Relational Realism: Character Networks and the Experience of Fictional Realities

What puts the “real” in realism? 

Characters—and the procedures of characterization that make them come alive within the world of novel—are the heart of the novel genre. Yet, scholars have paid surprisingly little attention to characterization. My current book project takes my doctoral research on representations of Jesus and Jesus-imitators in the novel and attempts to answer this question. In this book I argue that readers experience characters as real precisely because of the network of relationships in which characters exist, making the procedures of realism fundamentally relational. This relational structure is reinforced through the conversational epistemology that particularly shapes nineteenth-century novels. Arguing that realist procedures are relational frees literary criticism  from the binaries that often govern discussions about realism—binaries like fact and fiction, real and supernatural, materiality and psychology, literature and genre fiction.

With my first book almost ready for review, I’m beginning to look toward my second book project. This work is a historical argument for the role of literature in shaping  theology. By tracing the changing representation of Jesus from an ascended God in the eighteenth century to a revolutionary human in the nineteenth century across a number of genres, this project will argue that the Romantic aesthetics that undergird realism precipitate the Victorian emphasis on the incarnation by requiring writers to think about Jesus in terms of the commonplace, the rural, and the material.


“’Not an Average Man”: Jesus and the Commonplace Heroic of Adam Bede”
VIJ: Victorians Institute Journal. Vol. 43 (2015).

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“Dickens’s The Life of Our Lord and the Problem of Jesus”
In “Perplext in Faith:” Essays on Victorian Beliefs and Doubts. Edited by Julie Melnyk and Alisa Clapp-Itnyre. Cambridge Scholars, 2015.

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The Quest for a Novelistic Jesus:
Literary Relationships with Jesus in Victorian Realism

My dissertation addresses the lack of scholarship on Victorian perceptions of Jesus, who becomes an increasingly contentious figure during the nineteenth century. While the Victorian interest in the historical Jesus is fed by the influx of German biblical criticism in the 1860s, I argue that the initial shift to thinking about Jesus historically comes from changes in the dominant theological narrative within English Christianity. This change taking place in English religious thought is from an emphasis on the Atonement, which focuses on the story of the individual who appropriates the death of Jesus in order to obtain salvation, to the Incarnation, which focuses on Jesus as both a historical person and the eternal God. As my description makes clear, this is actually a narrative shift undermining the centrality of the individual and allowing Jesus to emerge as a discrete, influential and revolutionary character within works of fiction. Using the brief, narrative biographies of Jesus that appear in Victorian novels as a focal point, my work creates a detailed picture of Jesus in nineteenth-century thought and demonstrates that his presence in fiction fosters experimentation in narrative form, characterization, and constructions of the self. Moreover, drawing on my formal training in both theology and English, I model a new scholarly methodology that unites literary and theological discourses, treating theologies about Jesus as narrative forms and narrative forms as significant theological influences.

Benjamin West’s late 18th-cen. to  early 19th-cen. paintings emphasize an exalted, divine Jesus

West’s composition and use of light minimizes Jesus’ body

John Everette Millais’ 1849 painting Christ in the House of His Parents scandalized Victorians because it cast Jesus as a poor boy in a disorganized carpenter’s shop

Ford Maddox Brown’s painting Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852-56) also draws attention to the body, particularly in Jesus’ muscular arms and hands

William Holman Hunt’s The Shadow of Death (1870-1873) focuses on the materiality of Jesus’ body and his historical context

Despite their piety, Gustave Doré’s mid-century etchings reinforce Jesus’ physicality in their exquisite detail

Jesus Scourged illustrates Doré’s attention to the human body

Heinrich Hoffmann’s Christ and the Rich Young Ruler (1889), shows the influence of 19th cen. Biblical scholarship in the complexity of emotion on Jesus’ face

Hoffmann’s pensive Jesus in the painting Christ in Gethsemane (1890) remains an immensely popular image, in part because of the very realistic hands and face

Jesus himself, as he appears in the Gospels, and for the very reason that he is so manifestly above the heads of his reporters there, is … an absolute; we cannot explain him, cannot get behind him and above him, cannot command him.

from the preface to Literature and Dogma,
Matthew Arnold, 1883

“At Peace and In Place” : The Theology of Place in Wendell Berry’s Poetry

Farmer and writer Wendell Berry has frequently been noted as a prophetic voice in American culture, challenging agribusiness, the rapid (and often thoughtless) adoption of new technology, consumption, urbanization, and globalization. His work consistently upholds life rooted in place―not only in terms of a geographic locale, but also in terms of one’s place in the human community and in the grand scheme of things―as the ideal mode of human life. This thesis brings Berry’s poetry into conversation with a selection of Protestant theologians (including Walter Brueggemann, Ellen Davis, Jürgen Moltmann, Bruce Waltke, and Christopher Wright) and asks to what extent Berry’s understanding of place is in harmony with Christian theology. Utilizing Berry’s extensive essays as a means to elucidate his poetry, this thesis argues that a close reading of Berry’s body of poetry reveals an understanding of life “at peace and in place” that is an alternative to America’s tradition of displacement and wanderlust. His vision of life resonates strongly with biblical teachings regarding land, community, and the human relationship to God and creation, ultimately celebrating the life of shalom that is at the heart of the biblical story.

Academic Presentations

Robust conversation with other scholars and students is the foundation for all good research. As such, I am a regular conference presenter, enjoying the opportunity to share my work and hone my arguments with many generous, astute thinkers. In preparing both my thesis and dissertation, I’ve had the opportunity to present parts of my work at the following conferences:

“Our Victorian Heritage—Ethics, Authority, and Sentiment in Late Nineteenth-Century Britain.”
The Joint University of Chicago and University of Notre Dame Graduate Student Conference: Religious Ethics and Sources of Moral Authority.
University of Notre Dame, IN, 21-22 May 2015.

“Atonement Theology: A Secularizing Force?”
Western Conference on Christianity and Literature: “The Religious Turn: Secular and Sacred Engagements in Literature and Theory.”
Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA, 15-17 May 2014.

“Dickens and the Problem of Jesus.”
Midwest Victorian Studies Association Annual Conference: “Victorian Belief/Victorian Doubt.” Cleveland, OH, 12-14 April 2013.

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Jesus and Adam Bede—Reworking Type in Light of German Higher Criticism.
North American Victorian Studies Association’s (NAVSA) Annual Conference: “Victorian Classes and Classifications”
Western University, London, ON, Canada, 13-15 November 2014.

“Conversion Re-Figured: Changing Theologies in Kingsley’s Alton Locke.”
Mellon-ISLA Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Workshop: Conversion and Literature. University of Notre Dame. Notre Dame, IN, 20 January 2014.

“What about the Rest of Us?: Women, Heroes, and the American Frontier.”
Conference of Graduate Language and Literature Students in the North American Pacific Northwest: Forming Connections, Connecting Forms. University of British Columbia. Vancouver, Canada, 7 March 2009.