Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
This project explores the figure of the doll as something that textually and imagistically inhabits its own liminality and produces a particular uncanny experience. Dolls possess a liminality felt in the tension between contradictory opposing states that negate and collapse into one another. They are both living and dead, permanent and fleeting, feeling and unfeeling, loved and feared. I call this suspended state “dollhood” and argue that it points to both our desire for a permanent escape into “our things” and our inability ever to do so; we can never fully occupy the space of our dolls. The works investigated present images of the doll that speak to how a material culture constructs and names the identity of an object. The primary sources are North American and European twentieth-century works, including children’s books by Dare Wright and Sylvia Cassedy, poems by Charles Simic and Bolesław Leśmian, and artworks by Joseph Cornell and Hans Bellmer. The study engages theoretical concepts such as Victor Turner’s use of the “liminal,” Freud’s articulation of “the uncanny,” and Bill Brown’s writings on “thing theory.” It also engages various essays by Baudelaire, Rilke, and Walter Benjamin. Each of the three main chapters is anchored in a particular metaphor: the shadow, the box, and the shadow box. The first uses the image of the shadow to examine the relationship between the human and the doll as one based on the visual experience of recognizing the possible existence of a doll soul as being both like and unlike that of the human. In the second, the tactile qualities of the box help articulate how the doll body is often explored and investigated to better understand the depth and breadth of its unique subjectivity. The third engages the image of a shadow box to examine how the doll can fluctuate and move between being read as an object or a subject. The conclusion examines how the doll can actually eclipse the human as a subject in a manner that gives fullest expression of the doll’s power over its audience.