Graduate Theses & Dissertations

Nineteenth-Century Aesthetics of Murder
This dissertation examines how sex crime and serial killing became a legitimate subject of aesthetic representation and mass consumption in the nineteenth century. It also probes into the ethical implications of deriving pleasure from consuming such graphic representations of violence. Taking off from Jack the Ripper and the iconic Whitechapel murders of 1888, it argues that a new cultural paradigm – the aesthetics of murder – was invented in England and France. To study the ‘aesthetics of murder’ as countless influential critics have done is not to question whether an act of murder itself possesses beautiful or sublime qualities. Rather, it is to determine precisely how a topic as evil and abject as murder is made beautiful in a work of art. It also questions what is at stake ethically for the reader or spectator who bears witness to such incommensurable violence. In three chapters, this dissertation delves into three important tropes – the murderer, corpse, and witness – through which this aesthetics of murder is analyzed. By examining a wide intersection of visual, literary, and cultural texts from the English and French tradition, it ultimately seeks to effect a rapprochement between nineteenth-century ethics and aesthetics. The primary artists and writers under investigation are Charles Baudelaire, Thomas De Quincey, Oscar Wilde, and Walter Sickert. In bringing together their distinctive styles and aesthetic philosophies, the dissertation opts for an interdisciplinary and comparative approach. It also aims to absolve these writers and artists from a longstanding charge of immorality and degeneracy, by firmly maintaining that the aesthetics of murder does not necessarily glorify or justify the act of murder. The third chapter on the ‘witness’ in fact, elucidates how writers like De Quincey and Wilde transferred the ethical imperative from the writer to the reader. The reader is appointed in the role of a murder witness who accidentally discovered the corpse on the crime scene. As a traumatized subject, the reader thus develops an ethical obligation for justice and censorship. Author Keywords: Censorship, Jack the Ripper, Murder, Trauma, Victorian, Wilde

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