Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2013

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Kelly Hurley

Second Advisor

Sue Zemka

Third Advisor

Jane Garrity

Fourth Advisor

Katherine Eggert

Fifth Advisor

Alison Jaggar


In this dissertation I analyze Victorian gynecology and literature and argue that texts in both of these fields betray a conflict between dominant and subversive narratives about women, their bodies, and their sympathies. While it is well recognized that sympathy played an important part in Victorian literature, moral philosophy, and cultural consciousness, what is not acknowledged in the literature on sympathy is its central role in Victorian efforts to gain knowledge about the female body. It was during the nineteenth century that the field of gynecology grew into a legitimate medical specialty; as such, a proliferation of work on the anatomy, physiology, and pathology of the female body occurred, in which sympathy, both between individuals and within the female body itself, recurs repeatedly. The dominant narrative was expressed largely through the writings of male physiologists and gynecologists, who defined women and their bodies as problematic barriers to the production of knowledge. Sympathy, both between individual women and between their bodily organs, was theorized in these texts as a pathological and feminine condition that repeatedly hindered the progress of Victorian medicine and science. I also identify a counter-narrative that contravened these medical diagnoses of feminine sympathies. In fiction by George Moore, Arthur Conan Doyle, Mona Todd, and others, I show that Victorian writers self-consciously responded to medical discourses that identified feminine sympathies as problematic. Instead, many of them suggest that a woman’s emotional and physiological sympathies could aid, rather than hinder, the production of medical knowledge. This dissertation explores the engagement between dominant and subversive narratives about feminine sympathies, and proves that women’s bodies and their sympathies were crucial to Victorian theories of knowledge.