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Title: Language, character and decision in Robert Louis Stevenson
Author: Alexander, Roland
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2019
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In his 1885 essay 'On Some Technical Elements of Style in Literature', Robert Louis Stevenson refers to literature as 'a strange art' which, unlike its sister arts of painting and sculpture, is 'condemned to work' with 'blocks' of 'arbitrary size and figure': that is, with words. This thesis examines Stevenson's work with 'arbitrary' words and explores his engagement with the arbitrary nature of that work. The words that Stevenson was 'condemned' to work with provide his readers with key insight into the author's ideas on decision and the way in which those ideas shaped his 'strange art'. Stevenson's uncertain role as the 'arbiter' of words and, thus, the arbiter of meaning in his art, has profound implications for the aesthetics of his writing. This thesis argues that Stevenson's choice of words gives rise to an aesthetic patterning that defines much of his fiction and that this patterning is shaped by his ideas on decision. This dissertation is the first full-scale examination of the language of Stevenson's fictional writing in light of his views on decision in life and literature. Since the 'turn away' from Stevenson in the early twentieth century, critical work on the author's 'style' has remained muted, with most such studies focusing on his nonfictional writing. In contrast, scholarship on what we might call Stevenson's 'theory of fiction' has remained abundant, most notably in the area of psychology. This study addresses this imbalance by adopting a stylistic approach to Stevenson's fiction, moving from a close analysis of the language of his fictional works towards an examination of its other aspects, especially its representation of 'character'. The first chapter identifies Stevenson's patterning of language and character in Treasure Island (1883) and Kidnapped (1886), examining the way in which that patterning moves the tales to and fro between ethical considerations and an aesthetic concern for character and narrative. The second chapter maps Stevenson's reflexive use of the patterning of his narratives to explore ideas about authorship, mastery and the role of the reader in his Scottish novels The Master of Ballantrae (1889) and Weir of Hermiston (1896). This second chapter builds on the first to examine the increased intellectualisation of the ideas behind the aesthetic patterning of language and character in Stevenson's fiction, exploring the way in which Stevenson's ideas on decision surpass aesthetic mimesis. In the third chapter discussion of the various aspects of Stevenson's style and thought in the previous chapters culminates in an examination of his famous novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). A brief appendix provides an analysis of Stevenson's word usage from a digital humanities perspective, adding weight to the qualitative analysis of his diction in the above chapters. This thesis concludes that Stevenson's views on decision help to explain the patterning of his diction and character, just as that patterning illuminates those views. The irregular progression of Stevenson's ideas on decision from aesthetic patterning towards an overt intellectualisation of those ideas provides a new and important perspective on Stevenson's 'strange art'.
Supervisor: Poole, Adrian Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Robert Louis Stevenson ; Style ; Aesthetic Patterning ; Diction ; Theory of Fiction ; Ideas on Decision