Date of Award

Spring 2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Flack, Leah

Second Advisor

Curran, John

Third Advisor

Pladek, Brittany


In this dissertation, I argue that Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday belong to a broader, transnational tradition of existential novelists. I discuss how recognizing their novels as existential explains why these authors exist in a liminal space in literary criticism, caught between Victorianism and modernism. My dissertation historicizes their existential contribution by placing it within the context of late-Victorian optimism. While their contemporaries celebrated Britain’s technological, imperial, and philosophical strides, Hardy, Conrad, and Chesterton wrote novels that warned against too firm a faith in the merits of progress. Their warnings about the human cost of Victorian progress appears in the novels’ dramatization of failure: the failure of representation in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the failure of communication in Heart of Darkness, and the failure of understanding in The Man Who Was Thursday.In addition to arguing Hardy, Conrad, and Chesterton belong to a broader existential tradition, I argue that the novel form has been overlooked in accounts of the development of existential thought. The British existentialists’ use of their novel’s formal features speaks to the way in which the novel form itself becomes a productive means of philosophical inquiry. Instead of viewing the novel as merely an useful illustration for philosophic concepts, I argue that the novel is capable of developing ideas in ways unavailable to philosophic discourse. My dissertation shows that the intersection of literature and philosophy demands critical attention be given to the individual characteristics of a novel’s form. In my chapters, I discuss how Hardy theorizes existential absence, Conrad theorizes existential horror, and Chesterton theorizes existential joy through their novel’s distinctive formal features. For each of these authors, the concept emerges out of the failure of the novel’s form. Hence, failure for the British existentialists was productive. Their incompleteness creates possibility, and possibility creates freedom.