"The Body Is Not Flesh, But the Same Stuff as the Soul": A Phenomenological Study of Subjectivity and Self in Penelope Fitzgerald's Novels


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date28 May 2019


In this thesis, I read the British author Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels as metaphysical fables of her philosophical meditations on the problematic relationship between body and soul, and on the recognition of personal identities. These topics are thematically presented in Fitzgerald’s narratives through the descriptions of the characters’ lived experiences. I therefore propose a phenomenological reading of Fitzgerald’s interest in the body-mind problem and personal identity, analyzing these issues under two phenomenological themes: subjectivity and the self. My phenomenological reading of her work does not, however, apply philosophy as an external methodology to interpret her novels. Instead, I take philosophical meditation as the primary meaning of her work.

In Part One, supported by Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological inquiries into embodied subjectivity, I map the progressive development of the problem of the body and soul, insofar as Fitzgerald describes the lived experiences of her characters as embodied subjects. Chapter One deals with her 1982 novel At Freddie’s. I analyze the issue of the embodied subject by comparing the different acting methods of the novel’s child actors, revealing the implications of the theatrical body for the concept of embodied subjectivity. Chapter Two argues that Innocence (1986) represents an intensification of Fitzgerald’s phenomenology of subjectivity, offering a more complex vision of the relationship between body and mind. The analysis of how love, desire, and marriage destabilize traditional dualist conceptions of subjectivity paves the way for further discussion of the problematic of body and mind in The Gate of Angels (1990), which will be the focus of Chapter Three. I argue that in this novel, Fitzgerald’s phenomenology of embodied subjectivity fulfills Merleau-Ponty’s project of dissolving the union of the body and the soul, situating subjectivity as inherent in the world rather than confined to consciousness. The supernatural union of Fred and Daisy at the end of the novel is not a wedding of two distinct and separate entities but an intertwining of body, mind, and spirit.

In Part Two, I offer a phenomenological study of Fitzgerald’s meditations on the self under the aegis of Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics of the self. The themes of self-recognition and mutual recognition are analyzed in Chapter Four, which focuses on The Bookshop (1978), and Chapter Five, which deals with Offshore (1979), respectively. In Chapter Four, I argue that Florence’s decision to run a bookshop is a project of self-attestation, part of her struggle for self-recognition. In Chapter Five, I continue to look at the recognition of identities experienced by the main characters. Fitzgerald’s characterizations are achieved not through long-winded description of characters’ traits and personalities but through the dramatizations of the characters’ (frequently unsuccessful) struggles to be recognized. To that end, I investigate instances of mutual recognition in a series of character relationships. In Chapter Six, I read The Beginning of Spring (1988) as an ethical and moral exploration of aspects of self-identity in action, using Ricoeur’s concept of the self as the subject of actions.

Finally, in Chapter Seven, the concluding chapter of my thesis, I study a different dimension of the subject, the subject of literary creation as it is taken up in Fitzgerald’s final novel, The Blue Flower (1995). Although Fitzgerald is considered one of the leading novelists of her time, in my opinion, she is mostly ignored within the academy, judging by the still-modest level of critical attention to her work. The few studies that have been written about her novels are mainly religious-oriented. My thesis sets out to contribute to this critical legacy by offering a reading of the phenomenological and metaphysical concerns in her work, an aspect that has not yet received a sustained and adequate treatment.

    Research areas

  • Penelope Fitzgerald, Phenomenology, Subjectivity, Self, Novel Studies