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Microscopy and Modernist Fiction from Hardy to Beckett

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Armstrong, Patrick 


This thesis explores how four writers – D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett – registered shock experiences of the microscopic in prose fiction. Focusing on microscopes and the unfamiliar microworlds they reveal, I illustrate ways in which optical instruments had the capacity to change, displace and reframe ideas of what the world is like. I read for the vertigo of microscopic perception, concentrating on estrangement and deviation from everyday perception. Dislocating encounters with the microscopic are figured as thresholds between the human and the non-human, in ways that reverberate through modernist fiction.

Exploring a period of significant developments in microscopical tools and techniques, from the light microscope to the electron microscope, this thesis traces a paradigm shift that reconfigured the limits of the observable. Literary modernists integrated abrupt jumps in scale into the novel, forcing sudden remappings for readers and transforming the everyday world into something stranger, widening gaps between what we see and know, and between what we perceive and express. This thesis proposes that writers employed the microscope as a self-referential metaphor, drawing attention to the intricate imaginative work a novel can perform. By absorbing and redistributing the disorientating perspectives generated by microscopes, modernist fiction can be read afresh as an analogous optical instrument that reconfigures the boundaries of visibility.

This thesis provides a concise history of microscopy, contextualised in relation to film and photography. Chapter 1 explores Lawrence’s representation of a specialised scientific mode of seeing in The Rainbow (1915). Chapter 2 considers jolting moments of double vision in Proust’s fiction, examining his fascination with optical instruments. Chapter 3 argues that, for Woolf, the microscope has the potential to be an instrument of defamiliarisation par excellence, an imaginative means of sharpening and renewing our perception of perception. The final chapter focuses on Beckett’s early fiction, which questions the reliability of the naked eye through close descriptions of the body. In conclusion, I consider the shift from the microscopic to the nanoscopic, before calling into question dominant optical metaphors such as ‘close’ reading.





Milne, Drew


Microscopy, Modernism, Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
AHRC (AH/T000473/1)
AHRC (2105492)
AHRC and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge