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Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/33828

Title: The Mask as a Literary Trope between Decadence and Modernism
Authors: Segnini, Elisa
Advisor: Le Huenen, Roland
Department: Comparative Literature
Keywords: Masks
Issue Date: 5-Dec-2012
Abstract: This dissertation is a study of the mask as literary trope in European literature between 1890 and 1914. Through a comparative analysis of literary and dramatic works, and through a juxtaposition to works of visual art produced in the period, I illustrate how the mask takes numerous shapes and configurations as it is treated as a synecdoche, a metonymy, as a figure of antithesis. I show how, in spite of the mask’s changeability, it continues to echo the same concerns and to function as an image of death and rebirth. Moreover, I argue that the mask can be considered an uncanny phenomenon because of its flexibility as a signifier, as a “symbol that takes over the full functions of the thing it symbolizes” (Freud 1919, 244) and thus as an image of ambiguity and unintelligibility. I begin by pointing out the importance of masks in visual arts and in the philosophical and dramatic discourse of the period. I explain how the mask assumes in these years a new significance as a form of portraiture and how it is associated with the idea of fragment; I summarize the notion of masks in Nietzsche and examine how the mask relates to the concept of “uncanny” as formulated by Freud. I then show how several writers use masks to approach the matter of a conscious and unconscious self, constructing texts that parallel, and often prefigure the Freudian approach. In addition, I explain how the use of masks merges with sensibilities that are developing at the time, such as the notion of aestheticism, the fear of and fascination with the exotic, the assimilation of Darwinist theories, the notion of degeneration and of a declining phase in Western civilization. The analyses leads to the conclusions that, in all these texts, the mask becomes a trope for a potentially threatening alterity. The act of recognizing one’s mask coincides with a process of self knowledge, and is linked to the awareness of an uncomfortable resemblance with a dangerous, often “exotic” Other which is reflected in the repressed component of one’s self, but which is also an image of estrangement felt by the individual in a time of rapid change.
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/33828
Appears in Collections:Doctoral

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