Master of Arts
Date of Defense
Nanora Sweet, Ph.D.
George Du Maurier’s novel Trilby (1894) traces the relationships between a group of male artists in French Bohemia of the 1850s and the single prominent female figure of the novel, Trilby. As with many popular novels involving a romantic plot, the men all fall in love with one girl, in this case a laundress-turned-model-turned-singer of androgynous physique and questionable virtue. However, the fact that all of the novel’s central characters are male artists, as is the author himself, begs the question of the role of the woman in artistic creation, especially that of the male artist of nineteenth-century England. Although the relationship between gender and art can be tracked through much of Western history, two relevant modes of thought converged in nineteenth-century England to make the issue particularly relevant. The perceived “femininity” of art and Victorian ideals of manhood clashed in the arena of the male artist’s subjectivity to create anxieties in his mind: how can a male artist remain fully a man while accessing the feminine to create art? The answer to this dilemma can be found in the empty female body. Trilby’s body, which is repeatedly cast as an empty instrument of art, or worse, a corpse, is a convenient tool for male artists such as Svengali or Little Billee. Several theoretical frameworks, mainly the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and Julia Kristeva’s theories of subject formation and art, facilitate this reading of the popular novel. Trilby allows Svengali to resolve anxieties about the stability of his (gendered) existence by acting as a receptacle of all the causes of his anxiety and gives Little Billee access to the feminine lost during subject formation. At the same time, she serves a specific role for the male artists, that of a gateway to the feminine, the semiotic. The violence often involved in this process, the metaphorical, ontological, and physical murder of the woman, points to a necessity for alternative gender relations in art, an alternative suggested in the form of Little Billee but abandoned due to social pressures and the author’s own anxieties as a male artist.
Lim, Hyun-Jin, "“Un Écho, Un Simulacre”: The Male Artist and the Woman in Trilby" (2010). Theses. 75.