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Thesis Defence: A Black Writing on the Hills: The Interplay of Knowledge, Discourse, and Power in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
March 6 at 9:30 am - 12:30 pm
Samuel Thomas Fraser, supervised by Dr. Margaret Reeves, will defend their dissertation titled “A Black Writing on the Hills: The Interplay of Knowledge, Discourse, and Power in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in English.
An abstract for Samuel’s thesis is included below.
Examinations are open to all members of the campus community as well as the general public.
Registration is not required for in-person defences.
Susanna Clarke’s fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell depicts a feud between two magicians with opposing philosophies regarding the study and practice of magic in an alternate version of nineteenth-century England. Where Gilbert Norrell favours a ritualistic doctrine of textual analysis and logocentrism, Jonathan Strange takes a more experimental approach, adapting and extrapolating on old magical principles from both textual sources and oral folklore in order to suit new circumstances. Norrell’s highly structured process assumes a textual point of origin for every conceivable magical effect: every signifier has a single, clearly identifiable and unalterable signified, and thus reinterpretation is not possible. By contrast, Strange’s approach embraces ambiguous signifiers and contradictory signifieds, and acknowledges that a given word may have multiple meanings at the same time. For Strange, ambiguity and contradiction represent opportunities for reinvention and experimentation. Strange and Norrell’s disagreement over which methodology is superior reflects a larger tension between, on the one hand, formulaic modes of expression that are well-suited to standardized hierarchies of knowledge, authority, and power in a conservative status quo, and on the other hand, more elastic modes of expression better suited to subversive actors who achieve success outside of or despite the normative institutional frameworks of nineteenth-century English society. Through its depiction of the interaction between Regency England’s conservative halls of power and an increasingly subversive corpus of magical lore, the novel repeatedly exposes the limits and hypocrisies inherent in the static, restrained epistemology that Norrell champions. Because a form of this same epistemology also manifests in the ideological construction of social hierarchies, the novel simultaneously exposes the weaknesses of so-called “traditional” hierarchies and power structures. Instead, in multiple key moments, the novel focuses on individuals who do not conform to societal conventions, and highlights the successes they achieve by doing that which is unexpected. In this way, JSMN suggests that a more elastic form of discourse, which embraces ambiguity, contradiction, and experimentation, affords its users greater opportunities for success and has the potential to lead us to a more equitable future by challenging traditional modes of knowledge exchange.