Date of Award

Spring 2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Krueger, Christine L.

Second Advisor

Ganz, Melissa J.

Third Advisor

Jeffers, Thomas L.


This study investigates how key Victorian novelists, such as Anne and Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy, emphasize performativity in their critiques of marriage. Given the performative nature of wedding ceremonies, this project focuses on wedding descriptions in select novels by the aforementioned authors. Such a focus highlights an interesting dilemma. Although we often think of Victorian novels as overwhelmingly concerned with marriage, the few wedding descriptions found in Victorian fiction are aborted, unusually short or announced after the fact. Those Victorian novelists who do feature weddings often describe them as grotesquely theatrical to underscore the empty performativity associated with contemporaneous wedding rituals that privilege form over substance, and to stress deception and inauthentic play-acting in marriage. In these ways, the key Victorian novelists draw attention to a gap between the empty formalism of marriage as a legal, religious and social institution, and the reality of many Victorian marriages. Nevertheless, many of the same novelists who show their general distaste for the empty performativity of weddings, acknowledge that theatricality itself plays a more complex role in their marriage plots, raising questions about authenticity, fraud and pious deceptions in marriage. For example, Wilkie Collins complicates the argument about theatrical weddings by stressing that quiet weddings, performed without much pomp and ceremony, may also signify deceptive marriages. Moreover, Thomas Hardy emphasizes the value of festive public weddings, which solidify the spouses’ connection to their community. Additionally, both the realist and sensation novelists discussed here, especially Anne Brontë, Dickens, Braddon, and Collins, condone temporary play-acting and deception, which extend beyond weddings, if such performances allow their characters to circumvent inflexible and unjust marriage laws. In sum, this dissertation analyzes how key Victorian novelists redefine courtship and marriage by focusing on the performative aspects of marriage as a legal and social institution. Those redefinitions are, at times, non-linear and contradictory. They also relate to the continual enmeshing of two primary modes of Victorian narrative, realism and sensationalism, which complicates the view of performativity in marriages as either artificial or authentic.