Scaffold Fiction: Execution and Eighteenth-Century British Literature

Title: Scaffold Fiction: Execution and Eighteenth-Century British Literature
Authors: Cooper, Jody
Date: 2012-03-05
Abstract: Before the age of sensibility, the literary scaffold was a device, albeit one with its own set of associations. Its purpose was to arrest plot, create tension, and render character. Fictional representations of execution typically did not question the place of capital punishment in society. They were heroic events in which protagonists were threatened with a judicial device that was presumed righteous in every other case but their own. But in the eighteenth century, the fictional scaffold acquired new significance: it deepened a Gothic or sublime tone, tested reader and character sensibility, and eventually challenged the judicial status quo. The reliance on the scaffold to generate atmosphere, to wring our compassion, or to examine the legal value of the individual resulted in a new type of literature that I call scaffold fiction, a genre that persists to this day. Representations of execution in eighteenth-century tragedy, in Gothic narratives, and in novels of sensibility centered more and more on a hero’s scaffold anxiety as a means of enlarging pathos while subverting legal tradition. Lingering on a character’s last hours became the norm as establishment tools like execution broadsheets and criminal biography gave way to scaffold fictions like Lee’s The Recess and Smith’s The Banished Man—fictions that privilege the body of the condemned rather than her soul and no longer reaffirm the law’s prerogative. And because of this shift in the material worth of individuals, the revolutionary fictions of the Romantic era in particular induced questions about the scaffold’s own legitimacy. For the first time in Western literary history, representations of execution usually had something to imply about execution itself, not merely the justness of a particular individual’s fate. The first two chapters of my study are devoted to close readings of Georgian tragedy and Gothic novels, which provide a representative sample of the kinds of tropes particular to scaffold fiction (if they exist before the eighteenth century, they are less vivid, less present). The negotiation of a sentence, the last farewell, the lamentation of intimates, the imagined scaffold death of a loved one, and the taboo attachment of a condemned Christian to his flesh became more sustained and elaborate, opening up new arguments about the era’s obsession with sublimity, imagination, and sympathy, which in turn provide me with critical frameworks. The last two chapters pull back from the page in order to examine how literary representations of execution shifted as perspectives on the death penalty shifted. Anti-Jacobin fictions that feature the scaffold, for instance, were confounded by the device’s now vexed status as a judicial solution. Challenging the supposed authoritarian thrust of texts like Mangin’s George the Third and Craik’s Adelaide de Narbonne, the anti-Jacobin scaffold was swept up in a general reimagining of the object and its moral implication, which by extension helps to dismantle the reductive Jacobin/anti-Jacobin binary which critics increasingly mistrust. My final chapter devotes space to William Godwin, whose novels underscore the moral horror of the scaffold not just as the ultimate reification of the law’s power but, more interestingly, as the terminus of the “poor deserted individual, with the whole force of the community conspiring his ruin” (Political Justice). Godwin, a Romantic writer who anticipates Victorian and twentieth-century capital reforms, brings the scaffold fiction of writers like Defoe and Fielding into fruition as he wrote and agitated at the height of the Bloody Code, creating a template for Dickens, Camus and a host of modern authors and filmmakers.
CollectionThèses, 2011 - // Theses, 2011 -