted when viewed from a normative perspective, requiring specific viewpoints or tools to reconstitute its true form. This true form is not one of a single, stable reality. Rather, it is a composition of multiple frameworks and embedded perspectives—the artist’s interpolative machinery. Hanneke Grootenboer, art historian and author of The Rhetoric of Perspective, stresses the paradoxical etymology of anamorphosis. In classical Greek, anamorphosis literally translates as “distortion,” while in Modern Greek, ana- functions both as the English prefixes dis-, as in “distortion,” and re-, as in “reformation” (Grootenboer 101). Anamorphosis can thus be understood as “that which lacks a proper shape” and the “restoring of that which has been out of shape” (101). Its meaning refers to the actual image in addition to the process of its reshaping—that is, the viewer’s search for the right point of view.
Anamorphism began as a series of perspective experiments in the 1500s and 1600s (Castillo), and its appearance as a consciously applied technique in art history corresponds to the invention of linear perspective (Collins). As Renaissance artists began to master traditional methods of perspective, they also learned to manipulate those methods and distort the object they produced accordingly. The geometry of anamorphic images was considered revolutionary in the sense that it did not strictly conform to the Cartesian coordinate system, which localizes points in space through their relative distances from perpendicular intersecting lines (Collins). It is easy to see how the Cartesian system alone is inadequate to capture the multiple perspectives that simultaneously occupy a common reality. In anamorphic art, artists interpolate an image that is not oriented according to the normatively positioned spectator within an image that is indeed oriented according toward the ideal spectator in a Cartesian system. Undermining the orthodox principles of perspective upon which it depends, anamorphic art can be considered a counterpart of both Cartesian rationalism and doubt. By challenging the Cartesian system from within it, artists who produce anamorphic art challenge the notion of a single, normative reality. I will demonstrate that novelists as well as visual artists think in terms of the figure of anamorphosis when they embed an eccentric perspective within a normative one. These writers strive to honor multiple, legitimate perspectives that coexist at any moment within a shared reality.
Anamorphic art pushes readers to linger in the uncomfortable intersection of incompatible perspectives. Donald Preziosi, art historian, states that in anamorphic art, “relationships among units in the archive are visible (that is, legible) only from certain prefabricated stances, positions, or attitudes toward the system” (119). Anamorphic images are the product of carefully calculated angles; their forms and desired effects are rooted in the experimentation of mathematics as well as art. Typically, in drawings and paintings, viewers would be required to physically shift their positions in order to see an alternate image within the portrait or scene, usually rendered along an alternate geometrical plane. In addition to anamorphic images created on two-dimensional surfaces, artists also employ tools such as mirrors and conical surfaces to guide viewers to the desired images. Regardless of the medium, an artist’s craftsmanship and ingenuity stem from his or her ability to engineer the interpolation of conflicting perspectives.
The perceptual doubling of anamorphosis produces a rupture in the viewer’s gaze, as Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors famously demonstrates. As viewers move to the right, glancing back at the portrait, they glimpse not the iconic representation of the two ambassadors they saw from the front view, but rather, a skull (Holbein). Holbein’s painting appears to look back at the viewer, to demand that the spectator actively engage the artwork’s virtual affects. Viewers must move from the center of the image to the margins in order to understand the image in front of them. The gymnastics necessary for the successful apprehension of the anamorphic image casts observers in active roles. A crucial aspect of the anamorphic experience in art, therefore, is the way in which it requires that the experience be performed by the body. Unmoored from its perceptual anchors, the body must practice a form of spectatorship beyond that of the normative perspective. Stephen Greenblatt, American scholar of Renaissance and Shakespearean studies, argues that in demanding this movement, Holbein’s portrait threatens to undermine “the very concept of locatable reality upon which we conventionally rely in our mappings of the world, to subordinate the sign systems we so confidently use to a larger doubt” (20-21). How does literature accomplish this same subordination of the sign systems on which we conventionally rely as readers of “a larger doubt” (20-21)?
Ernest Gilman first applied the concept of anamorphosis to literature. In his book on seventeenth-century English literature, Gilman proposes that displays of wit in poetry are like displays of “visual wit in what the seventeenth century called the 'curious perspective,' pictures or devices which manipulate the conventions of linear perspective to achieve ingenious effects” (248). In Shakespeare’s Richard II, Gilman interprets Bushy's witty speech of comfort to the queen (qtd. in Gilman 248), which plays on terms of perspective vision, and by analogy with Holbein's double portrait, The Ambassadors. Gilman argues that the play must be interpreted from two places, “one facing straight, the other oblique,” and states that anamorphic texts challenge “multiple conceptual and perspective registers at once” (249). Gilman finds, in conclusion, that
Two modes of explanation in the same historical event…The play neither endorses nor denies the Tudor myth but builds on its premises to show that the providential theory of the king's double nature necessarily requires a complex kind of doublethink for which the curious perspective is the visual model. (249)
Beyond Gilman’s Shakespearean criticisms, anamorphosis is rarely referenced in literary analysis.
However, as I researched this project, I became convinced that anamorphosis should be applied to literary analysis. Indeed, I discovered that principles of anamorphosis resonated with the very novels featuring eccentric perspectives that I have always found compelling. I asked myself: what form does anamorphosis assume in prose? How does literature examine two conflicting realities? Wielding words in place of paintbrushes, authors, too, interpolate one viewpoint within a normative framework with which it is incompatible. Through the voices of their characters, novels produce readings that can challenge readers to stand at the crossroads of two conflicting perspectives and consider an order of things and events that is off-center in relation to their own. Most interpretive systems attempt to produce a unity which subordinates the minority point of view, such as critics who aim to silence the governess’ perspective through diagnoses of insanity. These systems aim to render culturally variant views of the world illegitimate by classifying them as either delusional or merely fictional. Novels that have been so marginalized, for whatever reason, actually belong to a tradition that deliberately inserts eccentric viewpoints within a normative world so as to naturalize the abnormal and broaden the conceptual boundaries of realism. These works require readers to struggle with conflicting definitions of human life. To argue that anamorphosis identifies an important tradition of fiction, I will show how select novels use what we dismiss as “magic,” if not “delusion,” to challenge us to redefine boundaries of realism, our capacity for sympathetic identification and parameters of human life itself.
To test this hypothesis, I will investigate Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. Kafka’s novella insists that Gregor Samsa is physiologically—not allegorically, metaphorically, or symbolically—transformed into an insect. Yet despite his revolting antennae and cravings for rotten food, Gregor maintains the cognitive and intellectual depth he possessed in typical human form. In Morrison’s novel, Beloved is neither an intangible memory nor a translucent ghost; she is a corporeal figure waiting on the steps of 124. Finally, in Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, a disembodied character called the noncorpum transmigrates from one specifically located host to another, crossing the span of humanity from a psychotic terrorist in Tokyo to a late-night DJ in New York. Gregor is typically human in cognitive faculty but not in biological form.
Beloved possesses a typical human form but an extra-human cognitive faculty. The noncorpum remaps the brain’s codification as it moves from body to body. By looking closely at these novels—which feature a broad range of character forms and cognitive abilities—in relation to one another, my purpose is to show how each novel remodels the formula of one mind to one body that defines the modern individual.