Spirits of the age: ghost stories and the Victorian psyche Public Deposited

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  • March 22, 2019
  • Cadwallader, Jen
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • Spirits of the Age: Ghost Stories and the Victorian Psyche situates the ghost as a central figure in an on-going debate between nascent psychology and theology over the province of the psyche. Early in the nineteenth century, physiologists such as Samuel Hibbert, John Ferriar and William Newnham posited theories that sought to trace spiritual experiences to physical causes, a move that participated in the more general attack on faith lamented by intellectuals of the Victorian period. By mid-century, various of these theories - from ghosts as a form of sunspot to ghost-seeing as a result of strong drink - had disseminated widely across popular culture, and, I argue, had become a key feature of the period's ghost fiction. Fictional ghosts provided an access point for questions regarding the origins and nature of experience: Ebenezer Scrooge, for example, must decide if he is being visited by his former business partner or a particularly nasty stomach disorder. The answer to this question, here and in ghost fiction across the period, points toward the shifting dynamic between spiritual and scientific epistemologies. As I demonstrate, Victorian ghost stories reveal an intellectual climate wherein writers such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu reject the rigid binary in which the meaning of experience is dictated by either religious or scientific thought; instead, by drawing on the very psychological theories which sought to dismiss the divine nature of the supernatural, these writers argue for a greater degree of human agency in determining experience's spiritual value. Ghost stories thus represent a countercurrent in the trend toward increased secularism in the Victorian period. By employing the theories and methodologies of the psychologist, ghost story writers reimagined the mind's ability to access the divine. In each of the ghost stories I examine, I argue that a new faith in the power of the mind reinvigorated Victorian spiritual faith.
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  • Taylor, Beverly
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  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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