Date of Award

Spring 2012

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Krueger, Christine L.

Second Advisor

Jeffers, Thomas

Third Advisor

Wadsworth, Sarah


This dissertation argues that Elizabeth Gaskell's novels (Mary Barton, Ruth, North and South, Cranford, Sylvia's Lovers, and Wives and Daughters) challenge nineteenth-century notions of what constitutes reliable, credible, and admissible truth claims. Gaskell challenges the protocols for judging truth that are emerging in the mid-nineteenth century in response to new epistemic conditions and protocols that threaten to silence female speakers, whether they are advocating on their own behalf (as defendants) or on behalf of others (as witnesses). By using the decidedly male legal system in the form of courtroom trials and interrogation-like scenarios for her female characters in their everyday lives, Gaskell shows her reading "jury" that judgments are too quickly dispensed and verdicts erroneously assumed, and she thus promotes sympathetic judgments of others, women specifically. In her fiction, she seeks temporal justice for her heroines, and, when that is unachievable, she has them seek divine justice instead. To establish the credibility of her heroines, Gaskell uses a rich array of narrative devices to critique women's discursive abilities and to re-authorize their representations of reality. This dissertation focuses on examples of trials, evidence, and testimony as they play out via plot, character, and narration. In plot, she arranges events in order to provide her heroines with opportunities to speak and act. To establish character, she develops her heroines through description, actions, interiority, and dialogue, all of which prepare the reader to take as credible the speech of the heroine in her climactic utterance of a powerful truth. Through narrative voice, she advocates for credible judgments by incorporating moral discourse, personal disclosures, and intrusive narrators. Gaskell's novels strive to promote sympathy, reasonable judgments, and more measured perceptions in her readers. In her fiction, she not only proclaims that women are credible truth-tellers but, by constructing her stories in ways that give female characters agency, she leads her readers to this same conclusion.

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