Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

David Ferris

Second Advisor

Mark Leiderman

Third Advisor

Jeremy Green

Fourth Advisor

Eric White

Fifth Advisor

Davide Stimilli


The dissertation is guided by a group of questions concerning the discourse of skepticism as it has been explored in modernist fiction. I examine to what extent the rhetoric of skepticism is dependent on irony; what happens to the skeptic in a mass-mediated society; why is over-identification the proper rhetorical locution of an active skepticism; and finally I address the question is the skeptic necessarily doomed to fall into contradiction by arguing on both sides of the problem? The crux of my argument is that in modernist fiction, skepticism and its consequences are revealed rhetorically through the form of writing rather than by mere assertion and argument. Skepticism is thus transformed from a form of doubt to a form of narration. In contrast to traditional philosophical criticism that primarily focuses on the formative impact of philosophical ideas on modernist fiction, I emphasize those rhetorical efforts within modernist narratives that resist the influence of formal philosophical thinking of skepticism and are irreducible to the treatment of skepticism in classical epistemology. In this way, I challenge the reductive claims about modernism as a form of unrestrained epistemological skepticism and show that modernist novels perform a hard narrative labor against such a simplistic philosophical account.

In order to answer two fundamental questions, where did the problem of skepticism come from and why was it so concentrated in modernist fiction, I have selected novels not from any single national tradition, but from the literary culture that cuts across Great Britain, Ireland, the United States, and Russia. By doing so, I aim to provide a sampling of modernist work that is wide-ranging, culturally diverse, yet coherent. I closely read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, Ilya Ehrenburg's Khulio Khurenito, and Samuel Beckett's Molloy.

By following this trajectory, I address some of the most pressing questions that "haunt" skeptical discourse from its earliest beginnings and show that irony, ekphrasis, over-identification, epanorthosis, and the dissoi logoi best illustrate how modernist narratives deeply reflect on skepticism and fruitfully rework some of its basic tenets, and are, in return, decisively formed by them.